James Wagoner is the President of Advocates For Youth.
Robert F. Kennedy once said, "Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not." I like this quote because it challenges those of us working in the reproductive health field to ask the vision question – – the question that begins with "why not?"
Why not a society where young people are valued rather than stereotyped, prized as assets rather than discounted as liabilities? Why not a society where sexuality is viewed as a normal, positive aspect of being human, of being alive, rather than as forbidden fruit to be locked away in a fortress of shame, fear, and denial? Why not a society where public policy is based on science and research rather than politics and ideology? Why not a society where values, morality, and character are used to infuse sexuality with meaning – with its truly human dimension – rather than misused to deny young people information that could one day save their lives.
Over the years that I worked in this field, I've asked myself "why can't we place youth at the center of our vision, mission and work?" I think about the young people I have met and the leadership they bring to these issues. I am inspired by the passion and hope of Mimi Melles and Haben Fecadu, members of Advocates' International Youth Leadership Council, who led a coalition of youth activists at the 2006 UN Special Session on HIV/AIDS. I marvel at the power and charisma of Jalan Washington and Cherrell Edwards, members of the Young Women of Color Leadership Council, who work on a daily basis to raise public awareness about the impact of HIV on their peers. And then there is Adaku Utah from the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, fighting for comprehensive sex education in the Chicago school system and Megan Cuilla of the Odyssey Center in Spokane, Washington, advocating for the rights of GLBTQ youth. On a daily basis, I have witnessed the power of partnership between adults and youth to move us towards a society that:
- Recognizes youth's Rights to accurate and complete sexual health information, confidential reproductive and sexual health services, and a secure stake in the future.
- Respects young people. Valuing young people means ensuring they participate in developing programs and policies that affect their well being.
- Fulfills its Responsibility to provide young people with the tools they need to safeguard their sexual health, so they can in turn meet their responsibility to make good decisions about their sexual health.
At Advocates, we work to make this vision more than rhetoric. Rights, Respect, Responsibility has become the core values that animate and direct our organization's external efforts while defining and inspiring our internal culture. This vision has transformed our work over the last nine years. Young people are now at the very center of our programs and policies rather than being cast as mere "end users" of our services. A human rights framework buoys a steadfast organizational commitment to evidence-based public health. I have seen that a positive approach to sexuality delivers strong public health outcomes. Rights, Respect, Responsibility provides a platform for shifting societal norms to promote the well-being of youth in a holistic framework.
I couldn't be more excited about 2007. I feel there is a new wave of collaborative energy and commitment in our field. There is so much we can do together. We can stand up for what we know is right. The change starts today!
Editor's note: Watch Advocates For Youth's Rights, Respect, Responsibility video below, which provides a fascinating insight into sexual health attitudes by interviewing European and American teens.