The Unitarian Universalist Church contacted me back in March to let me know about an up-coming advocacy event for comprehensive sexuality education. After a number of e-mails, a delightful young woman agreed to write a post for me describing her experience with the training and the advocacy. I hope you enjoy her story:
Hello! My name is Nicole. I’m a sixteen year old living in the Philadelphia area. For as long as I can remember I have been heavily involved with my Unitarian Universalist church. Recently, I’ve been able to act on an interest of mine which is sexuality studies and the existence of comprehensive sex education in the lives of today’s youth. I’m very happy to be writing this guest post and would like to thank Karen for the opportunity. If you have any questions feel free to contact me or check out the links included below.
In late 2008, with the support of my parents and minister, I applied for the Sexuality Education Advocacy Training program. I was accepted and in March, it was with excitement that I (with an adult from my own Unitarian Universalist church) found myself in a group of about forty other people, including staff members (from Advocates for Youth, Unitarian Universalist Association, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Youth, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and United Church of Christ), varying in age, faith, sexuality, and background. Together we, the participants of the fifth installment of Sexuality Education Advocacy Training (SEAT), created a community of individuals with a faith based passion for comprehensive sexuality education. The program, spanning over four days, worked to build the skills so that we, youth, young adults, and adults, could become more eloquent, effective, and prepared advocates for comprehensive sexuality education. The third day was the highlight of the experience, when we went to Capitol Hill for lobby visits with senators and congressional representatives, an experience that was new to myself and many others at SEAT.
Backing up a bit now; I come to SEAT from a Unitarian Universalist background. About a dozen years ago, when I was four, my parents started to attend the UU church in Media, PA and we haven’t left since. Our faith and our church community are deeply embedded in our lives. My mother, Rina, is the administrator at our church and my father teaches Religious Education regularly. When I was in fifth grade, I experienced the Our Whole Lives (OWL) program for the first time. OWL is a comprehensive, age appropriate sexuality education program developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. I don’t remember much specifically from fifth grade OWL, but later when I was in seventh grade it was an experience that really struck me as something remarkable.
During the 7th grade OWL program, my classmates and I were distracted by the astonishing fact that we were getting our sex ed at church, two things that in the outside world seemed incompatible. As the program continued, I began to really appreciate what I was being given. My contemporaries outside of OWL weren’t being given knowledge so freely and in a responsible, caring environment. With my church group, I was going on field trips to Planned Parenthood, while my school friends were struggling to figure out the whole sex thing all on their own.
It was then I realized that not everyone is freely and eagerly provided information about the changes in their lives as I was in OWL. I was profoundly lucky. Once sex ed began in school, I found that I disagreed with a lot that was said in classes and noticed that some topics weren’t cover in my public school’s health class. In fact, the whole subject of sex didn’t seem to come up in class, instead sexually transmitted diseases and viruses seemed to be the focus and limit of the curriculum. This serious gap in knowledge began to bother me. As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. My OWL experience taught me that sexuality is an inherent part of life. It is those three truths, from my faith and from my experience in comprehensive sexuality education, that leads me to my passion for making education on sexuality more readily available and to do whatever I can to help with the current dissatisfactory sex education system found in many schools today I’ve had such a positive experience at my church with OWL that I even elected to assist kindergarten and grade one OWL when the number of trained teachers was limited within our church. So, when the notice about the Sexuality Education Advocacy Training program, SEAT, came across my mom’s desk on the way to the church bulletin board, she sent the information along to me.
SEAT was a great experience; it was a really dynamic group of people caring about comprehensive sexuality education from a religious stand point. While some attendants were Unitarian Universalist like myself, there were other youth, young adults, and adults from United Church of Christ and Reform Judaism communities. Our faiths were represented not only in the attendants, but also in how we spent our time. Saturday night, we participated in a Havdalla service, marking the symbolic end of Shabbat. The following Sunday we went to a UU church to hear a sermon from the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Sunday’s service theme was comprehensive sexuality education advocacy, helping to bring our faith to lobbying the next day. After the service, we got a chance to talk with a leader from each faith, getting their thoughts on how religion and sexuality education can work together instead of be incompatible, like so many of those speaking loudly for abstinence-only education may say.
Much of our time was spent doing identity, sexuality education, and anti-racism/anti-oppression workshops that helped to reinforce our belief in the importance of comprehensive sexuality education in schools. My favorite was on the very first night, we all did a “Circles of Sexuality” activity, which for me served as a reminder what comprehensive means. The idea of holistic sexuality, under the sex ed programs we are talking about, includes five categories – reproduction, sensuality, intimacy, sexual identity, and sexualization. After being given descriptions of each category, each participant received a card with activities written on them like: “reading a book about sexuality”, “going to the gynecologist for the first time”, “dressing up for sex play”, and “outing someone to their friends and family.” We were invited to place our card with the section we felt it belonged to. Later, as we reviewed where all the cards were placed we were allowed to remove and replace a card we felt strongly about – inviting conversation about how interconnected aspects of sexuality actually are.
All of our work through the weekend was moving towards preparing us for lobbying Monday, actually advocating for comprehensive sexuality education and the Responsible Education about Life (REAL) Act on Capitol Hill with our senators and congressional representatives. The REAL act would create a federal funding stream for comprehensive sex education for the first time. Highlights of the program include that it would be age-appropriate, medically accurate, secular, and would stress the value of abstinence while acknowledging that some people choose to be sexually active in their youth. Programs federally funded through the REAL Act also would provide honest information about contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases while encouraging family communication about sexuality.
Lobbying was a new experience for many of the attendants, myself included. I was nervous about my appointments, but was surprised how easily they went, especially with the support system that was built over the weekend. Sunday night, after our group lobby preparation, I hunkered down and started writing my speech for my appointments. We were advised to lobby from our personal experience. I choose to approach it from my experience in OWL. I also talked with the staff people about the contrast between a comprehensive sex education and what my school friends were receiving. I was also able to express because of my experience as a teaching assistant in the Kindergarten/Grade 1 OWL what age-appropriate sex education means – for instance, we are definitely not teaching young children how to have sex. Lobbying from my heart and my own history helped make Monday’s appointments go smoothly. I strongly recommend that anyone with a passion for an issue lobbies their representatives.
SEAT is continuing to affect my life, even after the event. Soon after coming home, I met with the Reverend Peter Friedrichs, my congregation’s minister. We discussed possibilities for bringing my experience at SEAT back to our community. I feel that there are many people within my church and in the general community who would be interested in the topic and may be less informed than they’d like. This fall, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County will be hosting an event modeled after SEAT with the hopes of inspiring, educating, and motivating people in my community to advocate for comprehensive sexuality education. While I am daunted at the idea of spearheading such an event, I am proud and excited to be given the opportunity to work on something that I am truly passionate about.