We Can Affirm AND Challenge Young People

By Liz Thorne

A recent article in the Atlantic explored gender and the intersections of adolescent development, medical care, and parenting. Through the experiences of young people, trans and gender non-conforming folks, families and researchers, the article explores the central question of how to balance providing young people the support (from family support and mental health services to puberty-blocking drugs, hormones and/or surgery) they need while keeping in mind that adolescence is a time of identity exploration, and there is a diverse spectrum of gender identities beyond cis and trans- over 50 different identities are listed on Facebook. The article has received criticism from some readers, often those in the trans/gender non-conforming community for the focus on people who “desist” or “detransition”. Needless to say, there are so many layers to unpack in this issue, but setting that aside for a moment, I want to bring forward the pieces I found poignant as a cisgender female, heterosexual, White parent and professional working in adolescent and school health.

One thing that stood out to me in the article was the central tension between fully affirming and accepting young people’s (whether it is your child, student, or patient) identity with the pacing of young people making medical decisions that impact them for the rest of their lives. From the perspective of a parent, I fully understand wanting to give your kids all of the resources they need to be successful. I also recognize the experiences of trans and gender non-conforming folks in the medical community, and moving away from any sort of gatekeeping or putting in place hoops to jump through in order to get care.  Youth development practices came to mind while I was reading this article, particularly the tenants of Developmental Relationships, a framework created by the Search Institute’s research in what makes relationships powerful for young people. The elements are:

-       Express care

-       Challenge growth

-       Provide support

-       Share power

-       Expand possibilities

Developmental relationships not only express care and provide support, but they challenge growth. We need both. Mental health, influences of peers and social groups and societal and cultural norms all contribute to the development of gender identity, and all of these layers need to be interrogated by young people as they figure out who they are. However, that nuanced and critical analysis of themselves and their culture by young people needs to happen in an environment where they are affirmed and supported.

A well-trained team of providers working in partnership with youth and families will lead to better outcomes.

Sharing power, particularly with regard to the medical community for trans and gender non-conforming young people is paramount. A well-trained team of providers working in partnership with youth and families will lead to better outcomes. Finally, expanding the possibilities for young people as they explore their identities, to me, is to continually challenge stereotypical gender norms and roles. This is something we talk about a lot in our family. Case in point- my 2 year old son loves to wear his big sister’s dresses. It is fascinating to see how this one clothing choice changes the way the world interacts with him. Yet, when he plays loud and rough he is “all boy”. We constantly challenge those gender stereotypes as they come up (which is almost everyday). Boys can wear dresses. Girls can have short hair. Boys can play with baby dolls. Girls can be loud and climb things.

Whether you like or dislike the Atlantic article as written, one thing that I think even critics can agree with is that the foundation of any healthy identity development must be affirmation, love and support.  It stood out to me that many of the young people in the article were surrounded by affirming and supportive parents and had the means and ability to access medical professionals who also affirmed their identity. This is not the case for many young people in this country. We all can do our part to create a more affirming and loving society- in our homes, communities and institutions. Below are lists some actions I came up with, and would love to hear others from anyone reading this as well!

-       Support statewide policies that make access to medical services for trans and gender-non-confirming youth available and affordable.

-       Make sure your state department of education and school district has a non-discrimination and student rights policy that includes trans and gender-nonconforming students as a part of Title IX, as Federal guidance on the issue was rolled back by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

-       Support your school to have an all-user bathroom and policies that allow students to use the locker room that aligns with their gender identity.

-       Call students by their preferred pronouns. Let them wear clothing that makes them feel good.

-       Ensure comprehensive sexuality education includes information and skill building around respect for people with different gender identities.

-       Bring voices from the trans/gender non-conforming community into your classroom. Engage your school’s Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) and reach out to organizations run by and for folks in the trans and gender non-conforming community.

-       Challenge stereotypical gender norms and tell the young people in your life you love them, for who they are, daily.

-       Support and donate to organizations in your community that serve trans and gender non-conforming youth and families.

 

Resources:

-       The Trevor Project https://www.thetrevorproject.org/

-       Human Rights Campaign, Welcoming Schools professional development program. http://www.welcomingschools.org/

-       Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project http://www.thetaskforce.org/current_action/transgender-non-conforming-justice-project/

Building Youth-Adult Partnerships

By Liz Thorne

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I recently worked with the Oregon School Based Health Alliance to develop and facilitate a training to build capacity for staff that coordinate youth action councils or school health action councils (YACs or SHACs). The work is funded through the Oregon Health Authority’s School Based Health Center (SBHC) State Program Office. The funding is focused on mental health, and each YAC/SHAC works to raise awareness of their school’s school-based health center and implement a participatory action research project around mental health. Coordinators from across Oregon came together for two days to learn, share, and connect! They brought so much wisdom, energy and great strategies for working alongside young people.

