“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.

Shaping Our Future — How Can Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?

The first Morrill Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War, began far ranging changes in the landscape of higher education, previously the province of the wealthy. It democratized higher education by opening access, expanding the curriculum, and institutionalizing an ethos of public engagement.

Today, in a time of breathtaking changes the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP)  believes that we need equally fundamental change. ACP is a coalition of colleges, universities and others launched at the White House on January 10, the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act which established land grant colleges.

ACP is dedicated to the practical work of building democracy’s colleges for the 21st century throughout all of higher education.

The first large-scale ACP campaign is a national conversation using materials developed by National Issues Forums Institute, “Shaping Our Future.” Shaping Our Future will take place in communities and colleges, as citizens discuss the role of higher education in America’s future.

Early forums have shown its timeliness. New York State Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, Chair of the Legislative Commission on Science and Technology, says that the State Legislature rarely discusses the purpose of higher education. These conversations hold promise to help develop a narrative of higher education’s purpose, which Larry Pogemiller, Director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, says is urgently needed to break the partisan gridlock.

The following is excerpted from the issue guide titled Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?

The diverse system of US higher education–including public and private universities, smaller four-year independent colleges, two-year community colleges, for-profit schools, and others–already serves a number of important social purposes.  But this guide focuses on the future.  It takes up this fundamental question:  How should higher education help us create the society we want?  It offers three options to consider, each with benefits as well as drawbacks.

While it’s certainly possible for higher education to pursue multiple goals, it’s also true that colleges and universities can’t do everything.  To be effective, they need to focus their energies and set priorities.  As we envision higher education in the future, there are options and trade-offs, and it’s important to think and talk about them with our fellow citizens.  By doing so, we can begin to make tough choices about what higher education can and should be expected to do.

This issue guide presents three options for deliberation.

Option One: Focus on Staying Competitive in the Global Economy

Higher education should help ensure that our economy remains competitive in a tough global marketplace–and that means recapturing our lead in science and technology.  Countries like China are transforming their systems to educate more high-tech professionals, and we should too.  It’s our best chance to keep our economy growing.

Option Two: Work Together and Repair an Ailing Society

Many of the problems we face as a nation reflect an underlying crisis of division and mistrust.  Higher education shapes students’ views about the larger society, and it can do more to strengthen values like responsibility, integrity, and respect for others.  Students also need real-life experience in collaboration and problem solving.

Option Three: Ensure that Everyone Gets a Fair Chance

We call this the land of opportunity, but it isn’t that way for many Americans.  Because graduating from college unlocks the door to advancement, higher education and government should do much more to ensure that all Americans have an equal shot at getting a degree–without accumulating huge debts.

For the full list of Shaping Our Future materials, visit the National Issues Forums site.

Northern Arizona University Students Create American Commonwealth Partnership Organizing Team

By Sierra Jones, Student, Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University has been a highly active participant in restoring the democratic mission of higher education. Currently, there are eight Action Research Teams (ARTs) made up of undergraduate and graduate students as well as professors and community facilitators that have formed around specific issues in the community (such as weatherization, immigration, water conservation, education reform, local food systems, etc.). As we continue to evaluate our work, we often identify the need for expansion and recruitment. Although the groups are large and successful to begin with, our vision is much broader. Each student is increasingly passionate about the public work they are involved in and the immense transformations they have undergone, so we have decided to generate undergraduate house meetings to brainstorm how we can allow others to become engaged.

We have created weekly meetings that take place on Mondays under the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) Student Organizing branch that consists of undergraduate students who are interested in sharing their democratic vision with other individuals, schools and institutions. Our overall goal is to deeply embed community organizing and public work in all school settings with students of all ages. We plan to reach this goal by first broadening our support structure through recruiting more students. Three of us are giving presentations to all incoming freshman students during their orientation to NAU. We feel that moving forward the best way to establish this democratic university is to make our work more visible and encourage other students to join our leadership teams.

