Welcome to the Trenches

18 Feb

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Fresh from the classrooms of Butler University, I moved to DC this fall to participate in Public Allies. I was partnered with Metro Teen AIDS, where my job involves facilitating Spanish-language comprehensive sexual education workshops in DC Public Schools. On my first day, a school social worker pulled me aside and declared, “Welcome to the trenches of reproductive health. When you enter that classroom, you’re truly a foot soldier, so prepare to get your feet dirty. Are you sure you can handle these students?” doubt inscribed into the lines on her face as she sized up my small frame and bright, eager eyes.

At the school of the skeptical social worker, I led a game called “myths and facts” with my class of 30 Latino students. One of the most common myths the students believed was that, if a woman has an irregular cycle, she is definitely pregnant. I asked them to recall our previous lessons and to brainstorm other reasons why a person might skip her period. One young female raised her hand and responded, “Ooh I remember! When we were learning about STIs, you told us that it can be a symptom of Chlamydia and Gonorrhea!” Immediately upon hearing this fact, a 19-year-old male student in the front row began shaking and shot his hand into the air. “Ms. Angela, Ms. Angela!” he exclaimed, “I haven’t gotten my period yet! Does that mean I have Chlamydia?” Several students laughed, others looked equally concerned. My poker face intact, I calmly explained the basic concept of menstruation and its link to reproduction. He seemed reassured, but my conception of common knowledge was shattered.

My mission for my Public Allies’ year is to empower DC youth by giving them the information they need to make responsible life choices when it comes to their health. Every day, this task is challenged by the complex realities of our nation’s capitol. My students face a multitude of barriers- from a lack of resources to stressful home lives to language differences- in their quest to climb out of the trenches and to reach adulthood safely. However, these obstacles only solidify the importance of organizations like Public Allies and Metro Teen AIDS. For students in DC, the partnership between PA and MTA embodies the audacious belief that youth from all backgrounds have the agency to live productive and healthy lives.

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As an International Studies major, I was accustomed to discussing critical issues. I could rattle off alarming statistics, such as that “three in ten teen girls in the US will get pregnant at least once before age 20” (www.itsyoursexlife.org). MTA has given me the opportunity to work with the youth behind these statistics and to put my critical thinking abilities into practice. For young professionals, the PA year represents an opportunity to learn about vital topics through an immersive experience. When combined, my undergraduate degree and my PA experience have endowed me with the skills required to succeed in today’s complex society. After all, the real world is much messier than any textbook (or blog post) could convey.

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~ Angela Miller

Photos from top:

Despite snow flurries, Jamal, Angela, and Mike give condoms in the Eastern Market neighborhood of DC.

Angela, Mike, Ona, Charlie, Januari, and Zoe hand out condoms outside the Anacostia Metro Station.

MTA’s testing van enables youth to get tested anywhere in the city.

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