Looking Forward, Looking Back: Two Perspectives on Leadership, Culture, and the Sexual Health Movement


My first reflection as President of Advocates for Youth is what a kick it was to work hand-in-hand with James Wagoner. Sure, he had his idiosyncratic side (using terms like “troglodyte” to describe a recalcitrant Democratic Committee Chairman, or wearing his omni-present black T-shirt inside-out on occasion) but he was also visionary, authentic, transparent, and a really great friend. I’m going to miss him a great deal. But I’m also looking forward to a continuing partnership with James in his new role as a part-time advisor to the organization- particularly now that I might get a chance once in a while to tell him what to do!

But, seriously, I am both excited and newly energized to be taking over as Executive Director of Advocates for Youth. I love our cause and the young people we serve. I value Advocates’ staff for their passion and commitment to our issues. I admire and respect my colleagues in the field for their incredible expertise and steadfast work in challenging times. I am excited to continue collaborating on efforts to champion the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people.

That said, I thought I would provide colleagues and friends of Advocates a sense of where I see the organization headed over the coming years – and perhaps a snapshot of my own priorities within that journey.

In the years ahead, Advocates will continue to be a dynamic leader in promoting the rights of youth to information, education, and services. I am deeply committed to our current, innovative work expanding adolescent access to contraception domestically and internationally; fighting homophobia in schools and communities across the United States; and using our policy work on the Hill and with the administration to advance the goals of our state and local partners.

Advocates will continue to call out politicians and others that subvert the health and rights of young people for their own political expediency. The recent rejection by the Obama administration of the FDA’s recommendation to make Plan B One-Step available without prescription for all women, including young women, illustrates the long road ahead. The FY 2012 federal budget stands in further witness with the restoration of $5 million for failed community-based abstinence-only programs (CBAE) and a 25 percent cut to the only dedicated federal funding stream for school-based HIV prevention education.

In addition, I think there is an opportunity for us to break new ground by expanding the rights framework to include issues of sexual health equity. Effective strategies to improve adolescent sexual health must address its interconnection to economic and social justice. These issues are critical to communities of color, impoverished communities and GLBTQ youth – in short, those most affected by the social and structural disparities that drive high rates of unplanned teen pregnancy, HIV, and other STIs.

With that overview, I see four concrete opportunities in the near- to mid-term that we can leverage to further the sexual health of young people.

Putting Sex Education in a Rights Framework

For the past 15 years, Advocates for Youth, along with many of our colleagues in the field, has fought hard to expose the flaws and dangers of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In so doing, we created the powerful message frame “science vs. ideology,” promoting an evidence-based approach to sex education. And by all accounts we have been incredibly successful, helping to eliminate two-thirds of the federal funding that supported abstinence-only programming in the U.S. In its stead, two evidence-based sex education programs have been established – the President’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative at $110 million and PREP – the first ever evidence-based federal funding stream for comprehensive sex education in America at $75 million.

But the pendulum has swung too far. Much of this funding supports implementation of only those programs that have been rigorously evaluated. And these programs must be implemented with complete fidelity. As a result, we now confront program and policy trends that focus on the narrow implementation of a short list of disease prevention programs that are difficult to scale and harder to sustain. Further, while many of these programs do effectively emphasize abstinence and protection, they often fail to adequately address healthy relationships, communication, body image, and other important components of quality sexual health education. In the long run, these disease prevention programs cannot serve as a wholesale substitute for comprehensive sex education.

In the coming years, we will challenge this paradigm and advocate for a recalibration of the current balance towards a vision of sex education that is evidence-informed and rights-based. One that recognizes the rights of all young people to healthy sexuality, provides them with complete and accurate information and demonstrates respect for their personal agency – their ability to regulate their sexual behavior in a positive and healthy way. Supporting a rights-based framework for comprehensive sex education demonstrates awareness that information and education are the cornerstones that help young people take personal responsibility for important life decisions.

