by Alison Yager
December 1, 2011
In August 2011, New York City announced that all public middle and high schools must provide sex education to their students. HIV Law Project, where I work, is one of the many agencies that have worked toward this goal for years. Our decision to prioritize this issue was driven not by our own staff, but rather by a group of women for whom sex education had deep personal resonance.
Since the 1990s, HIV Law Project has invested agency time and resources in training HIV-positive women in basic advocacy skills. We made this commitment early on because we understood that while outspoken AIDS activists at that time were a potent and effective force, too few women’s voices were among them. Women living with HIV, who often come from marginalized, low-income communities, turned up in large numbers when we offered the opportunity to give voice to their frustrations, and to learn collectively how to channel those frustrations into action.
In 2006, HIV Law Project went one step further. We decided to build on our work of cultivating women activists by inviting a group of alumnae of our training program to develop a new advocacy campaign. We believed that giving women the opportunity to grow an advocacy campaign would be the most authentic way to build skills and develop life-long leaders.
The first project this group tackled was choosing a campaign issue. The participants, approximately a dozen women from all around New York City, considered various issues of importance to them. For each of these, they conducted their own research and considered the impact it might have. They examined the issues with an eye toward several questions, including: Will this campaign result in a real worthwhile improvement in people’s lives Is it winnable Is the issue widely and deeply felt Is it easy to understand
After deliberations, the participants decided to pursue a campaign for comprehensive sex education, in part because they found the issue so compelling. And with good reason.
They were well aware that HIV was continuing to spread in their communities. And yet many of the young people around them did not get the information — at home or at school — that they needed about safe sex. Some of the women had already taken on the role of local educator: they talked to their children, their neighbors’ children and young people in their apartment buildings and neighborhoods about safe sex and proper condom use, and they dispelled myths about HIV and its transmission (no, you can’t get HIV from a hug or from a toilet seat). In short, they were already sex-ed activists. They were ready now to expand their sphere of influence.
Over the course of that first year, the women met weekly at HIV Law Project’s offices with an organizer who taught them essential advocacy skills. They learned public policy making and government decision-making. They then engaged in the process of developing an advocacy objective, identifying the right government targets and crafting an appropriate message. They discussed strategy development and tactics, and practiced legislative and media advocacy skills. These discussions were not merely theoretical, but took place while building the foundations of their campaign.
For the next several years the group continued to meet, furthering the campaign for comprehensive sex education, receiving only subway fare as monetary compensation.
During this time, they leafleted in their neighborhoods, visited elected officials and spoke out at their local Parent-Teacher Associations about the urgency of the issue. They told people about how state and federal governments have poured 1.5 billion dollars into abstinence-only programs that don’t teach about condoms and that condone only heterosexual sex within a marriage. The activists explained facts — that almost half of all high school students have had sex and that rates of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection among teens are unacceptably high. They emphasized that sex ed is an essential element of school health education, and collected signatures on postcards to state and local leaders. They spoke to their pastors about bringing sex ed to their church youth groups. The energy they committed to their work was unflagging, despite the fact that the goals seemed distant and, at times, improbable.
Then came the announcement this summer of a new sex education mandate for New York City’s public schools. Middle and high schools must now provide a semester of sex education in sixth or seventh grade, and again in ninth or 10th grade. After years of pushing for this change, now, stunningly, we and all of our allies had achieved victory!
Meanwhile, predictable forces began a vocal pushback against the initiative. While partisan groups have spread misinformation about the mandate and the curricula endorsed by the City, the Department of Education has held firm — debunking the falsehoods and stressing the need to keep our young people safe and healthy. This back-and-forth has highlighted the political courage required by those who issued the mandate.
HIV Law Project and our allies continue to offer our support to ensure that the health and well-being of our young people is not sacrificed in partisan politics. And on this World AIDS Day, I honor the work of these local women who collectively raised their voices, and, together with others, emboldened our city to take an affirmative stance and do the right thing.