We Want Healthy Futures For Our Youth

I chose to become an educator because I want to equip youth with the tools necessary to be successful. Sexual health education particularly spoke to me because I know the potential outcomes of early sexual involvement and how these outcomes can have lasting impacts. Here at Teen emPower! Inc., we believe every young person deserves the chance to make healthy decisions that empower them to create the life of their dreams. 

Of course, parents want the same thing. However, not all parents are equipped with the necessary sexual health information that young people need because of the lack of sexual health opportunities provided in our state and indeed, our country. Additionally, not all parents feel comfortable because, unfortunately, discussing sexual health topics remains taboo in many environments and cultures. That’s why we focus on teaching young people things they need to know about sexual health including consent, decision-making, relationships, self-esteem, and communication.

Today, more than ever, young people are exposed to unfiltered information via social media and the internet. While these resources can be a great source of community-building and story-telling, online sources for sexual health may not be age-appropriate or medically accurate. Teens need sexual health education provided in a safe, stable environment that will encourage them to make healthy social and personal decisions once they understand the potential outcomes of their choices.

There is a minority who would like to see sexual health education completely removed from schools. You may have seen them posting on social media or organizing public events. They are motivated by a fear-based misunderstanding of what our sexual health programs provide. 

We want this group to acknowledge that our state ranks 4th highest for teen births and that 26% of new HIV infections occur among youth ages 13 to 24 years. We want them to know that the youth who experience our programs consistently report high levels of appreciation for this education and have expressed their gratitude in hundreds of thank you letters we have received. 

If we want to see healthy futures for our youth, society needs to continue to support projects like our peer education program and sexual health education in schools.

  • I encourage people in our community to speak up for themselves and for the young people who don’t have a political voice or who don’t vote yet. Speak up for the educational programs that help youth establish healthy goals, and speak out against those who seek to limit the impact of youth programs. 
  • I encourage parents to talk with their children at home about sexual health topics, including handling emotions in social settings and consent for any type of touch, not only sexual. 
  • I encourage teachers to speak with students about the impact they can make in their schools and overarching community so the students understand their value.
  • I encourage influential adults to help youth with their developmental needs by encouraging community involvement, positive social skills, and boundary setting.

Developing assets for young people takes an involved community who is willing to devote themselves to youth needs. By supporting programs like Teen emPower!, you are supporting healthy futures for Oklahoma students.

Developmental Assets and Why They Matter

Lead Author: Aicha Diop

I had just finished my teaching session and we were going around the room talking about what we learned. One student raised their hand and said, “I learned I can say no.” 

Admittedly, I was taken aback because of the many layers this answer carried. In that moment I realized I not only gave students the tools to make healthy decisions for themselves but unlocked the knowledge of what it means to have bodily autonomy.

I was humbled to hear that I was so influential, but at the same time,  saddened to hear they didn’t know they held those tools the whole time. It was a strong  reminder how much of an impact educators, mentors, parents, and neighbors can have in helping youth build their personal strengths and assets. 

This type of impact can be identified as Asset Building. In short, asset building is when adults support the development of youth by building up positive aspects of the community and social environment.

Summer 2022 the Teen emPower! staff, myself included, completed a training by the Search Institute called Essentials of Asset Building. We began the training by learning what assets are essential to youth success. These Developmental Assets are “positive experiences and qualities that all of us have the power to bring into the lives of children and youth.” They have identified 40 assets split into external and internal categories. 

External Asset Categories:

Support, Empowerment, Boundaries and Expectations, and Constructive Use of Time. 

Support assets can come from a variety of sources, and might look as simple as talking to your child about their day at the dinner table. Empowerment assets can also come in many different forms, like the community valuing youth success or creating an environment where youth can feel safe. Young people also thrive in structure and that is where boundaries and expectations come into play. Setting clear expectations for youth at home, at school, and in the community will help create that safe space for them to succeed. Additionally, young people can gain a lot from assets that are a constructive use of time. This could look like creating after school programs or other opportunities that build tools for youth success. 

Internal Asset Categories

Commitment to Learning, Positive Values, Social Competencies, and Positive Identity. 

