Developing Youth Leadership Within Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs

A young woman texting.

Six years ago, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative of Baltimore started a Youth Advisory Council, or YAC (pronounced ‘yak’), as its members refer to it. The YAC has developed into a fundamental component of the city’s sexual health promotion program, noted Vira David, program manager.

Significantly contributing to the initiative’s effectiveness and direction, the YAC is a highly sought-after group that is in constant dialogue with staff about various aspects of the program. Staff approach youth leaders for their valuable feedback and youth leaders bring concerns and ideas on behalf of their peers. For example, none of the evidence-based sexual health curricula used in Baltimore schools address the widespread practice of “sexting,” but YAC members were eager to discuss the topic.

“I think everyone's struggling with how to discuss [sexting with youth]. Our young people [in the YAC] just had a ton of knowledge about how it's really impacted their peers, and the pressures around it, and felt really passionate about bringing that issue to the forefront and really pushing us to come up with supportive education information around this issue,” David shared.

In California, the Teen Sexual Health Empowerment Program in the Community Action Program of San Luis Obispo has coordinated several versions of youth leadership groups, including the current youth leadership councils (YLCs), for 21 years. Recently the YLC transformed into a more youth-driven model that capitalizes on young people’s strengths and interests, noted Emma Fay, the program coordinator. The goal is for youth to lead community mobilization efforts around the prevention of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy.

David and Fay agree that running a youth leadership group within a teen pregnancy prevention program has its own unique learning curve and requires staff and youth to develop new skills and habits.

[Learn about the Generation Indigenous initiative and how Native American youth leaders can get involved.]

3 Tips for Working with Youth Leaders Within a Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program

1. Check personal values at the door. Staff and youth will bring their personal beliefs and values to youth leadership groups and it will require some work to get everyone on the same page. When personal values around issues such as sexual orientation and gender identity come up, seize those moments as opportunities for growth, David encouraged. Youth need to learn how to put their beliefs aside while they are in a role to support their peers. Veteran youth leaders who have mastered this skill can serve as role models for new participants.

Group agreements are another strategy for discouraging members from imposing their values on others, Fay mentioned. At the group’s initial meeting, participants agree that all opinions and identities are valid, and if a member violates that agreement, for example, by saying something hurtful, others in the group will let them know.

2. Promote a sex-positive and trauma-informed approach. Ensure that sex positivity is a value staff and youth leaders share. Agreeing to maintain a sex-positive approach is key to creating a shame-free environment for youth leaders within a sexual health promotion program, David remarked.

Participating in a group that promotes sexual health can trigger uncomfortable feelings for youth who have had negative sexual experiences. Remind youth that discussing sensitive topics can be difficult and they are always welcome to approach staff to talk one-on-one, Fay noted.

3. Be prepared for disclosure. Youth leaders often develop trust in the staff who supervise them and may disclose details of past traumatic experiences. Organizations should make arrangements with mental health professionals, either from within or outside the agency, who can assist when youth participants need support with trauma recovery. Staff should not take on a therapeutic role, David cautioned, but should connect youth with professionals who have expertise in that work.

Staff trained as mandated reporters can remind participants of the possible consequences of sharing their adverse experiences with the group. Fay suggested facilitators gently interrupt the speaker, remind them that adults may have to take action based on what they share, and give them an opportunity to consider whether they want to continue. Facilitators can also remind young people to transform personal sharings into generalized statements to maintain their privacy.

[Listen to three youth leaders talk about how their experiences as runaway and foster youth have influenced their current work with youth.]

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