CHATHAM — Chatham teen Heaven Johnson, 16, says the more her peers know about sex, the better they can protect themselves from diseases and teen pregnancy.
Last summer, Heaven joined the nonprofit youth advocacy organization Mikva Challenge’s Teen Health Council — something she said she wanted to do after watching friends face setbacks when they didn't have enough information about sex.
“There were two young ladies — one who I went to elementary school with, and one I met in high school — and they became pregnant,” she said. “I just felt that it took a toll on their education.”
The Teen Health Council, which has been around about five years, is just one of five teen councils established by the Mikva Challenge, a group promoting youth civic engagement, said Steven Rosado, the council's director.
Along with 25 students from different schools and neighborhoods, Heaven conducted research about sex ed for the council. Students looked at 2013-2014 data from the Chicago Department of Public Health.
“What we did was extensive research on different statistics, such as STI rates, teen pregnancy, and so on,” she said.
From surveys, Heaven said the council learned that students wanted more resources and access to contraceptives.
She and her peers created a social media campaign called "Chicago Wears Condoms," Rosado said. They promoted the hashtag #AwkwardCondom, using stories and pop culture references to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS and high sexually transmitted infection rates in Chicago.
With the help of a Milwaukee-based marketing agency, the students launched the ad campaign to promote safe sex on World AIDS Day in December. The campaign included posters, condom dispenser ads and rebranding the condom itself.
Heaven, who will begin her senior year in the fall at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said she wanted to find ways to educate not only her peers, but her community in Chatham.
“We want to make sure teens are aware and understand that there are outlets that they can go to,” Heaven said.
“I know that when we did research, there was an increased rate in STIs,” she said. “I hope that what I’m doing, what my council is doing, will motivate people to learn what they need to learn about their health, and other issues, so that we can see a decrease in these STIs and teen pregnancies, and just kind of get the ball rolling in a more positive direction.”
She wants to see the campaign on billboards, at bus stops and in schools throughout the city, a goal the council is working toward, Rosado confirmed.
Heaven was selected after Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer reached out to Mikva Challenge seeking a student speaker earlier this month.
"I recommended Heaven," Rosado said. "I thought she was a great fit because she's really passionate about the work she does and she's also a great public speaker."
Off the Sidelines Chicago, a nonprofit launched June 5 by Gainer, is the first chapter of the national campaign that U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) created. The organization connects women of all ages in Chicago to local organizations that focus on civic and humanitarian issues.
“[Women] have to be organized, we have to be present, we have to communicate with elected officials, with the media, with each other to say what’s important,” Gainer said, “Otherwise, the decisions will be made without our input, and that has been happening for too long.”
Women can sign up online at otschicago.org to receive a themed “issue activation kit” each month. This month's theme is women’s empowerment, and July will focus on paid leave. Off the Sidelines Chicago will function as an information hub for women who want to volunteer, meet likeminded women and attend events surrounding a particular issue.
Gainer said that after having many conversations with women, it became clear that more wanted to get involved and step into leadership roles, but there was no comprehensive access point to advocacy organizations. That's where Off the Sidelines is supposed to come in.
“It eliminates all of the barriers that can get in people’s way,” said Gainer. “It gives you ways to connect to other people who are also interested in that issue. I think that connecting with others is the part that’s really powerful.”
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