Statistically, a 16-year-old girl in Mississippi has a lot going against her. Her school will probably never provide much sexual education. If it does, the lesson plan consists of antigay, abstinence-only views, even though she and her friends have probably already had sex; it’s likely that she or one of her friends is pregnant or will become pregnant before donning a cap and gown; and because one third of the kids in her group of friends didn’t use a condom the last time they had sex, one of them probably has a sexually transmitted infection such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, or HIV.
On top of all that, this Mississippi girl also faces a high likelihood of illiteracy, and the quality of education she receives ranks among the lowest in the nation. Many of these statistics apply to young people in the surrounding states, too. Adolescents living below the Mason-Dixon Line are subject to conservative attitudes that persist when it comes to educating children and teenagers about HIV, reproduction, and safe sex.
A trip halfway up the Appalachian Mountains to the nation’s capital shows many of the same statistics. In fact, the annual rate of AIDS diagnoses in the District of Columbia—which is technically located in the American South—is astronomically higher than the rate in almost every other city in the nation, and people ages 13-25 are hit particularly hard. But one major difference between D.C. teenagers and their peers in Mississippi or Arkansas is a significant community ally, Metro Teen AIDS.
The organization, founded nearly 25 years ago, has seen many changes over the years, but the sole focus on youth has remained constant. Metro Teen AIDS executive director Adam Tenner spent the first half of his tenure at the organization turning things around. In 2001, Metro Teen AIDS was $150,000 in debt, and it had maxed out its $50,000 line of credit. Once Tenner led the organization out of the hole, big changes came. The secret has been allowing its young clientele to guide the direction of the organization.
“Teenagers can recognize when something is coming from an adult,” Tenner says. That’s why there are upwards of 40 paid young people on staff. “We know they’re the best messengers, so we arm them with the right information.”
Tenner says Metro Teen AIDS has found success by letting its army of young people lead the efforts to reach thousands of their peers each year. One of its biggest successes, lobbying for the passage of D.C.’s in-school sexual education policy in 2007, has led to the group being the main provider of sex ed in the district’s schools. That means Metro Teen AIDS directly reaches 25,000 young people every year, a rarity in a nation where, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states require schools to educate students on HIV, but only 18 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to offer scientific, age-appropriate sexual education, which includes information on HIV.