Lisa Olcese's final call
By Lisa Olcese, Executive Director
August 25, 2016
As I approach my last week as executive director, I’d like to close with a vision for the future, rooted in something that’s been bugging me. And because I won’t just leave it at that, I invite you to join me in a personal call to action.
I’ll start with the bright side: There have been enormous strides in the movement for youth sexual health. As you already know, teen birth rates have dropped dramatically in the past five years, more schools are teaching sex ed than ever before, and we are able to choose from more high-quality evidence-based and evidence-informed curricula and approaches.
Here’s what’s bugging me: There is still a wide chasm between those who understand that sexual health is a reality in the lives of growing humans and those who fear, shame, and otherwise ignore it. I have always subscribed to the notion that “everyone is entitled to their opinion,” except that I have also taken my role as an advocate for and with youth very seriously. This is what we do. Our work is filled with countless examples of the concrete and negative impact on the lives of actual young people when information about sex is cloaked in fear, shame, and ignorance - not to mention on teachers when they are silenced or reprimanded for responding directly to student questions.
I want to move beyond saying it’s ok for you to have your opinion, and also reassess how effective I’ve been as an advocate. Maybe we can’t all get along, but maybe we can try some different strategies to create a shared vision. I know that my vision is of a society that understands that sexual health is a lifelong process, and it starts with body-love, knowledge, boundaries, and knowing how to create fulfilling relationships.
I don’t believe that those who espouse fear and shame really want a society that degrades sex or promotes body-hate. Arguably, we’re already there, but I only have a week so I want to get to the point: How do we more effectively build that bridge between respect for those with often harmful opinions and my work as an advocate? Here’s my call, as much for myself as for them, and for you:
1. Drop the judgment. It helps if I check my story about their ‘harmful’ opinion - how can I have compassion for the fear and shame that the individual carries themselves? I’m not saying that we should all play therapist - just have some empathy and openness to learn more about the root of the perspective.
2. Drop the us vs.them approach. While it’s just plain common sense to use data and research to inform our actions, at the end of the day, it’s the person in front of you who matters most. What’s important to them? What are they most concerned about? What are their key values? How can we seek to best understand how someone thinks/believes the way they do before we share our facts? Once we gather this preliminary data, finding common ground will be easier.
3. Name what’s at stake. What’s the impact? Who wins and loses? Who falls between the cracks? Why is this important? Even if we’re motivated by the real and urgent need for social change, no bridges are built by holier-than-thou attitudes. Until we’re aware of, and open about, our own agenda and personal interests, we will be suspect to those who disagree with us.
4. Have your convictions - and be willing to pivot. Now I said ‘pivot,’ not flop over. In order to know the difference, it’s vital to know what we believe in, the direction we want to go, and the outcome we hope to help achieve. Likewise, it’s important to know the direction and outcomes of others.
This awareness of what we value, and a disciplined approach to unraveling our own assumptions, will allow us to explore alternatives and strengthen our work for youth sexual health, bridging the chasm.
My charge to all of us who believe in positive youth development, who believe in youth agency and who work everyday to ensure that youth are equipped with the information and resources to make responsible decisions, is this: Let’s shed the territorialism that exists in all movements and move towards a truly collaborative approach with those we consider - and have yet to consider - our friends. Let’s fearlessly challenge our own perceptions and work with youth, parents, educators, advocates, and skeptics to build lasting, positive outcomes for youth. I’ve been privileged to build bridges with many of you who I now consider friends, and I’ve learned so much from how reflective and willing you are to evolve. I look forward to seeing the great progress that awaits!