April 2012 Archives
Apr 30 2012Trifecta in DC!
No, I don't mean the recent good news for D.C. sports teams. One of the reasons I was drawn to work on teen pregnancy was the powerful book written by Leon Dash in 1989 called When Children Want Children, which chronicled the complicated lives and motivations of teen girls who became parents in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Washington D.C. Since moving to D.C. in 1989, I have seen both progress and setbacks on issues affecting children and youth. One of the long-term positive trends in D.C. has been the dramatic decline in the teen pregnancy and birth rates. Consider this: Since the early 1990s, around the time Mr. Dash wrote his groundbreaking book, the teen birth rate in D.C. has fallen almost 60%! Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that D.C.'s teen birth rate is now lower than that of five states (AR, MS, NM, OK, and TX).
This progress is more than positive trends on a chart: it translates into profound improvements in the lives of children, families, and communities. This point was driven home dramatically by two announcements last week. On April 24, I read a story in The Washington Post about the declining caseloads in the D.C. Child Welfare system. It may be a sign I've been doing what I do for too long, but my first thought was: Hmm, I wonder if the progress in reducing teen pregnancy has contributed in some way? After all, research is clear that children born to teen mothers are at increased risk of entering foster care and teens in foster care are at increased risk of having children, who may in turn enter the system. And, according to the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 76% of children placed in foster care in D.C. were born to teen parents or parents who began having children in their teens.
The next day, April 25, brought more good news: The infant mortality rate in D.C., which has been tragically high for many years, has dropped significantly in recent years and is now at a historic low level. This time, I didn't have to just speculate about the connection with teen pregnancy. D.C. officials credit fewer teenagers getting pregnant as one of the key factors behind the drop in infant mortality. Obviously one infant death is too many, but this is still progress worth celebrating. It is also a vivid reminder of why preventing teen pregnancy deserves our ongoing commitment and investment--in D.C., by federal officials, and around the country. If we can continue making progress in helping children wait to have children, we will see fewer children in foster care and less infant mortality, not to mention more young people finishing school and less poverty. Kudos to the many public and private sector leaders in D.C. who have worked so hard to make progress on all these very tough, and interrelated, issues. Keep up the great work!Photo: Washington DC city at sunset by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Apr 24 2012The Best Lobbyists
I think there are many misconceptions out there about lobbyists. We're all having steak at The Palm, right? We push and cajole and buy our way to a vote we want. We're straight out of casting for the movie Thank You For Smoking, a comedy I highly recommend by the way, despite not being anything like the so-called M. O.D. (Merchants of Death) lobbyists portrayed in the film.
Last week, with the help of many colleagues, I trained 15 teenagers from all across the country on how to be lobbyists--specifically how to advocate for evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs--then sent them off to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and their staff and, well, lobby. As members of The National Campaign's Youth Leadership Team (YLT), I expected this group of youth leaders to be impressive, but I was blown away. These are some of the most thoughtful, smart, eloquent, and--yes--fun, kids I've ever met. So what could I possibly teach them? Well, I told them what to expect, such as hallway meetings and remembering to turn off your cell phone ringer, and to remember to make "the ask" (in this case, to protect funding for evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs). I reminded them that every lobbyist has tough meetings and not to be discouraged. But most importantly I told them to share their stories. Why does this issue matter to them? Why is this so important for all American teenagers?
And now I get to the "wow" factor. These teens blew me away with how they told some of the most heart-wrenching stories and deftly wove those into a narrative about the need to prevent teen pregnancy--and to do so using programs that are proven to work. Here were a group of young adults who spoke of being the child, sibling, or friend of a teen parent. Here were teens who had seen up close what happens when one of their peers gets pregnant. This is what we call grassroots lobbying at its best. Members of Congress need to hear these stories, happening in their own states and districts, and they need to hear it from those impacted right now.
As one Hill staffer wrote to me immediately after a meeting with a YLT member, "impressive constituent." All I would add is to make that plural. Impressive indeed.
Apr 20 2012Ain't No Party Like a GYT Party
April is STD Awareness Month. That means our friends at MTV and Kaiser Family Foundation recently released some new features to enhance their already fantastic national STD-prevention campaign, GYT: Get Yourself Tested.
