My activism was forged in an adolescence that was a Mardi Gras parade of miseries. I was a closeted gay kid in the deeply conservative City of New Orleans — famous for partying, not for enlightenment. My mother was (is) bipolar and refused to take meds. Every day was a rollercoaster ride of wondering what would set her off. More often than not she came home eager to scream at me for anything she could drum up, like washing the dishes with cold water or not making her bed.
Starting high school was terrifying and overwhelming, and academic success was the very last thing I dedicated resource to achieving. Every day I made it to school on time was a success. Most of my energy went into skirting humiliation. A football player caught wind of my effeminacy early that first semester, looked at his gargantuan friend and said loudly, “I fucking hate fags.”
We were desperately poor, and what little money I did get my hands on went to cigarettes. I borrowed a dollar every day to buy lunch, which I shared with my Goth friend, Gara, who would sometimes help to raise the money we needed. I wore the same jeans every day, and while I didn’t notice the smell, others did and they made every effort to ridicule me for it.
My first 10th grade report card was riddled with F's and D's, and my teachers' disdain for me was palpable, as they presumed I just didn’t care, or even try to succeed. I failed 10th grade, and knew that I would not get through high school if I had to take Algebra 2 or Chemistry, so I changed my high school plan from College Prep to Humanities so that I could phone it in with Business Math and Woodworking. One time a teacher asked me how things were at home. I made the mistake of confiding in her, and after calling my mother and suffering her jugular wrath that teacher never looked me in the eye again.
My “friends” in school were the punk rock kids and hippies. Their worldviews diverged wildly, but the social order of high school allied these two similar-enough groups. Their craggy clothes and patchouli cloud provided me with a social hiding place from the student council preppies and scary sports-playing meatheads. I skipped school a lot with my heroin-addicted friend Sarah to shop at Thrift City or to just hang out in the French Quarter, smoke weed and shoplift at the French Market.
I was always very good at talking so I got a job at a phone sales company that sold fire extinguishers, all-purpose cleansers and American flags – ostensibly for “Veterans of Foreign Wars” but actually for the owner’s cocaine habit. I worked at a couple of other telemarketing places until I got a real job at Taco Bell so I could help my mom pay rent and buy more cigarettes. My senior year weekends were spent working the drive-through and serving the same drunken middle-class kids that called me a stinky hippie. As I prepared to (barely) graduate, I was confused about how the whole college thing worked. Many of my classmates were studying for the SATs and worrying about what schools would accept them. Since it was standard I took the local tests, the ACTs, but went to sleep on my desk during the math portion. My mother finally noticed that I didn’t understand that college would require money and one day simply said, “you know you aren’t going to college right?”
You can’t teach someone to swim while they’re drowning.
I heard a woman say that at an HIV Prevention workers conference in ’96. It hit me square in the face and I started to cry. I always felt so much shame about my teen years. But the choices I made were largely defined by the choices I had. I chose to survive the best way I could, that is, the way that was best for me. I was drowning, and I had only enough energy to stay afloat. It made me realize that there was a staggering number of needs to be met before I could even imagine succeeding in the way high school glibly encourages. Those canned high school platitudes only alienated me further; You Can Do Anything with Math! Really? Will math give me a dollar for lunch?
I wish I had been one of those kids who found solace in math, but I think those folks are few and far between. With the exception of a few savants most people need to feel safe, fed, loved and supported to designate bandwidth for scholastics. Otherwise, young people have to allocate resources to survival, struggling for dignity and managing a cacophony of thoughts and feelings. Basic needs must be met in order to move beyond basic functioning. Far too many low income and struggling kids don’t see their way above the bottom two rungs of Maslow’s pyramid (physiological needs and safety). To even want to move closer to self-actualization is a privilege many young people don’t enjoy.
My adolescent years were characterized by depression, self-loathing and poverty. My ability to focus on schoolwork or any other adult-preparatory activities was minimal at best. Most of my energy went into surviving my home life until I could turn 18 so I could move out and get a job that would allow me to afford my own apartment. Pursuits such as college, travel, a relationship and fulfillment were things I simply didn’t consider to be pertinent. And the shame I experienced and internalized about this fact only lessened my inclination to succeed.
As a gay man that grew up in the eighties, the fear of AIDS was another obstacle to growth as I went through puberty, making sex yet another impracticable pursuit. I thought I gave myself HIV from masturbating in my very early teens and for a year was convinced I was dying. When I learned more about how the disease worked, I started paying attention to prevention marketing, But the messages I received about HIV were confusing and terrifying. “Use a condom every time”; ”Protect Yourself and Others”; “AIDS: Get the Facts People are Dying to Know.” Not only did no one ever explain to me how to use a condom, but the idea of making psychic space for managing yet another terrifying aspect of adolescence was just insulting. I couldn’t think about avoiding HIV and STDs because I was too busy surviving; too busy drowning to learn how to safely plunge into the world of sexuality.
