One of the more striking aspects of the Ntarupt (North Texas Alliance to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy in Teens) offices at 624 N. Good Latimer Expressway has nothing to do with giant bowls of condoms (there aren’t any) or graphic instructional posters of procreational logistics (there aren’t any of those, either). It’s the bricks.
The former St. James AME Church building was constructed entirely from bricks picked out of piles of rubble because, in 1920, no one would sell the literal building blocks to the black members of the congregation. As she gives me a tour of the building now owned by the Meadows Foundation, Veronica Whitehead, Ntarupt’s director of programs and a Certified Health Education Specialist, runs her fingers over the worn clay and points out some bricks still blackened with soot. Such an indelible reminder of the long shadow of racism, and the inventiveness of those who persevered in spite of it, seems a fitting construct for conversations about something historically shrouded in secrecy and shame.
Veronica offers me a warm butterscotch Tiff’s Treats cookie as I sit down in the conference room to chat with her and Ntarupt’s CEO, Terry Goltz Greenberg. The cookies are a congratulatory gift for the recent adoption by DISD trustees of an expanded sex ed curriculum for middle and high school students. Terry, a former employment law attorney, founded the organization five years earlier in order to organize an alliance of more than 50 local organizations to tackle the problem of teen pregnancy in Dallas County, which has one of the highest rates in the country. Texas, which ranks 5th in the nation, has 34.6 births per 1,000 teen girls; Dallas County has 39.33. The cost to Dallas County for the births in 2014 alone was nearly $12 million.
Ntarupt’s goal is to slash the teen birth rate by 50 percent in 12 Dallas zip codes with the highest teen birth rates by 2022. They aim to do so through advocacy, such as their work with DISD, and by offering sexual health courses throughout the community (for teens and parents, in both English and Spanish) and helping refer teens for reproductive and STI health care.
But mostly, they are trying to start conversations about sex. So that’s what we did.
Kathy: So, let’s start with these cookies. What’s the DISD deal?
Terry: We have been advocating, since our existence, for comprehensive sex education in Dallas and all surrounding school districts. The teen pregnancy problem that we have right now is in great part due to the fact that kids are not getting good information, and have not been for a while. The DISD school board and a lot of their employees did a lot of great research over the last year. And their school health advisory committee made recommendations that they implement age-appropriate, evidence-based, medically accurate, sexuality education for 5th grade all the way up.
Veronica: The thing about Texas is, there’s no requirement for sex ed to be taught. If they do decide to teach it, ideally the recommendations come from the school health advisory council, because they are supposed to represent what the community wants. Recommendations are given to the school board. And the school board has the ultimate say on what is taught in a school district.
Kathy: What historically had been taught in DISD?
Veronica: They had an officially approved curriculum called Sexual Health and Wellness. It was a little outdated. And not very LGBT-inclusive–very gender, heteronormative. But there were lots of inconsistencies in how it was being implemented. We would talk to some schools and they were like, “Oh, we have no curriculum.” And others maybe were aware of it, but weren’t trained.
Terry: There are areas in Dallas that have three to five times the national average for teen pregnancy. This is a big move forward for evidence-based teaching. Evidence-based means there’s research to say this actually works. We’re not just pulling something out of thin air, or old wives’ tales, or what your mama said. None of that. This stuff works.
So what the DISD vote said was, 6th grade is going to get this specific curriculum, at the end of the school year, after the STAAR test. Eighth grade is going to get this specific program at the end of the school year, after the STAAR test, in science class. Because health is not required anymore in Texas to graduate. But everybody takes science. And then a similar curriculum for 9th graders as well. All of that was not in place prior to the decision at the school board.
Kathy: OK. So what’s your short spiel for people who think sex ed is exposing kids to things that they shouldn’t be exposed to?
Veronica: It’s a common concern of a lot of people. Research just doesn’t support that. In a lot of these studies, in almost all of them, it shows that students who go through these programs actually delay the first time they have sex. So having open and honest factual information and conversations with kids actually makes them choose abstinence longer. So instead of hiding that information, if you give it to them, there’s no mystery behind it. They want to engage in those healthier behaviors.
Terry: The more they know, the less they do.
Veronica: I didn’t have my first real sex ed class till college, because I was a health major. And I was so mad. I was like, who kept this from us? And why did they keep it from us? I wanted to hold people accountable. And so I did. When I got my Master’s in Health Education with a community health emphasis, I really focused in on women’s health, adolescent health, and teen pregnancy prevention. Because it really takes a community approach. You have to get people to support it.
Terry: We can teach kids a course that lasts 10 hours, but it’s not going to change their lives unless their parents are supportive. Everyone’s got to get on the same page. The parents, and the medical providers, and the churches–everyone has to be laddering up into this bigger vision.
Kathy: Speaking of churches, what are your thoughts on abstinence-only education?
Veronica: There’s nothing wrong with abstinence. In fact, it is the 100 percent most effective way to prevent a pregnancy or an STI. All of our programs include information on abstinence, and it is on our website. Abstinence is a wonderful decision. But it’s a decision. And if we’re only talking about abstinence, then we’re gonna miss the whole group of students who decide not to chose abstinence, whether it be now or later. So if we’re talking to a 13 year old, while they’re 13, most of them are gonna choose abstinence, sure. But what we know is high school students, by the time they’re seniors, more than half are sexually active. And so, if we did not continue the conversation in a developmentally, age-appropriate manner with them, we’re not setting them up for success.
Terry: And they’re not gonna get this education anywhere else. You know, if you don’t give them the information, you’re creating generations of adults that still don’t know, right?
