Red or Blue, We Agree about What We Want for Young People

Abby Hunt

Abby Hunt

Our new collaborative, Youth in Focus, is based on our belief that most adults in America agree on what we want for our young people. No matter what partisan or culture wars are playing out in the national news, on the ground things look a lot different. We know that because we actually work in communities, with people from all over the political spectrum, and we’ve made amazing progress.

Here in Indiana, in one of the rural counties my agency, HCET, works in, the teen birth rate dropped from 46 per 1,000 in 2013 to 24 per 1,000 by 2016. That’s an enormous reduction.  And it happened in a conservative, mostly working-class county of whites and Mexican-Americans. How’d we achieve it?

This is how: on the ground, sex education, when done right, is just one piece of a positive youth development approach that puts youth front and center. We tell them, “You are valuable, you matter, and you can be a catalyst for change in yourself, your family, and your community.” In the places we work, whether conservative or liberal, this isn’t a controversial concept. Faith leaders, business leaders, leaders in the Hispanic community, universities, parents, teachers, the mayor, the chamber of commerce, school administrators, the school board, non-profits, the agricultural community, and youth themselves really get it. They rally around it. There’s no “my values vs. your values,” but “our kids are important and we want them to be healthy. We want them to wait to have kids.” Everybody’s on board for doing whatever that takes.

There’s no ‘my values vs. your values,’ but ‘our kids are important and we want them to be healthy.’

That said, effective teen pregnancy prevention only works when it respects youths’ family values – good programs don’t undercut those values, they support and work with them. Again, not so controversial.

Teen pregnancy prevention starts by teaching elementary school kids social and emotional competence: how to be good friends, good listeners, respect other people and opinions, and identify harmful behavior. It teaches educators how to resolve conflict and support positive behavior. It teaches middle and high school kids how to make healthy social connections: develop healthy relationships, delay sexual initiation, understand consent, resolve conflict, effectively communicate, take education seriously.

As teens get older, teen pregnancy prevention helps them avoid pregnancy by sharing accurate information about puberty, STDs/HIV, abstinence, contraception, and internet safety, and by connecting them to primary health care settings where they will feel welcome. It invites parents, grandparents, foster parents, guardians, uncles, aunts, siblings, and other trusted adults into the conversation, and teaches youth and adults how to have uncomfortable talks about sex and romance.

There’s nothing to fight about. Let’s save more teen lives.

Teens who are in foster care or juvenile detention tend to have had abusive or difficult childhoods. Not surprisingly, they are the most likely to become pregnant as adolescents. For these young people, effective teen pregnancy prevention programs address trauma and teach about positive relationships, and help teens connect to their communities through service learning.

We have supervised the implementation of the Teen Outreach Program (known as TOP), in juvenile detention facilities and foster care settings in Indiana for six years. A couple of years after completing the program, one of the first young people to participate called her former TOP director. “Hey, I have been doing a lot of reflection,” she said, “and just wanted to let you know the TOP program saved my life. Before I was in that group I had no point to live, I wanted a baby to find purpose, and I believed I was going to end up in jail. I believe now is my time to tell my story to help others that are being bullied, just like the TOP program did for me." 

What I love about that quote is that we can all get behind it. There’s no politics, and nothing to fight about. Let’s save more teen lives by keeping kids on track, or helping them get back on track. We know how to do it.

~ Abby Hunt, Executive Director, Health Care Education & Training, Indianapolis