Imagine yourself as a teenager, sitting in the office of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (former office of President Barack Obama) lobbying for your rights, the rights of your peers and the rights of the people in your state. At that age, I believe I probably would have been biting my fingernails and hoping no one asked me a question. That wasn’t the case for the six peer educators from Planned Parenthood’s Peer Education Team. Instead, it was an opportunity to speak up and make a difference by participating in Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Youth Organizing and Policy Summit in Washington, DC this summer.
Thanks to funding from The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio and The Columbus Foundation, the Peer Education Team has worked to create social change throughout Central Ohio over the last year and a half. They reach thousands of their peers and community members with information about preventing pregnancy and STIs, building healthy relationships and much more. Sitting in the Senate office was another great experience for these six young women. It was just one of many opportunities they shared in DC.
We left Columbus with a group of nineteen – two adult chaperones, six high school students (five of whom had never been on a plane prior to their DC experience) and eleven college students who intern for Planned Parenthood of Central Ohio or are members of the college group VOX (Voices for Change). That afternoon, the young ladies attended the Opening Plenary where they were excited to see other youth from all over the country and share stories about their programs. From there, the Peer Educators attended a number of workshops including: Bossypants-Getting What You Want on the Hill; Reproductive Justice: Beyond the Choice Paradigm; Media 101: Utilizing Media to Drive a Message; and Hire Me, Please- How to Find and Land an Internship in Public Policy. They all enjoyed their sessions and were excited to share their new information with one another.
Thursday was the big day – lobby day. The ladies were lobbying Congress members to make sure family planning was not cut from Medicaid. This is a pretty lofty subject for most teenagers, but not for these young women. They were all willing and able to speak – and when they spoke, people listened. They spoke of how family planning could or has made a difference in their lives as well as the lives of their friends and families. But they weren’t done there. They went on to discuss the need for comprehensive sexual education courses for young people, and wanted to make sure that the members of Congress knew just how important the peer education program has been. One of the peer educators, Brooke, said: “I can’t imagine my life without the peer education program. It has taught me to believe in myself. I know that I can make a difference in this world. Young women at our school come to us because they need our help. They want to know how to prevent pregnancy. They want to know how to keep themselves safe. And I’m doing that. I’m teaching them how to do that for themselves. This program has made me realize that I’m capable of coming to Washington, DC and telling Congress what young people want and what they need. I am a teen, but I’m also a woman, and I want to make sure women get the care they not only need but deserve. Women are smart enough to trust with birth control.”
Even the college students in the room were blown away by Brooke’s conviction, maturity and poise. They all congratulated the high school peer educators. I later asked Brooke why she felt able to do what she did and how she was able to do it so well. She said, “The peer education program has empowered me to be a woman. I have grown so much, and I know that I am not only capable, but also responsible for the changes I want to see in my world. It has made me realize that I should be heard.” How amazing is that?!?
We mixed in some sight-seeing before two more workshops on Friday. As we rode the train back to the airport, I looked at this group of six high school students, and I realized they are women. They are the women who will be the leaders of businesses, governments, non-profits and schools in the years to come. I couldn’t be happier to have such excellent female representation!
Written by: Lynn Feils
Community Health Educator
Planned Parenthood of Central Ohio