Veronica: I’ll never forget. I taught a parent class at a church, and the youth minister invited me to teach the parents. So we almost finished the program to the parents, and she gets up and she says, “You know, parents, I know what I teach in my home. And I also know what we may teach or believe as a congregation. Whatever that may be, I think we can all agree that as married people, we want our children to have healthy, fulfilling sexual lives.” She’s like, “But we also all have to agree that we may not have actually been set up to have that ourselves. Which is why having open conversations with your child now is so important.”
It was a very beautiful moment. It just really showcased the need for collaboration. Because that’s not a space that I could have stepped in, in my role, in that room. But she could. And she did. And she was able to bring home the message of their faith, tied in with the work that we do. It just really highlights the importance of the religious community in this effort.
Kathy: What’s the biggest problem for Dallas?
Veronica: Of all the things to rank high in the nation, we rank high in childhood poverty. When you look at the social determinants of teen pregnancy, it’s intertwined beyond belief. One of the social determinants of teen pregnancy, according to the CDC, is neighborhood disorder. You see that in poverty–income inequality throughout an area, and also within a neighborhood. That describes Dallas.
I think the initial things we can do, we are doing them. We’re providing education. We’re raising awareness. We’re linking health care. But in order for Dallas to really move beyond this point, it has to truly get serious about poverty in Dallas. Because it’s just too intertwined to ignore it.
Kathy: I’ve read some studies that show that if you’re coming from a lower socio economic class, whether you have a child or don’t have a child, you actually come out at about the same place because of all of the other issues with racism, and access to employment, and access to health care. So the teen pregnancy itself isn’t actually the biggest burden, it’s all this other stuff from the top down.
Veronica: I agree, 100 percent. I think what we need to make sure we’re clear on the narrative is, teen pregnancy does not lead to poverty. If that were true, if you lived in north Dallas and became a teen mom, you would end up in poverty. That doesn’t happen. We know that there are things about living in poverty that can contribute. One of them is lack of positive youth development–creating these social norms that, “Well, this is just what happens here.” But you’re absolutely right. Which is why I said we have to get serious about fighting poverty, racial inequality, income inequality. We have to get serious about really combating all of that. Teen pregnancy–I shouldn’t say this, because I work for a teen pregnancy prevention organization–is only a piece of it.
Terry: The factors to achieve middle class by middle age, one of them is not to have a baby until after you’re 20. One is to graduate from high school. Obviously, graduating from high school is harder if you have a baby. We know it’s a factor in getting to the next step. It’s all related, yes. It’s very complicated.
Kathy: A long time ago, back when I was in sex ed, you started with the assumption that the sexual encounter was consensual.
Veronica: Yes, and it was always penis and vagina.
Kathy: Are you finding in the #MeToo era that there is more of a discussion about sexual abuse, sexual assault, and consent?
Veronica: We have students, after having an anatomy class, realize they wouldn’t have even been able to articulate what had happened to them because they didn’t have the correct vocabulary. Like vagina vs. vulva–two very different parts of the body, yet a lot of people don’t know there’s a difference between the two.
We need to equip our young people with the right words to be able to talk about it, whether it’s in a pleasurable sense or in they were harmed sense. How do we navigate these conversations? How do we equip people–regardless of their gender, regardless of their sexuality–to have consensual and safe sex? And all of that comes down to relationship skills and and having the right words to do it.
I’ll never forget, one of my students one time, we were talking about anatomy. And we were talking about when someone’s aroused, how the vagina naturally self lubricates. Of course, some people have less lubrication that others, you can use lube. Oil vs. water based. All that. And as you can see, I just talk. I keep talking, teaching, talking. And I’m like, “Pleasurable, consensual sex should not hurt.” And I could tell some of my students were confused. I was like, “What’s going on? What are we thinking? Talk to me.” They said, “So it shouldn’t hurt?” In that moment, I was like, I’m gonna scrap the rest of this lesson, because we have young people out there having sex, possibly consensual, but it hurts. So why are we having sex if it hurts? And so, again–not having the knowledge to navigate what that means and why, and not having the words to have that conversation with their partner.
Kathy: What’s your advice to parents on how to talk with their teen?
Terry: First, go to our website. We have tools on how to talk about sex, pregnancy, and STIs with your child.
Veronica: I would say, don’t panic. You don’t have to know everything. In fact, if they ask you a question and you admit, “I don’t know,” I think that’s more authentic.
Follow up. If you say, “I don’t know, let me find out,” actually find out. Don’t put it off, don’t see that as your segue out. Really, truly find out. And, in fact, you can do it together. You can go on talkaboutitdallas.com together and find the information. And it doesn’t have to be this big, “All right, six o’clock, we’re gonna have the talk.” If you’re watching anything on the TV–Modern Family, Blackish–and a scene comes up, talk about it. If your kids listen to Cardi B–who I love–and you’re hearing the lyrics, ask, “What does that mean to you?” Use opportune moments. It doesn’t have to be this big to-do.
And it shouldn’t be a one-time thing. Really, it should start as soon as they’re able to communicate. It shouldn’t be when they’re in high school. Conversations about consent start at a very young age. Your body belongs to you. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t put your hands all over other people. This is your penis. This is your vagina. No cutesy words. People should not be touching you in your penis or vagina unless it’s a medical doctor. All of these conversations should be happening from a very young age. And then they just grow and develop over time. And if we do it that way, there is no awkward big talk later on. It’s just gonna be a normal consistent conversation you’ve always had.