Dismantling Stigma with a New Cultural Narrative on Abortion

After suffering years of anti-abortion rhetoric, we are again facing renewed zeal by abortion opponents in Congress and state legislatures to chip away, and ultimately undo, abortion access in this county. Youth access to abortion has been an easy target and remains a huge vulnerability for the field. Yet we know that a majority of Millennials support safe, legal abortion – and even more support abortion access in their local communities. This is one of the most pro-sexual health generations in history. Given their progressive profile on equal marriage, contraception, and sex education, there is a great deal of opportunity to nurture deeper Millennial support on the abortion issue. The polling also indicates that one of the lead indicators for being a pro-choice Millennial is knowing someone who has had an abortion. All of this tells me that we need a new cultural narrative on abortion to underpin the field’s legal and policy work. In my view, Advocates is uniquely qualified to leverage social media and grassroots organizing to take on this effort. Recently, in collaboration with Choice USA and Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, Advocates launched the 1 in 3 Campaign designed to use personal story-telling to de-stigmatize abortion among young people. In the years ahead, we will continue to roll out and ramp up this work through social media and on campuses and communities across the country.  I believe it is an essential first step in mobilizing youth support at the cultural level and a pre-condition of garnering support at the political level.

Promoting GLBT Health and Rights in the Global South

Recently, Advocates has received a growing number of requests for assistance from LGBTQ youth living in the Global South. Many of these young people live in countries where homophobia is pervasive and homosexuality a crime. Often they contact us in the throes of crisis—sometimes they are suicidal, often they have been the victims of violence, always they are in need of information, affirmation and support. In the years ahead, we will proactively leverage our domestic LGBTQ initiatives to directly support these young people and to build the capacity of organizations in the Global South to meet their needs. This work is incredibly important and life saving.

Mobilizing Youth of Color in Support of Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice

Advocates is deeply committed to creating authentic partnerships with youth. We recognize this as an organizational value and as a strategy for changing the world. Supporting this work means building youth’s skills, nurturing their talents, and empowering them to be leaders on their campuses, in their communities, on the Hill, and at international meetings. Our programs empower youth to take leadership roles on decision-making bodies and mobilize their peers through the use of social media and grassroots organizing. In the years ahead, Advocates will continue to embrace this work and to expand our reach even further into communities of color. By deepening our work in this area – by empowering youth of color to be leaders at Advocates – we can develop partnerships that help us to meaningfully promote sexual health equity among communities with disparate rates. Further, by encouraging these youth activists to be leaders within our organization and within the field, we can begin to change the field itself. These young people, empowered as leaders, trained in Advocates’ vision of Rights.Respect.Responsibility. and knowledgeable about their own communities, can help to revitalize the movement and to make it more relevant in a world that is increasingly diverse and that requires a more integrated, holistic, and rights-based approach to sexual health.

So these are some of the initiatives that excite me. I am honored to be surrounded in this field by so many incredible colleagues and such a phenomenal staff.  I find myself a month into this new role and I am more inspired than ever by Advocates’ commitment to young people and to our vision of a sexually healthy culture. I am excited by the promise and by the challenge of this vision and I am looking forward to collaborating with as many of you as possible to make this vision a reality.


Looking Back, by James Wagoner

December 31, 2011 marked my last day as Advocates for Youth’s Executive Director, a position I had held since 1997. As I look back on my time in this role, my first reflection is that time does indeed fly when you are having fun! Without doubt, the last fourteen years have been the best of my professional life, due to the incredible talent, commitment, and energy of my colleagues at Advocates and the field at large.

While I’m excited about continuing as a senior adviser to Advocates and engaging some new opportunities as a consultant, I already miss my co-strategist, thinker, and friend, Deb Hauser. Deb taught me the value of partnership in leadership; how adjusting the “fit” can dramatically improve a staff colleague’s performance; how effective decision making is an iterative process propelled by frank talk and honest differences of opinion; and how putting vision first not only builds a strong institutional brand but also helps regulate ego and other factors that undermine organizational culture. Simply put, she is the best – and Advocates for Youth, as well as our field in general, will benefit enormously from her leadership and collaboration.

I often referred to my time at Advocates as a “fountain of youth,” because it immersed me in idealism, principle, and passion – powerful antidotes to the calculation, cynicism, and dysfunction that too often defines Washington D.C.

The best gifts I will take from my years at Advocates are the lessons I have learned about leadership, non-profits, and social change. While I will certainly continue to reflect and learn from these experiences in the months and years ahead, for what it’s worth here are some highlights:

“Culture” eats “Strategy” for breakfast.

I forget which management guru made this pronouncement, but I have now adapted it as my mantra. If vision, passion, talent, and planning are the fuel of organizational success, then culture is the engine that determines how efficiently that fuel is translated into outcomes. A good organizational culture is grounded in clear core values and a leadership team willing to live – not just espouse – those values. The better the organizational culture, the better the opportunity to recruit, retain, and develop top talent and the higher the percentage of intellectual capital generated by that talent that will be translated into innovation and high impact outcomes. Ego, lack of transparency, poor communication, and double standards all undermine success by burning off the fuel that propels it. People do their best and most amazing work when they have the opportunity to connect their personal passion, drive, and vision to that of a larger cause and the non-profit that exists to advance it. Organizations with dysfunctional cultures rarely sustain effective strategies because they cannot sustain the flow of ideas and talent necessary to innovate and implement those strategies over time.