Commitment to learning is an asset category focused on understanding that learning is important. It might look like motivation to do well in school or reading for pleasure. It’s also important that they believe in their abilities. Positive value assets could be defined as the development of a moral compass. In order to interact well with others, young people also need to develop social competencies. Examples of how to build these assets include understanding and being accepting of their peers from different cultural backgrounds, or being able to resist peer pressure to drink under age. Lastly, there are positive identity assets, which is how youth view themselves – their self esteem.

Understanding and utilizing these assets can improve the lives of our youth. They help us refocus our programs, like SHAPE, on how we can keep young people at the forefront of our decision-making and implementation processes. The 40 developmental assets reinforce what we here at Teen emPower! already know to be true. Young people need trusted, encouraging adults to thrive, and this will directly affect the future of our communities.

Anyone can be an asset-builder, starting right now.

Pro-Prevention Sexual Health

If you have attended many sporting events,  you have likely seen the athletes warming up prior to the game. They do this to prevent potential injuries. No one argues whether this is unnecessary or good because, of course, keeping players healthy and safe should be a priority.

Teaching pro-prevention sexual health is the same. The goal is to take steps to prevent unintended consequences or outcomes that could be harmful to one’s health and well-being. When people realize sexual health education helps protect young people from preventable outcomes, it makes perfect sense. However, some people don’t know what a pro-prevention program looks like, so we’re going to review a few pro-prevention teaching ideas, why they are needed, and how effective these programs can be.

Unintended outcomes due to teen sexual activity might include pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and unexpected or unwanted emotions. One way to prevent these unintended outcomes is through medically accurate and age appropriate education. Pro-prevention sexual health education includes learning about the biological changes, emotional influences, and social pressures that occur during adolescent development. The goal of sexual health education programs offered by Teen emPower! is to provide youth with accurate, unbiased information they can use to make healthy decisions for their future. They need to learn about their bodies and be able to protect themselves from unintended outcomes so they are prepared if/when they make the decision to become sexually active.

If understanding the fundamentals of a sport and having access to protective equipment is important to the well being of athletes — then understanding the fundamentals of sexual health and having access to protective equipment helps the well-being of young people, too.

Everyone needs this information, especially adolescents. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the percentage of unintended pregnancies was 45% overall, with 75% of pregnancies being unintended among teens aged 15-19 years. In 2018, the CDC estimated 1 in 5 Americans age 15 and older had an STI. These two statistics demonstrate a need in our community that is not fully being met. Unintended teen pregnancies can cause lower graduation rates, bring financial hardship, and create emotional distress. And although some STIs can be cured, others can have life-long implications. 

Pro-prevention education is a key to positively impacting our youth, and Teen emPower! is a champion for that change in Central Oklahoma. Colorado has been a leader in the United States for implementing pro-prevention programs and guess what? It’s working. Although the state does not require sexual health education to be taught in schools, it does require sexual health education to be comprehensive, inclusive, and to cover consent when taught. Conversely, states that require abstinence-only education in schools typically see higher STI rates in their communities.

Let’s take it back to sports for a moment. When a gymnast prepares a new skill, a spotter should be present to prevent a harmful fall. Our programs and educators are like the spotter. They provide trusted adults to teach topics such as understanding reproductive anatomy, abstinence as a sure way to avoid unintended outcomes (when used properly), the characteristics of healthy relationships, and how to remain as safe as possible when engaging in sexual activity. With the right spotter in place, an athlete will eventually be able to recognize the safest moves on their own, as will the adolescents who receive effective sexual health education.

A sexual health education program, specifically one with a pro-prevention focus, empowers individuals to take control of their lives and stay healthy. While there are organizations promoting pro-prevention education in other states, Teen emPower! provides this effective and much-needed type of sexual health education right here in Oklahoma. And we do so proudly without judgment or shame.

We invite you to “suit up” and join our pro-prevention team! If you are interested in supporting our organization, you can find us on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter. Our website can be used to further explore our program or make a donation. With your support, we can run the right plays and tackle unintended sexual health outcomes.