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Youth and Adult Partnerships: Comprehensive Sex Education

General Assembly 2008 Event 3070

There's a new generation stepping up into the national conversation on sexuality education. And those of who've had a bit more experience in the world may have seen a lot of things—but we've never seen anything like them.

Unitarian Universalist (UU) adults who work with the Millennial generation on sexuality education issues got the 411 on how to partner most effectively with them at Friday's workshop on "Youth and Adult Partnerships: Comprehensive Sex Education." Led by Grace Garner, Emily Goodman, Meredith Schonfeld-Hicks, and Ben Barrows—all sexuality education advocates in their teens and twenties—the discussion covered the nuts and bolts of how to approach the new crop of youth in our midst, and, in turn, offered youth some tips for how to interact with older adults to create effective partnerships when advocating for comprehensive sex education.

Listen, Learn, Respect, Represent

Barrows, a high school activist with Advocates for Youth, noted that adults tend to bring one of three attitudes to their interactions with younger adults. Some see youth as objects to be controlled. Others see youth as passive recipients of adult knowledge. But, he noted, true partnerships can only occur when adults believe that younger people have something significant to add to a project.

Furthermore, effective partnerships can only happen when everybody in an organization shares this conviction. Even one adult who tries to control the youth, or treats them as passive recipients, can undermine the trust necessary for effective partnerships. Shifting these attitudes often means confronting ageism directly.

While youth can bring important social action skills to the table, Barrows also noted that they need support from skilled adults—and the long perspective more experienced adults provide—to grow into their own. He offered four keys to creating the necessary climate of trust.

  1. Listen. Stereotypes are misleading. Youth need to listen to the adults and trust they're there to help. Adults need to listen, because youth are finding their voices and will often say some impressive things.
  2. Learn. Youth and adults should be open to sharing and listening to each other's stories and experiences.
  3. Respect. Youth need to remember adults are trying to reach the same goals, and respect the time they give to these partnerships. Adults need to respect youth enough to give them their space. It's not that their presence isn't appreciated; it's just that the youth need some room to try things out for themselves, and engage in the group bonding that they find far more essential than earlier generations did.
  4. Represent (yourself). Youth need to speak up, express their own unique perspectives, and trust that that will benefit the group. Adults are there to speak and teach, but also have their own individual perspectives and experience seen and heard. The group is stronger when everyone makes their best individual contribution.

A "Special" Generation

Emily Goodman gave a lively presentation of the current social science research on the Millennial generation. This generation, born between (roughly) 1982 and 2001, is made up of hypercommunicators who are in constant contact with each other; and multi-taskers who are capable of doing five or six things at once.

Goodman noted seven core traits that define the difference between Millennials and previous generations. They are special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving. In working with them on advocacy issues, she said, "special," "sheltered," and "pressured" were the traits to bear in first in mind.

Among Millennials, "special" means that they value individuality—but that's mainly because they believe in what individual contributions can bring to strengthen the group. Millennials love to work in pairs (for example, paired with adults). The audience laughed when Goodman pointed out that these kids, from kindergarten forward, had their desks arranged in little pods of four or six, rather than in rows. From the beginning, there was an understanding that the work was done collaboratively—and they carry that understanding into their adult lives. In this generation, "rebellion" is best done by conforming—even that tends to happen in groups.

"Sheltered" means that they're very close to their parents, who in turn are intimately involved in every aspect of their lives. Most adults who work with people under 25 have stories of "helicopter parents" who make their wishes known regarding every detail of their kids' experience. Many of them are still in touch with their parents every day, even into their 20s.

That sheltering also creates the third difference: pressure. Where youth of earlier generations were worried about great social issues like war and poverty, Millennials' greatest concern is getting into college and getting a good job. Resume-building is an important occupation—and adult organizers need to understand that that may be their primary reason in joining advocacy efforts.

Take Your SEAT

Grace Garner and Meredith Schonfeld-Hicks presented information on the Sexuality Education and Advocacy Training (SEAT), a four-day training for youth and adults held in Washington, DC, every spring. Held in cooperation with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), the United Church of Christ, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choices, and (starting next year) the Union for Reform Judaism, this event provides growing activists with media and public advocacy training and lobbying skills. Participants learn about the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act—and on their final day, actually go to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives about it. The training is available to anyone over the age of 16.  

Role-Playing as a Partnership Activity

Meredith Schoenfeld-Hicks wound up the workshop with a little audience participation. Attendees broke up into small groups, and each group was given a role-playing scenario that might demand effective advocacy skills from participants. The scenarios brought home just how important such role-playing can be in preparing sexuality education advocates—even very young ones—to deal effectively with difficult situations. It was a strong example of one way adult experience can be brought to bear to foster strong youth advocates.

More information about the issues discussed in this workshop—including all of the handouts that were on offer—can be found at these websites:

Reported by Sara Robinson; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Monday, September 12, 2011.

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