The goal of GYT is to reduce the high rates of STDs (or STIs, as we commonly refer to them) among those under 25 by distributing information; encouraging conversations between young people and their partners, friends, and health care providers; and increasing testing and treatment. GYT uses online, on-air, and on-the-ground initiatives to reach teens and young adults and they've added a little something to each of these tactics as part of this year's campaign.
One of the new elements on their website is an interactive video, GYT Party. (That's just a screenshot above; you have to go to the site for the real thing.) It's like you're a fly on the wall at a party and by clicking on groups of people, you can swoop in and listen to the conversations they're having about STDs and testing. The hope, of course, is that it gives the viewer a model for what to say in these conversations and to show just how easily they can take place.
As part of this year's campaign, they've also added to the cadre of celebs that talk publicly about testing as part of Team GYT and increased their in-person outreach by distributing promotional materials to over 5,000 health centers and other organizations across the country.
We applaud GYT's ongoing efforts to get our youth informed and engaged when it comes to STD prevention. We also encourage you to check out the GYT toolkit and see what more you might do to get teens and young adults tested and talking.
Apr 18 2012Chicken or Egg...Prevention or Intervention...Right or Left...Wrong or Right
No one can say that the beginning of 2012 hasn't been exciting, and sometimes disturbing, when it comes to the issues related to teen and unplanned pregnancy. Every day we find ourselves reading, interpreting, responding, reacting, supporting, and sometimes denouncing the multiple opinions that appear in the media about these issues.
I, like many others, had hoped that by 2012, we as a country would have reached a consensus that the best way to ensure a healthy beginning for a child--physically, mentally, and emotionally--is to have the child born into a two-parent loving family who is ready and prepared to welcome a new life. And that the well-being of those children in the long term would be among the highest of national priorities.
Instead, it seems that policies are being promoted by people who will never diaper, clothe, feed, or house the very child whose life may be created as an effect of those policies. Many would argue that intercourse outside of marriage has become accepted, but some people of faith--policymakers included--still see sex within marriage as the only acceptable option. As a Christian, I agree with the latter perspective in principle, but I also realize that throughout history, from before Christ to over 2,000 years after Christ, the human body is weak when it comes to sex and boys and girls and men and women too often ignore the advice of parents, teachers, pastors, doctors, and friends who suggest that waiting to engage in sex until after one says "I do" is the preferred way of beginning a family.
My dilemma with this tug-of-war between aspiration and reality is complete confusion as to how our political and religious leaders can stubbornly ignore the fact that, regardless of religious doctrine, women and men continue to engage in sex--much of it premarital, much of it unprotected. As a result, many children are born to parents who aren't prepared for them. The young child is then handicapped with the shackles of poverty before he or she is even given a chance to pursue a different path of life.
Whatever our view of the rightness or wrongness of sex outside of marriage, we as a society cannot continue to ignore preventive methods that save children from a life of hunger, scarcity, and poverty. Is it right to knowingly deny women the opportunity to prevent a pregnancy? Is it right to dictate to women how they should live their lives? Is it right to support pharmaceutical companies as they manufacture, advertise, and sell products to correct erectile dysfunction, while denying women the ability to protect themselves from the very men who are chemically prepared to penetrate their bodies?
Who determines what is right and what is wrong? Why do women have to continue to be the victims of outdated, ill-purposed, and shortsighted policies in the name of an individual's idea of what's right? I know that the debate will continue because too many of us are silent and depending upon someone else to pick up the fight for us. But, if we don't speak up then the next issue forced upon us will be even more restrictive and destructive. For me, the time is up to be quiet...what about you???
"Chick" photo by Bahman Farzad.
Apr 12 2012Which Came First--And Does It Matter?
It's an age-old question: Does poverty lead to teen pregnancy? Or does teen pregnancy lead to poverty? Researchers and experts have argued about this for decades, particularly in the context of allocating scarce resources and wanting to ensure that funds are being spent in the most efficient and effective way. Nobody denies the strong correlation between the two, of course. It's true: if you are poor, you are more likely to be a teen parent. It is also true that if you are a teen parent, you are more likely to raise your child as a single parent and face a higher risk of poverty. A new report from Auburn University highlights the strong connection between teen parenthood and poverty in the Southern U.S.
Of course, delaying teen pregnancy and parenthood does not guarantee economic success if you are already poor. And becoming a teen parent is not necessarily going to plunge you into poverty, especially if you didn't start out poor. But here's the thing about preventing teen pregnancy: it is absolutely, 100% do-able. We have proof.