“It’s Our Problem, We Should Be the Ones to Fix it”: Teens Use a Democratic Model to Address Teen Pregnancy

By Shonda M. Craft, Ph.D., LMFT, University of Minnesota

From commencement speeches to campaign speeches, the affirmation that today’s teens will be tomorrow’s leaders permeates our social rhetoric. In the last decade, advances in technology and social media have virtually ensured that almost any adolescent in our country can express his or her opinions in a public manner that has been unparalleled throughout history. Thousands of YouTube videos pay daily homage to eclectic offerings ranging from montages of dancing cats to poignant testimonials of bullied lesbian and gay adolescents proclaiming that life “gets better”. All over the country, teens are speaking up and speaking out about issues that impact their lives and, as a consequence, are directly contributing to the cultural conversations about these issues.

According to an April 2012 report from the CDC, “[t]he U.S. teen birth rate declined 9 percent from 2009 to 2010, reaching a historic low at 34.3 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19; the rate dropped 44 percent from 1991 through 2010.”  The report also shows that some disparities continue to exist between racial and ethnic groups, and that all but three states witnessed this declining rate. Obviously, some existing prevention models must be working, yet there is still room for significant improvement.

In March 2009, the Citizen Teen Pregnancy Prevention Project launched at South High School in Minneapolis. It was an attempt to provide “proof of concept” that a democratic model typically utilized with adults could be successful with a new constituency. The Citizen Professional model, developed by Dr. William Doherty (Professor, University of Minnesota) is a way of engaging professionals and community members to collaborate without typical hierarchical relationships to address issues traditionally defined as individual problems from a more community-focused perspective.

The “citizen teens” included female and male students who had been identified by their teachers as leaders in the school. The “citizen professionals” were representatives from University of Minnesota, school social workers, and community health advocates who served as facilitators of the process. In accordance to the model, the adults participated alongside the teens into deep conversations about how teen pregnancy impacts girls, boys, children, families, and communities. Initially, the girls group and the boys group had separate conversations. Then the groups joined and began to formulate a set of shared messages and strategies for sharing their work with others. The name of the group was dubbed SMART (Sexually Mature and Responsible Teens), which set the tone for how these citizen teens would be described by adults and peers who witnessed their action steps and heard their messages.

During “lunch table conversations” SMART shared messages such as:

  • Teen pregnancy is a problem for teens, children, families and communities.
  • Know what kind of relationship you want and deserve
  • You might think you are ready for sex, but are you ready for the consequences
  • There are other ways to show love besides sex
  • Consider abstinence as an option, and you can say “no” at any time

The project drew to a close in April 2012, and truly ended on a high note: the teens appeared on a local radio program focused on health issues, were interviewed for a story that was aired on Minnesota Public Radio, and told their stories for a forthcoming DVD being produced by the University of Minnesota that chronicles their work.

The traditional conversation about teen pregnancy is often rife with finger-pointing towards teens with low self-esteem and uncontrolled hormones, parents with poor monitoring skills, or schools who have usurped the moral duties of families to pedal condoms and eschew abstinence. Recent movies such as Juno and television shows such as Sixteen and Pregnant have popularized, normalized and even idolized teen pregnancy. But this group of teens embraced a more community-focused perspective, with messages that resonated with their peers and drew accolades from their teachers, parents, and community members.  Clearly, this project is proof that teens are ready, willing, and able to maturely discuss teen pregnancy.


 Dr. Shonda Craft is Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on addressing health disparities using community-engaged models, with a focus on sexual health. She is also licensed as a couple and family therapist.