Empowering Teens to Educate Peers: An Interview with Shira Cahn-Lipman

Shira Cahn-Lipman, MEd is the Manager of Youth Education at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. In that role she provides professional training to adult educators on the Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education That Works curricula and runs the Get Real Teen Council &emdash; a sexual health peer education program for high school students. 

Shira Cahn-Lipman1. What is Planned Parenthood’s mission for Boston youth and how do your personal experiences intersect with that?

Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts believes all young people deserve access to health care services and medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive sexuality education that empowers them to make healthy decisions. Last year we launched a brand new sexual health peer education program for high school students called the Get Real Teen Council.

The mission of the Get Real Teen Council, which I co-facilitate, is to empower teenagers to educate their peers, families, and communities about human sexuality and healthy decision making and to inspire teens to use their voices to advocate for just and humane sexual attitudes and practices. Through the power of peer education that teaches accurate, unbiased, comprehensive sexuality education, we can work to end ignorance, promote acceptance and improve communication between teens and the important people in their lives. 

Prior to my experience co-facilitating the Get Real Teen Council, I was lucky enough to work with thousands of young people as a PPLM educator. This particular experience cemented for me the importance of empowering teens to take ownership of this important material. It is one thing for me, as an educator, to walk into a classroom and talk to students about sexuality and relationships and protection and STIs and decision making. But it’s been a far more powerful thing for me to watch students teach those same lessons both inside and outside of the classroom and assume leadership roles within their own communities. That’s a powerful moment when they are able to offer factual information to a friend in need or to answer a tough question that a friend was embarrassed to ask anyone else.

2. How does Planned Parenthood work to ensure all young people are equitably served and represented?

Young people can rely on Planned Parenthood for non-judgmental, confidential, affordable health care. We recognize that teens of color and low-income teens are particularly at risk for unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Through our clinical, educational, and advocacy programs, we work to ensure all people have access to the health care and information they need. One of our highest priority goals during recruitment for the Get Real Teen Council was to find a group of tenth through twelfth graders who were not only dedicated to our mission but also represented the racial, socio-economic, ethnic, social, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity of the communities we serve.

3. We often hear that teens are more likely to make safer and well-informed choices if they have strong relationships with their parents. If a young person doesn’t have a safe relationship with their parents, what are some alternatives? 

We encourage young people to find a variety of trusting, respectful, and caring adults in their lives whom they can turn to for support, advice, and resources. Young people can first think about what makes an adult trustworthy and then brainstorm a list of adults they can go to with questions or concerns about sexuality topics. This may be a relative, teacher, coach, youth group leader, physician, school nurse, school counselor, or another person in their lives. Everyone needs, and deserves, to have an older person in their life they can feel comfortable discussing their feelings and concerns. In addition, Planned Parenthood offers a range of website and hotline phone resources for young people and I suggest you reach out to professionals in various organizations, health services, and support groups for help in negotiating life. For more information go to www.pplm.org or call our counseling and referral hotline: 1-800-258-4448, option 3.

4. What tips would you give young people for talking to their parents about identity, sex, and relationships? 

The Get Real Teen Council collaborated with our Manager of Education back in October 2013 (during “Let’s Talk” month) to create the following tips for teens who want to talk to a parent or caregiver:

Think about what you want/need. Information? Support with a problem? Do you want to talk to them about decisions you’ve made or are thinking about? Do you want them to bring you to the clinic? Sometimes writing down ideas can help you prepare.

When and Where? Talk to them when they are relaxed and not in the middle of something important or in a hurry. Some people like to talk face to face and some feel more comfortable when they can be walking side by side or in the car. If this takes a while, don’t give up.

Getting started. You might tell them that you’d like to talk and ask if it’s a good time. Ask them to let you talk. Remind them that sometimes it is hard to get feelings into words and if they interrupt ask them to wait.

Be prepared to listen to them as well. They might have some good advice for you even if you don’t agree with everything they say AND, remember, it is often just as difficult for adults to talk about sex and other challenging topics.

Be honest. Being honest creates trust. Trust can make life happier and be a foundation for healthy relationships and communication.

Allow for mistakes and assume best intentions. Although they may not say the perfect thing, or say what you want them to, or even have an immediate solution – keep talking. No one is perfect so allow for mistakes and try to see where they are coming from and then: keep talking.

5. How can young people get more involved with Planned Parenthood’s work in our communities?

We’re fighting for change in Massachusetts, but we can’t do it without you! The Get Real Teen Council is one way to get involved with our work. More information about the program can be found at www.pplm.org/GRTC. You can also join the Sex Ed Matters campaign to increase access to comprehensive sexuality education in Massachusetts: sign the petition, share your story, or take a photo and share it online. If you want to learn about upcoming events, like walking in the Boston Pride Parade, email ajohnson AT pplm DOT org to learn more.

READ NEXT: Empowering Teens During Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, an interview with Jasmin Colon and Ciara Mejia on the Planned Parenthood blog.

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