What are Youth-Adult Partnerships?
Youth- adult partnerships are about sharing power with young people.  It occurs along a spectrum from zero youth involvement (they are a “vessel”) to total youth control (like youth led grass roots organizing). There’s a sweet spot in the middle where adults and youth share power. Adults may provide the connections, opportunities to build skills (like public speaking, research, writing), help keep everyone on the same page and organized, and help navigate obstacles but young people are making the decisions and leading the work. If you are interested in learning more about youth-adult partnerships, check out a webinar I co-facilitated with Haylee, the Student Health Advocate Coach for the Oregon School Based Health Alliance here http://osbha.org/blogs/ashleyosbhaorg/intro-youth-adult-partnerships-webinar .

Below are some of the best practices for building youth-adult partnerships adapted from research and practice, as well as some reflections from the training.

1) Pay attention to logistics and group dynamics. Young people have complicated lives and they need flexibility. Ensure you have many different ways young people can be involved that elevate different skills, interests and personalities. For example, you might have someone who is interested in graphic design but can’t make your meetings. Could they work on marketing materials or an infographic and keep connected through communication platforms like GroupMe, SLACK, or Google Hangout? How often does the group meet? Are there barriers that keep a diverse array of young people from being able to participate (like transportation)?

2) Creating opportunities for reflection. These can be formal or informal, and individually or as a group. Some of the benefits of youth adult partnerships come from young people creating connections with a supportive adult, their peers, and having a stronger connection to their community or school. Holding space for reflection and relationship building is critical (and particularly related to number 3).

3) Affirmatively address issues of role and power. This is a BIG one, and one that our training participants agreed could have been the whole focus of our training! Many of the “systems” (schools, local or state government, etc.) are not built to effectively partner with young people. Plus, many adults in those systems are probably not used to working with young people in a partnership capacity. As young people work together to create change in their community they will inevitably: 1) run into obstacles that will delay or derail their plans and 2) confront issues of inequality, oppression, stigma or “isms”. It’s vital that young people are supported to identify the power brokers or points of leverage in their system/community and get them on board. When obstacles do arise, the coordinator or adult ally has to hold space to be able to help facilitate the likely anger and frustration into a new path forward.  Having a strong group process, team building opportunities, and time for reflection with thoughtful facilitation can help support young people as they critically examine all the things that influence them, their families, neighborhood and community.

For more information about building youth-adult partnerships or participatory action research with young people, you may contact Liz at liz@cairnguidance.com

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Supporting K-12 Schools to #TeachThem in a Time of #MeToo

By Liz Thorne

The #MeToo movement has shown the extent to which acts of rape, sexual violence and sexual misconduct permeate the lives of countless women, as well the people and institutions that allow it to perpetuate like an “open secret”. Last month, the news of allegations of sexual misconduct against Asis Ansari added a new dimension to the #MeToo discourse. There was a debate about whether the actions of Asis belonged in the same conversation as the actions of Harvey Weinstein or Larry Nassar. But folks working in the field of sexuality education knew that it did.

While I was consuming all of this in my news feed, I just kept thinking to myself, “This is why we need more comprehensive sexuality education in every school in every town starting from preschool through higher education!” According to the Guttmacher Institute, fewer than half the states require schools to include the topic of “avoiding coercion” as part of a sexuality education program and similarly, a majority don’t require discussion of healthy relationships. But teaching young people about healthy relationships is the primary prevention for sexual violence because it’s centered on breaking down gender stereotypes, setting healthy boundaries, communication, and that consent is more than just “not hearing no”.

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There are states and school districts that are using this as an opportunity to strengthen laws and policies around sexuality education. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) has developed a toolkit to support educators to advocate for policies that support comprehensive sexuality education. They also created the partner #TeachThem movement to build on the awareness that #MeToo has brought to the need for stronger comprehensive sexuality education. But even states with strong policies struggle with implementation due to a lack of funding for professional development for teachers and administrators.

This is why I’m so proud to be supporting a school district with funding from Advocates for Youth to develop a sexuality education plan of instruction K-12 inclusive of policy, scope and sequence and training/professional development. Earlier this month we held a meeting with folks representing: education, public health and child welfare at the state level; school administrators; district staff; county public health; community based organizations that provide culturally specific sexuality education; university; LGTBQ rights; and sexual assault/violence prevention.  The group came together to critique the first draft of a district sexuality education policy. We envisioned a policy that codifies instruction that is not just developmentally appropriate and science-based, but inclusive and trauma-informed. A policy where school level data are used to guide instruction, and teachers are enthusiastic and equipped to teach sexuality education through strong professional development and support from an incredible network of community partners. There is so much more work to do, but I left this meeting filled with energy and hope.   

