Karyn Fulcher is a peer educator at Scarleteen.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to attend sex::tech 2011, a conference in San Francisco about the intersection of sex education and technology. Over those two days, there was a lot of discussion centered around peer education—what it is, whether it works or doesn’t work, how it should or shouldn’t be done, and the major pros and cons. And then I was handed a copy of the IYWG’s Evidence-Based Guidelines for Youth Peer Education, written to provide a framework and some basic concepts for organizations wanting to start their own peer education program.
Being a peer educator myself, albeit online at Scarleteen.com, I was asked to take a look at how realistic these guidelines are from my perspective―the perspective of a peer educator who works in an organization that’s pretty unique in a lot of ways as far as peer education goes.
To make clear how unique Scarleteen really is, think about how we work: there is no set curriculum (pretty much impossible in an online format where participants come and go as they please). We peer educators have got the chance to contribute to any part of the site, whether that be writing an article, answering one of the longer-format “sexpert” advice questions, or doing a piece for the blog. We’re flexible in how we work and do our best to make sure that all the users get exactly what they need, and we always, always put the young people we serve at the forefront. If they voice concerns or problems with the way we do things, we make changes. And we get feedback about everything, all the time; our message boards act basically as one giant ongoing evaluation form, letting us know what’s working and what isn’t for our users.
Even though Scarleteen’s format and structure are clearly different from a lot of peer education programs, it turns out that a lot of the guidelines fit what we do very well. The concept of youth-adult partnerships is key to how Scarleteen functions as a whole. Our executive director is always asking us for our input on things like new content, changes to the message boards, or who we think would be a good fit when we’re in need of new volunteers. I’ve always had the feeling that my opinions and knowledge are valued and appreciated, and that any feedback I give about any topic will be listened to and taken into consideration. (Even our new logo was chosen with input from me and the other volunteers.) I’m a peer not just in the sense of being similar in age to the people Scarleteen serves, but in the sense that I am treated as an equal to our executive director, our assistant director, and any adult doing work for the site.
The idea that youth should be involved in program planning is also important to the way Scarleteen functions. Our director is a former Montessori teacher, and the concept of teaching to what young people say they need and want is a model we all follow. There’s no set curriculum, although we do have thousands of pages of static content we can refer users to, and we do our best to get a good picture of what it is they’re looking for before referring them to that information. I don’t think I’ve ever answered a question with the mindset “this is what you should know.” Rather, I always start off by asking what a given user feels they need and how I can help them. Information doesn’t just go one way at Scarleteen: we learn as much from the people we’re educating about their lives and their needs as they learn from us about contraception and healthy relationships. I would never presume to know what one of our users is looking for without asking them.
While some of these guidelines mesh very well with the work I do as an online peer educator, some of them don’t hold up as well. Two things in particular jumped out at me: the idea that “simple and consistent messages” are the best at helping young people make long-term changes in behavior, and the recommendation that there be a “chain of command”—that peer educators report to a program coordinator who then reports to a program supervisor, and so on. (And, tied into this, the fact that the program participants themselves—the population to be served—seems to be missing in the list of stakeholders.)
First off, the simple messaging. Even though Scarleteen serves people from around the world (one of the many benefits of being an online organization), I can’t remember any instance of someone asking us to make our information simpler—not even someone whose first language isn’t English. Actually, the reverse seems to be true: often our users take offense when we ask if they need the information to be simpler. They’re tired of older people assuming that just because they’re young, they can’t handle complex ideas. Who hasn’t had the experience of hearing “you’re too young to understand” or “maybe when you’re older you’ll get it”? Speaking from experience, if it’s something we’re interested in, something that’s relevant to our lives, young people can handle all sorts of information, and the more there is available, the better.
The second thing that really struck me in these guidelines is the placement of peer educators in the hierarchy of an organization. The participation of peer educators and young people in general is critical in many programs serving youth—young people are, after all, the entire reason these programs exist in the first place. Why, then, are they so far down the totem pole? And why is there a totem pole at all? It might be obvious that Scarleteen is not big on hierarchies. Everyone involved, whether executive director or new volunteer, is important. We’re all part of what makes Scarleteen work, and while we have different roles, there isn’t one that’s seen as better than any other. Each of us—along with the young people we serve—is a stakeholder, and if I had to show the structure of Scarleteen as a hierarchy, I’d put those young people at the top.
I realize that most organizations don’t work the way Scarleteen does. Some might not think it’s possible to get youth involved in every aspect or to be ultimately accountable to the participants of their programs rather than to funders or parents or community leaders. But ultimately, I think it can be done, and it needs to be done. These guidelines are a great starting point, but they need to go further. In the end, young people are people, and we can handle a lot more than you might think. Give us the chance to prove it.