Life Outside the Bubble
Yohonna hakeem, MPH | BY-LA Program Coordinator
During my time as a program coordinator at IWES, I have learned a lot of valuable lessons. Some about how to unpack heavy questions students may have, others about how to be comfortable teaching such a “taboo” subject as sex ed, but perhaps the most revealing lesson I’ve learned is that in order to succeed as a health educator you must get out of the public health bubble.
The public health bubble is something I’ve grown familiar with during both my undergraduate and postgraduate experiences. In the bubble, everyone has the same education as you, is passionate about the same causes as you, and is equipped with knowledge to make informed choices regarding sexual health. This bubble can be comforting; I mean who doesn't enjoy being around like-minded individuals? Catching up on the latest socio-political issues that impact our field and carrying on with never ending banter was a lifestyle that spilled over into almost all realms of my life. At school I would take classes, digest the information with my peers, and apply it. I maintained a similar routine in my professional experiences as well, and would have continued this mundane cycle if the training for my new position at IWES did not burst my bubble.
On my first day at IWES I was told that I would be completing Foundations training. Foundations training teaches the basic skills necessary to succeed in health education. Topics include classroom management, professionalism, and being open-minded to other viewpoints. The most interesting activity that I participated in for the training was called values clarification. In this activity we were given a list of statements and instructed to circle whether we strongly disagree, disagree, agree or strongly agree with them. The activity included controversial statements such as “There should be no age requirement in order to purchase the Plan B contraceptive pill.” After submitting our responses, the questionnaire was collected and redistributed to another person, one whose values most likely were not identical to our own. The facilitator would read each statement aloud and direct us to stand in the corner with the corresponding response. Within the corner we shared why someone might share that view even though we ourselves did not share it. This activity was the first step in learning how to not judge others’ values despite having a cultural and educational background that may contract them.
When I began to implement our comprehensive sexual health education curriculum Making Proud Choices (MPC) in local schools it became apparent to me how valuable the values clarification training was. I oftentimes would hear students whose opinions were based on misinformation, social norms, and cultural assumptions. On one occasion while implementing the STI portion of MPC, I informed the students about the HPV vaccine and how it could prevent strains of HPV that can cause genital warts and different types of cancers. One student began to express that they heard about vaccines causing autism and that it doesn't really work. Initially I was standing in the public health bubble and was so frustrated. I thought to myself that the student was belittling everything I just said and spreading more misinformation to his peers. Within the bubble it is easy to have a narrow perspective strictly based on evidence based research and educational experiences. While this may be beneficial for giving information, it does not help to build rapport with students, validate their feelings, or debunk misconceptions that they’ve maintained as truth their entire life.
Upon closer reflection I realized that this student was trying to be heard and seen. The mistrust of the medical community, specifically among African Americans, has been well documented following the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. My role as a health educator implementing a trauma-informed program is to acknowledge the experiences of the youth and provide information, not to seek to change their values or make them share mine. The public health bubble can be a comfortable place to stand in, but not a place of growth. True growth comes from seeing the perspectives and reasoning of others, and being able to provide our youth with support regardless. It is easy to become one-dimensional and insensitive of the experiences of others, but the beauty of working in such a dynamic field is that there are always opportunities to learn something new and to evolve into a more understanding person each day.