I salute these and other professionals, sexuality educators, young people, teachers, administrators and advocates across the country working to strengthen sexuality education. Our work has never been more important or needed.

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From Engagement to Partnership: How do organizations build youth-adult partnerships?

By Liz Thorne

Last week I had the pleasure to facilitate a school based health center partnership meeting in Deschutes County (central Oregon). County organizers wanted to focus on youth engagement and have young people be involved in the meeting. Partners from county public health, SBHC clinics, health systems, dental providers, mental health providers and the school districts were all in attendance.  Members from the Sisters High School Youth Action Council (YAC) sat on an expert panel and discussed how SBHCs have impacted their lives, the health issues facing young people, and the personal impact of being engaged on council. The youth helped me facilitate parts of the meeting and provided honest and insightful commentary on how to better leverage SBHCS and engage young people. Not surprisingly, the youth were consistently listed as the best part of the meeting in evaluations!

The day included conversations about organizational readiness and what it takes to institutionalize youth engagement in an authentic way (read: not just having a youth panel at an annual meeting!).  Based in best practice, we know that the structure and values of an organization have to clearly prioritize youth/adult partnerships. So, what does that look like?

·      Clear roles and responsibilities for young people.  With a variety of ways to be engaged (think communications and outreach, research, advocacy).

·      Clear recruitment and sustainability plans.

·      Resource dedication (time, funds, physical space).

·      Support and training for adults and young people.

·      Leadership buy-in.

Leadership buy-in was consistently cited as a challenge to doing this work. How can we build leadership buy in? Here are some suggestions on how to create leadership to effectively engage youth:

·      Connect youth engagement to organizational accountability measures.  Effective youth/adult partnerships lead to an increased sense of belonging and connection. Sense of belonging is consistently related to attendance at school, grades and likelihood of graduating.

·      Look for a way to stick a toe in. Deschutes County Public Health is in the process of making the Youth Action Council a class for credit during the school day at one high school. Students would have an opportunity during this class to work on and implement a Youth Participatory Action Research curriculum.  I have had the opportunity to experience this in other schools that require a service-learning project. It is an effective way to start to build youth/adult partnerships into the system.

·      Find a champion. Maybe it’s a parent. A young person. A supportive principal. Who will be the best messenger? Who will be a strong connector? Sometimes, it ain’t you.

What are other examples of how you have successfully built youth partnership into what your organization does? What was the tipping point? I’d love to hear more success stories from across the country and share them out! You can contact me at: liz@cairnguidance.com

 

 

The Case for More Love in Education

By Liz Thorne

I was recently in Austin, Texas for the 6th annual Ready by 21 Annual Meeting. Organized by the Forum for Youth Investment, the meeting focuses on ensuring all youth are ready and prepared to meet life’s demands. It brought together folks in youth development, program quality, education, government and community based organizations all focused on ensuring youth are ready.

A major focus of the meeting was on promoting equity through the lens of readiness as a right. It’s not enough to help young people beat the odds but we need to work with the adults and leaders in communities to change the odds.

Research tells us that just one supportive adult relationship can help buffer young people against risk and help them overcome challenging life circumstances. But let’s zoom out and talk about supportive communities, or as Dr. Shawn Ginwright describes, radical healing.

In his keynote, Dr. Ginwright compared the idea of radical healing to experiments conducted on plants. Researchers would place one plant in a chamber of poisonous gas to test the plant’s response. As you might expect, the plant shriveled and died. But, when the researchers placed multiple, or a community, of plants they didn’t die. Rather, they cleaned the air of the poisonous gas. Together the community of plants garnered their collective strength to change their circumstances.

How can we harness the collective strength of communities to change the odds for youth? During Dr. Ginwright’s address on radical healing, there were three thoughts going through my head as this relates to our work in adolescent and school health:

  • We have to take care of the adults in schools. Youth are often placed at the center of our work. Resources, opportunities, and training must be made available to provide physical, emotional and professional support to the adults that show up every day. Particularly, educators and professionals working in economically disadvantaged schools or communities, and those who have faced generations of trauma and marginalization.
  • We need more opportunities for Participatory Action Research or experiential learning opportunities.  PAR is one way for young people to reach into their community, examine the context and begin to understand and garner their strength as an agent of change.
  • There is room in ESSA for a focus on readiness, but we need advocates in the states. ESSA provides an opening, but we will need to focus on state-level efforts to address social, emotional and physical needs of students and staff in schools. (Check out our ESSA State Plan Page for more information). 
Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Whether you call it a supportive relationship, radical healing or trauma-informed education, to me it all boils down to one thing. More love in education. Showing, not just telling our young people, that they are valued. Demonstrating they are valued by equipping them with the skills to harness their power and change their environment for the better. Dr. Enwright ended his keynote with a quote from Dr. King that I think sums up the relationship between love and power.