For much of my career, I thought that leadership was three smart people in a room telling the rest of the organization what to do. It turns out, I had it backwards. Advocates transformed my concept of leadership from one based on personality to one based on culture.

Washington-based policy is a means, not an end.

Social change doesn’t begin in Washington, it begins at the grassroots – and Washington, forever the lagging indicator, catches up later. It doesn’t mean federal policy isn’t important. It is, because policy allocates resources and sets parameters for programs. But when Washington policy becomes the driving force for movement strategy and tactics, bad things happen. The relationship between organizations that do federal policy and organizations that recruit and mobilize grassroots support gets distorted, and we lose power, which, in a democracy, is ultimately based on the number of people passionately engaged with your cause.

I worked in the Senate for ten years. I thank my stars each and every day that I gained a different perspective by working for a non-profit authentically connected to its grassroots stakeholders.

Invest in Millennials. They’re the generation we’ve been waiting for!

This is the most educated, diverse, open generation in U.S. history – all of which accounts for their also being the most pro-sexual health generation in history. Ultimately, we have to shift not just policy, but social norms to make America a sexually healthy nation. The best pathway to achieving both these goals is investing in young people who are not only current leaders and activists but future parents and opinion leaders.

The corollary to investing in youth is investing in technology and new media. We’re whistling past the institutional graveyard if we don’t.

Advocates taught me that technology is culture for young people, and that asocial networks have the capacity to bring social activism to scale.

You diversify to represent your constituency…and to remain relevant.

I used to view diversity as a positive cultural statement. I now view it as the best way to reach the marketplace. The most successful for-profit enterprises find ways to hear, reflect, and engage their consumers. Adapting that principle to the non-profit world, I learned that we need to diversify our staff, boards, and networks to remain relevant in a rapidly changing, multi-cultural country. Advocates taught me the value of having an organization that reflects its constituency, as well as the link between good culture and good recruitment.

Collaboration is not just the smart thing to do…it’s the right thing to do.

Darwin said that those who have learned to innovate and collaborate most efficiently have prevailed. I buy into that because I’ve seen the results that authentic collaboration has brought to the field of sex education. But I also feel that collaboration is an ethical necessity. All of the expertise gained by our organizations was financed by a foundation, individual, or government that invested in a pro-social outcome. That expertise is a trust, not a proprietary holding. Therefore, we all have an obligation in some sense to share what we know with each other. It is the best and the “most efficient” way to reach the social good.

Well, these are a few of the insights I’ve gleaned working for Advocates over the last 14 years. I am so very grateful that I had this opportunity, and I look forward to collaborating in new and exciting ways with my valued colleagues in the field!

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  • steven-earl-salmony

    Where are the scientists who will stand up and speak out loudly, clearly regarding the science of human population dynamics? On our watch the human community appears to be inadvertently precipitating emerging and converging global ecological challenges to future human well being and environmental health. This is no time for broadcasting self-serving ideological idiocy to deny what could be real nor is now the time for scientists to choose elective mutism when confronted with apparently unforeseen science, even when the science is unwelcome. Willfully denying the presence of a non-recursive biological problem, for example, does not mean the problem is not there.

    Take the example of the science of human population dynamics. Who is discussing the topic? The Story no one tells. This research is not even discussed by scientists with appropriate expertise. Silence prevails. Where can we find population biologists, conservation biologists, human ecologists and other similarly-situated experts to discuss extant scientific research… to tell The Story about the human overpopulation of Earth? Where are the population scientists who are ready, willing and able to talk about human population dynamics?

    What do we mean when we deploy the words, “human population dynamics”? Are human population dynamics essentially similar to, or different from, the population dynamics of other species? I would like to call on my friends to help me find sensible ways to shed light on this subject. More than a decade has passed since I began trying unsuccessfully to bring this matter of concern to the attention of some of the most senior scientists. Mostly there was deafening silence. Occasionally a colleague would bury the research without noticing it to others or else would obstruct efforts to discuss this taboo topic. Why not break the silence and overcome the taboo by telling The Story about the science of human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth? Let us not allow another year to pass by without a intellectually honest amd morally courageous discussion of this sort.