The aha moment came on the second day of the conference. On the first day, in the fall of 2013, people from all across the city gathered in an auditorium at the Communities Foundation of Texas, near NorthPark Center. They heard about how bad the teen pregnancy crisis was in Texas: fifth-highest teen birthrate in the nation, No. 1 in repeat births. The organizer of the conference, the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, wanted to impress upon attendees—mostly people from nonprofits, school districts, and healthcare agencies that deal with teens at risk—how expensive the problem is. Texas now spends $1.1 billion annually on teen births.
On the second day of the conference, though, they got local. Everyone wanted to know what the many different organizations represented were doing to fight teen births in Dallas County. No wonder. The county’s teen birthrate for girls 15 to 19 is 5 percent, higher than in Texas (4.1 percent) and in the United States (2.7 percent). To figure out what was and was not working, attendees put large sheets of paper on a wall to map out the where, what, when, and how of each group’s efforts.
Only when they stepped back and looked at this display did the picture come into focus. The exercise showed that they were a bunch of well-meaning folks working very hard but not very smart. As is often the case in Dallas’ do-gooder universe, organizations weren’t communicating with each other. Too many duplicated each other’s efforts in one area, while not doing enough in others. They were in desperate need of a leader.
The aha moment was sparked by a policy advocate from Waxahachie, a person who had taken upon himself the lonely quest of getting more sex education in its schools. He pointed at a tall employment lawyer who had helped organize the conference.
“Her,” he said. “She’s the one.”
Thus were the seeds planted for the formation of the North Texas Alliance to Reduce Teen Pregnancy, and thus was lawyer and Hockaday graduate Terry Greenberg drafted to run it. At the time, Greenberg had shut down her private practice to pursue a career change. She also led a group for the National Council of Jewish Women that advocated for sex education programs. That work had been an especially tough slog in Texas, which, under Rick Perry, accepted more money for abstinence-only education than any other state, according to Greenberg. Still, the work was rewarding—although not to her pocketbook. So Gary Ahr, a man who attended that 2013 conference and has a history of community planning and activism, made sure that Greenberg got enough seed money to create the Alliance and work with already on-board service groups such as Planned Parenthood and YWCA. But by the time the Alliance was ready to launch, in August 2014, Greenberg grew hesitant. “I told my husband I couldn’t do it because I had never raised money before, and we’d have to do that. He said, ‘Sorry, that’s not a good enough reason. You’re going to do this.’ ”
Greenberg proved adept at fundraising, shocking many in the local nonprofit world by securing a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Greenberg got that grant because she smartly realized that the Alliance and its partners needed to focus their efforts on the five worst Dallas ZIP codes in terms of teen pregnancy, where up to one in nine teens has given birth (75215, 75216, 75203, 75212, and 75220, in South, West, and northwest Dallas). To do so, the Alliance would have to change the culture in those communities. In those ZIP codes, the Alliance hopes to reduce teen births by 20 percent over the next five years.
“In these poor neighborhoods, it’s not unusual at all to have friends or classmates who are pregnant,” Greenberg says. “So you’ve got to go into the poorest areas, where the pregnancy rates are the highest, and educate them and their parents to have any real effect. And that effect is cascading. It really can be transformative for these girls and their kids and their communities.”
This focus suggested another change in strategy that the Alliance is trying to bring about. For a long time, social services in Dallas schools, public and private, have paid more attention to helping teen mothers than to preventing those pregnancies in the first place. This was largely because, in Texas, talking to kids about sex is fraught with political danger. There is always a morally righteous special interest group ready to publicly shame sex education efforts, usually by claiming that abstinence is the only sinless way to prevent pregnancy.
Post-pregnancy help is certainly needed. Fewer than half of all teen mothers finish high school. But evidence-based, blame-free education is needed as soon as teens become sexually active. So, for example, if a Dallas ISD middle school like Billy E. Dade (in South Dallas’ 75215, the ZIP with the highest teen pregnancy rate) requests a health presentation for teens at high risk, the Alliance provides the educators.
That doesn’t mean the Alliance won’t help in North Dallas. One well-known private school recently asked for a presentation on healthy relationships (i.e., ones in which young girls aren’t pressured into sex or abused once they start having sex). The Alliance will bring in resources provided by experts from the UTD Center for Children and Families or from the Be Project of Family Place.
Although the Alliance was working directly with schools, it has recently been in discussions with districts as Greenberg and company try to avoid the political quagmire that comes with giving students effective, blunt sex education. “Telling these kids ‘Just don’t have sex’ is such a disservice,” Greenberg says. “It’s like telling them not to smoke but not telling them why. We give them the education they need so they can make healthy choices. But we also ask them to think about future hopes and dreams, so we can show them exactly how difficult it will be to achieve these if they don’t make informed decisions.”
The method by which the Alliance tries to reduce teen pregnancy might seem too simple to middle-class and affluent families. Really, these teens just need education? They only need some information about the birds, bees, and opportunity costs associated with too much chirping and buzzing?
On one level, no. There are other methods that may come later, like trying to get policymakers to look hard at long-acting, reversible contraceptives. They have reduced teen pregnancies by 40 percent in places such as Colorado, where they’re offered for free.
But for now, the strategy is to focus on immediate needs in the areas where the birthrates are most alarming. There, students are shockingly ignorant about the basics of hygiene, let alone sex education. (A middle-school teacher recently told me about having to install air freshener plugs in his classroom because his poverty-stricken students had never been taught about deodorant.)
And, to Greenberg, just being present in those communities makes a difference, showing these girls that someone cares about their futures. At a teen panel, students were told how southern Dallas teen birthrates compared with those in other parts of the city. “Why,” the kids were asked, “do you think more of your friends and neighbors get pregnant than kids in more affluent areas?” Greenberg doesn’t remember the name of the young woman from Lincoln High School (also 75215) who answered, only her matter-of-fact demeanor.
“It’s because their parents talk to their kids about sex,” the teen said. “And because people care about what happens to those kids.”
To Greenberg, that young girl perfectly summed up the heartbreak behind the numbers. “It’s why even though I’m bad at asking for money, I work up the courage to say, ‘Hey, glad you’re supportive. Now I need $5,000 from you.’ Because even though that girl lives in one of those ZIP codes, she needs to know that someone cares and that she can have a good life.”