This is a story about how an unlikely group of people — students and teachers, health professionals and community organizers — worked together to identify a problem, compile data, navigate multiple bureaucracies and create a collaborative solution…  and then get it funded through a large federal grant.

And yes, it’s also a story about sex.

Let’s begin with Ervin Lopez. In 2011 he was an 18-year-old graduate of Encinal High School in Alameda who’d begun working on social justice initiatives at Forward Together, an Oakland-based social change organization for youth. Looking over statistics for sexually transmitted diseases in Oakland, he noticed something startling: Oakland’s rate of teen gonorrhea and chlamydia was twice as high as the overall Alameda County rate. Possibly related: many of the kids Ervin spoke to had never had sex-education classes in Oakland schools. Ervin and 19 of his peers at Forward Together wanted to find out more.

A few years before that, Julia Feldman, who taught English in West Contra Costa County, had a couple of unsettling experiences at her school. She was “alarmed and rattled” when her students admitted they didn’t know whether babies came from a woman’s stomach or a uterus.

Then Julia nearly lost her job after she offered her classes the opportunity to read poetry written by people with HIV/AIDS on World AIDS Day. Administrators told her the lessons came too close to sex education. Rather than give up, Julia decided to return to school herself. She’s now a credentialed health science specialist with Oakland Unified School District’s Health and Wellness Department.

What do Ervin and Julia have in common? Working in partnership with many other dedicated people in a cluster of Oakland organizations, they have laid the groundwork for comprehensive sex education for 9,000 students in 12 Oakland public high schools — to be funded by an unprecedented five-year, $450,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control.

Last week, Ervin, Julia, the organizations they represent, and collaborators at two other organizations — Health Initiatives for Youth and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights — were honored at a Berkeley City Club lunch hosted by LeaderSpring, an unusual Oakland organization committed to developing a new kind of leader. “Leadership 2.0,” as defined by LeaderSpring Executive Director Cynthia Chavez, involves seeking unlikely allies, creating common interests and encouraging dissenting voices. The work done by Ervin, Julia, and their partners is a shining example of LeaderSpring’s mission.

To understand how significant the group’s accomplishment is, you first have to know that, unlike most states, California has no health-education requirement for high school. The Oakland schools’ approach to sex education was far from comprehensive. Some classes focused solely on HIV prevention, for example. Others focused on pregnancy prevention. Culturally relevant issues, including LGBTQ and other gender-variant issues, went unaddressed.

So Ervin Lopez had his work cut out for him. Partnering with Health Initiatives for Youth, his team prepared and distributed a survey to a wide range of Oakland’s high school students. Sixty percent of respondents reported no access to sex education. Many students said they’d like to learn about body image, decision-making, gender rights and healthy relationships.

Ervin and his team presented their findings to the Oakland School Board. “I was a little bit intimidated,” recalls Ervin, “but we told them exactly how we felt, and they listened.”

By now, former teacher Julia Feldman had been brought into the picture. “The student pressure helped communicate the need for sex education to the school board,” she says. But, she adds, it was the comprehensive data that distinguished OUSD’s grant proposal to the Centers for Disease Control and led to the game-changing grant.

What followed was a series of focus groups with high schoolers. What was relevant to them? What did they want to learn more about?

As the school district explored existing curriculum, it found nothing that met Oakland’s needs. In the end, OUSD was given permission to create its own curriculum, a rare occurrence. “We became known as ‘the overachievers’,” Julia recalls.

The result: complementary curriculum to be rolled out concurrently in English and Science classes, 10 lessons over 10 hours, to include discussions of healthy relationships, gender, and accessing resources.  A pilot program is now in place, with training planned for January and February, culminating in a Sex Education Week, March 9th through 13th.

After his internship ended, Ervin was hired by­­­­ Forward Together as a young men’s organizer, helping to guide young men of color toward responsible, productive lives. He’s attending community-college classes and hopes to transfer to Cal, where he’d like to study music performance, producing or therapy.

The collaborative sex ed campaign was “super fulfilling,” he says. “From the start, I knew that we had the power to make change happen.” And, he adds, “this work is fun.”


Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
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