I was lucky enough to get out of New Orleans and made my way by bussing and finally waiting tables. My fear of HIV persisted, and after experiencing my first hookup in a parking lot I was once again convinced I was dying. A year went by and I finally got an HIV test. The two-week waiting period was akin to torture. When I was told I was negative I decided to learn more about how to protect myself by going to a place where I knew I would be safe as a gay man — Planned Parenthood. While a seemingly odd fit, this relationship with an agency dedicated to helping marginalized people began a phase of recovery for which I am still so eternally grateful. I began doing volunteer work for Planned Parenthood’s Education Department educating young people through theater, a passion I had never before had an opportunity to exercise. That work landed me a job homeless and runaway kids how to clean needles and use condoms. I started doing HIV prevention work for a living about a year later at AIDS Services of Austin as the Gay Community Educator. I was only 22, with no college degree and they were paying me a salary I did not feel I deserved — $19 thousand a year. But I was desperate to succeed and to find dignity in the work that had always vexed and panicked me. And I did indeed succeed, but I only succeeded because I was given an opportunity to do so. For the first time my youth and sexuality worked in my favor. Given how many young gay men were contracting the virus, the hiring committee felt I possessed valuable insight into a community being decimated by AIDS. And so they gave me a chance. And it is only for this reason that today I have a college degree, run a successful public health consultancy, produce social-marketing films, and do stand up comedy in New York City. I was given an opportunity to succeed, not just warned that I needed to.
I went on to do HIV/STI and unintended pregnancy prevention for many years. I railed against messaging that reminded me so much of those high school clichés; half baked attempts to layer unrealistic expectations over people’s unmet needs. I knew that for people to really consider their health and well-being they needed several other foundational pieces first. Homophobia was more than just an ignominy that young people endured; it was also a force that occluded sexual minorities’ ability to want to protect themselves. Asking someone to consider their future was a lofty goal for someone who wasn’t certain they would have one. Prevention messaging needed to inspire people to believe they could survive the epidemic, not just constantly remind them that they could die.
My work exposed me to many group-level interventions designed to change attitudes and behaviors in adolescents. Many of them touted the same banalities as my high school and those early prevention strategies, encouraging young people to “take responsibility” and “be proud”, as if words could alchemically alter the outlook of a young person struggling to survive.
The kids I work with have it far worse than I did. Many of them experience abuse, neglect, racism, fear of the police, addiction, sexual assault and more by the time they enter high school. Without proper acknowledgment of these realities educators and prevention specialists are relegated to the same compartment as teachers: people who hurl directives and fear-based admonitions in order to motivate “healthy” behavior.
In 2010 I decided to created my own group-level behavior-change program for “at risk” teens called MyMediaLife. The program takes adolescents through the process of producing a digital film that speaks to issues most present in their lives. I have since implemented it in Planned Parenthood education departments around the country, transforming their old outreach mechanisms into new and social media strategies that leverage digital content. I came full circle.
When creating MyMediaLife I thought about what helped me not only to survive but triumph – opportunities. The strengths-based program creates multiple opportunities for teens to succeed. They are entrusted with the conceptualization, preparation and production of a short film that speaks to their specific struggles. As such, there are many roles a teen can carry out such as stylist, casting director, writer, set designer, music specialist, etc. This ensures everyone in the program is given an opportunity to do something that contributes to the process. We share the budget with the youth, give them the parameters they need to work within, and guide them as they figure out how to work together to produce the film. By the end of the process the youth have had multiple opportunities to showcase their talents, receive positive reinforcement, and take pride and ownership of their contributions. The experience, not a bunch of words, stimulates inspiration in the youth and builds their sense of self-efficacy.
The teens I’ve worked with around the country have produced campaigns that address mental health, relationship abuse, digital disasters, racism, homophobia, and a host of public health related issues such as teen pregnancy and STI/HIV prevention. They learn how to use emotions that will produce the desired result in viewers. As a natural antidote to shame, humor is often extremely effective at allowing young people to more fully consider an issue without the gravity of fear or judgment to weigh them down. Accordingly, many of the films are funny examinations of teens’ foibles as told by other teens, making such a depiction more palatable and respectful.
In the process of creating a film about a particular behavior they would like to see their peers adopt or modify, they adopt or modify their own. The process of unpacking an issue and developing a media message to help fix it results in greater behavior change simply because it was their ideas and insights that produced it. People are more inclined to follow a behavioral prescription when they develop it on their own.
The campaigns are beautifully produced, compelling stories that take the form of music videos, narratives, parodies and mini-documentaries. They inspire and highlight young people’s successes, but they also depict the reality of young people’s experiences. This more than anything engages youth who are struggling to cope by making viewers feel less alone. But they also demonstrate in a nonjudgmental way that obstacles can be overcome, honor the challenges that many marginalized people struggle to traverse and offer solutions that are achievable and genuine. The youth-produced campaigns motivate young people to consider their options, and their futures, because they feel understood, which in turn allows them to re-route energy away from surviving and towards making constructive change.
I work with teens so that they might have an opportunity to shine and experience pride. I work with teens because I want them to have a better experience than I did. I work with teens because they are at a pivotal fork in the road of life and a single opportunity can make an enormous difference. But most of all I work with teens because it has given me power over my own miserable adolescence by celebrating the accomplishments of those teens that were just like me.
Check out Shults' company: Connected Health Solutions,
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