Student Highlight by Madison Ledgerwood, Northern Arizona University

I was not raised being told to recycle. I grew up in a conservative town where my actions and values did not seem to coincide and so it’s no surprise that I came to college a confused individual. I did not know who I was, what I believed, or what I should major in. Like most freshman, I knew I was meant to do something I just had no idea what that really meant. A few days before classes started, I joined a freshman seminar called “Democracy Social Justice and The Environment” taught by Rom Coles because the title sounded interesting. I never knew this class and the team I was part of would shape my entire experience at NAU and completely transform my life. This same year, I also became involved with the Weatherization and Community Building Action Team (WACBAT), a student-led group that focuses on community engagement to bring about culture change, policy change, and community building around saving energy, money, and jump-starting a greener economy based on local renewable energy.

My mind raced as people talked and my mouth wouldn’t stop moving as we had discussions. Topics about people, the earth and political action became so real to me. The class and group were helping me make the connection between ethics, culture, community, the earth, politics and action. I was finally able to put my passion for people, equality and justice into words. And I began to understand things I never had before. Looking back I am at a loss for words at how truly wonderful, overwhelmingly, inconceivably, phenomenal being involved with WACABT has been for me. Being able to go from feeling powerless and uninspired, to being a leader with a voice and the ability to make change has transformed my character.

WACBAT has improved my confidence to speak publicly and to meet with powerful individuals. It has also shown me what works and what does not work when trying to engage and motivate others. WACBAT is not only a support system that pushes me to strive forward it allows me to have hands on experience organizing, motivating, planning and problem solving. More importantly, WACBAT has helped me discover my passions allowing me to pursue what I loved.

Click here for more stories about the work of the Student Organizing Group.

Not In It to Win It, or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Problem

By Rebecca Katz, Recent Graduate, Western Kentucky University

Polarization is rampant in America. The news anchors and political pundits demonstrate this state of affairs every day, bringing us stories of elected leaders refusing to budge on ideas, and demonizing the other side’s solutions. Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort even looks at how Americans are self-segregating themselves into neighborhoods where many people think and act alike. It is easy to ignore other perspectives in these black and white homogenous bubbles. Have we forgotten the gray area? Does the other side have to be wrong?  In a time of late capitalism, Americans understand most things as zero-sum games and find it difficult to see anything else.  But if we continue relating to each other in black and white terms, we will push each other farther away.

Western Kentucky University is a relatively typical state school. However, WKU features a small gem among orthodox academia: the Institute for Citizenship & Social Responsibility (ICSR). The ICSR is a free space for civic engagement that promotes democracy and social change for the common good.  It is also where I have shaped my worldview and have learned how to be a problem solver.

One morning I arrived at the ICSR to see sullen student faces. “We have to leave. They’re kicking us out,” my friend said.

Moments before, the ICSR was informed that it would be displaced so that another department could take over its space. This department’s home was being renovated, so it wanted the ICSR’s space as its temporary home. However, the ICSR was not included in the decision-making process. I was devastated. This place inspired my entire academic career and, as a senior, was preparing me for my future. I felt like the university was about to take everything I worked for away from me.

It was clear that the leaders of the university could not solve this problem, so we students decided to solve it ourselves by organizing to salvage ICSR’s space and legacy. While we were concerned about the prospect of losing our space, we were excited for the opportunity to put to practice the very organizing skills we had learned in the ICSR.

After conducting many one-on-ones with students on both sides who would be affected by the move, the group concluded that it was definitely possible for both departments to share the ICSR space. We could share broaden our outreach, and collaborate on initiatives that no one had considered before. It would be innovative and unprecedented. We decided to ask the administration to create a student task force to determine how both departments could co-exist in the space.

In the end, we did “win.” The ICSR was allowed to retain its home. But this conflict was not about winning or losing. We were handed a crisis, but there was an opportunity to create something innovative from that situation. The ICSR shows us how to develop creative and sustainable solutions for the common good. This was a very formative experience for me. It was my first real opportunity to sincerely practice the organizing skills I had been refining for years.

Click here for more stories about the work of the Student Organizing Group.