Nineteen-year-old Kurtis started working at Planned Parenthood NYC (PPNYC) three years ago because a friend said he could make some extra money as one of the organization's youth health promoters. "First of all, he lied to me because he made it seem like all you had to do was walk around and give out condoms," Kurtis tells Broadly. But the job quickly became more than the means to a paycheck, even if the work was more than he signed up for. "I ended up learning a lot and feeling like I had some type of purpose other than just going to school," Kurtis recalls. "I felt like I was helping people."
Youth health promoters at PPNYC are a grant-funded group of highly trained peer educators from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. Their work consists of community outreach, leading interactive workshops, and creating media with the goal of informing those aged 11-21 about safe sex and how to access reproductive healthcare. Broadly sat down with six of PPNYC's seven youth health promoters to see what it's like to be a teen teaching other teens sex-ed today.
For half of the peer educators, training for this job was the very first time they'd received any form of sex ed whatsoever. The other three recall a week in their respective health classes at school that could be considered sex ed—two of them say it was called Aids Week. "It wasn't even about sex," says 17-year-old Mariama. "It was all about STIs."
"Mostly they just talked about HIV," Kurtis agrees.
The group believes that their education approach—which avoids lecturing—works to keep young people engaged. "It's very interactive," says Kurtis. "Once we start doing activities they get interested, and then by the end they usually end up liking us a lot, especially me and Sheldon." After Sheldon and Kurtis fist-bump, the group explains how their age and chemistry are an advantage when it comes to getting information across to other young people. "You see someone that you could potentially relate to, someone that has the same questions as you, the same experiences—-it's easier for you to ask them certain questions and tell them things," explains Sheldon.
I think working here made a really big impact on my friends and their sexual health.
Though two of PPNYC's newest youth health promoters have yet to complete their first month, the teen educators are clearly a tightknit group of friends. In between roasting each other, they laugh as they reminisce about recording "Hotline Bling - PPNYC Style" last year, a video urging teens to text Planned Parenthood for answers to their reproductive health questions in which 19-year-old Alex mimics Drake, and "PPNYC Cribs" hosted by Sheldon earlier this year.
As teen reproductive health advocates, the group says it's often disheartening to see just how little people know about sex—especially when workshop attendees are older than the peer educators themselves. Yet, the group exhibits a mature wisdom when reflecting on why people are so misinformed about sex.
"When I see how much other people don't know, I think about how much I've learned coming here and how if I didn't come here I'd probably not know anything as well," says Mariama. "It's not their fault," adds Sheldon. "It's the public school system or what some people expose their children to." Kurtis believes that adolescents often turn to porn as their only reference for how to approach sexual practices.
The group says that working at Planned Parenthood has proven immensely rewarding for themselves and those around them. "My friends come to me for information now," says Mariama. "I think working here made a really big impact on my friends and their sexual health." Sheldon and Kurtis say becoming youth health educators has completely changed the way they relate to women. "I'm very sensitive to sexism now," says Kurtis. "I swear to god, like I'll be watching TV and I'll be like wow look at these underlying sexist messages in normal TV shows. You don't think about it until you do something like this or someone teaches you about it."