How HIV-Positive Women Drove a Grassroots Campaign for NYC's Sex-Ed Mandate
Earlier this week, New York City announced that all public middle and high schools must provide a semester of sex education in 6th or 7th grade, and again in 9th or 10th grade. This is a tremendous achievement for the many individuals and agencies who have worked toward this goal for many years. The Sex Education Alliance of New York City (SEANYC), a broad-based coalition, has provided a large tent under which advocates gathered with the shared mission of improving comprehensive sexuality and health education in the NYC public schools. Participating agencies each bring something different to the table. HIV Law Project, where I work, is an active SEANYC member.
In 2006 HIV Law Project invited a group of women living with HIV and AIDS to develop an advocacy campaign around a yet-to-be-determined issue. They considered various issues of importance to them, and sex education was at the top of the list. They knew that HIV continued to spread unabated through their communities, and they saw that their children and their neighbors' children were not getting the information they needed to stay safe. Many of the women had already stepped into this breach themselves: they gave condoms to the youth in their apartment buildings, they hosted impromptu living room chats for their teenagers’ friends about safe sex, and they routinely dispelled myths about HIV transmission.
Resolved to make a difference, they formed the Steering Committee of HIV Law Project’s Center for Women and HIV Advocacy, and together decided to commit themselves in a more deliberate way to the fight for comprehensive sex education. For one year this dedicated band of women met weekly at our offices with an organizer from CHAMP, the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, who guided them through the process of building an advocacy campaign, and taught them essential advocacy skills. After this first year, the group continued meeting weekly, and later bi-weekly for a total of four and a half years. Over the years they stood on street corners and talked to their neighbors; they gathered signatures and sent postcards and letters to City, State and federal leaders; they made phone calls, and visited elected officials and local PTAs sharing their message. Their resolve to make a difference was truly inspiring.
This week’s news, therefore, is a major victory for these women, and for the numerous individuals and organizations around New York City who have worked for years to ensure that comprehensive sex education is taught in our schools. Of course questions remain: What sorts of enforcement mechanisms will be put in place to ensure compliance with the mandate, and how will the city monitor the content of the lessons taught to ensure that they are accurate, age-appropriate, and unbiased? Advocates still have an important role in ensuring that the City takes the right and necessary steps to answer these questions satisfactorily. But let’s for a moment stop and celebrate this success, savoring the fact that the voices of the grassroots can and do ultimately make a difference.