BWWLA: Centering Reproductive Justice in Sex Ed
By Planned Parenthood, Sharne @ Planned Parenthood, Vanessa LeMaistre | March 21, 2022, 2:25 p.m.
Category: Sex Education
Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy is a sex education program spearheaded by the Black-led Reproductive Justice organization, Black Women for Wellness Los Angeles (BWWLA). The creative, evidence-based, and culturally relevant approach to sex ed is especially designed for Black women and girls with a Reproductive Justice framework to educate, advocate for, and direct resources toward programs that support the health and wellness of Black women and girls in California and beyond.
Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy serves Black youth in and around L.A. But its strong platforms also reach young people nationwide — with education and information on STIs, pregnancy, contraception, domestic and interpersonal violence, and more.
In this interview, Planned Parenthood speaks with Vanessa LeMaistre about the importance of community-driven sex ed based on the Reproductive Justice framework and BWWLA's vision for sex ed for Black youth.
Tell us about yourself and your role at Black Women for Wellness Los Angeles. What do you find most rewarding about BWWLA and about your work?
I serve as BWWLA's program coordinator for Sisters in Control: Reproductive Justice and Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy. I am passionate about all things related to systemic equity, human rights, and racial justice. Having received my M.A. in Resilient Leadership — a focus in sustainability and social justice, I became passionate about advocacy and speaking up when I can about topics that affect Black women in a disproportionate way. I am also a healer, so working in a health and wellness organization such as Black Women for Wellness is very fitting for me. We focus on the education and advocacy for bodily autonomy, healthy sexual education —including all that is a part of this broad spectrum — and the well-being of Black girls and women from a Reproductive Justice framework.
What I personally find the most rewarding about BWWLA and the work that I do is being able to participate in the fight for freedom over women’s rights, and having the ability to use my voice to educate and empower the youth to educate on these topics as well. It is a joy to teach sex ed from the perspective of what youth are looking to learn — such as gender identity/ intersectionality, abortion access, and body positivity. I enjoy empowering youth by also teaching them leadership skills and the importance of the differences they can make within their social circles. I enjoy being able to speak at impactful functions such as World AIDS Day events and at Roe v. Wade national events. We get invited to share our voices at many places such as the local Women’s March, Spring into Love, and our annual Reproductive Justice Conference, because this work for reproductive rights never ends. I enjoy having the opportunity to contribute to this policy work with SERT and be a part of other Reproductive Justice coalitions at a time like right now. I also find it rewarding that our organization sponsored and helped pass S.B. 65, which focuses on the health and well-being of Black maternal and infant health care.
Why is the Reproductive Justice movement important in this work?
It’s important because Reproductive Justice has a social justice lens that helps address socioeconomics, anti-racism, and the opportunity to select our access to health equity services.
The Reproductive Justice framework is important because since the beginning of slavery, Black women’s wombs have been regulated and coerced within the U.S. All women, including Black women, should have a right to have choice over their bodies, and at BWWLA, we advocate for abortion justice and the right to bodily autonomy .
We see the Reproductive Justice movement as a way to, hopefully, secure a future for equitable abortion access, and for equity and dignity for Black women. Reproductive Justice is important because it opens the door for intersectionality. For Black people it’s more about access to the care, “how am I going to get the care?” rather than just focusing on the care itself.
Can you describe the importance of sex education for young Black people, and how Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy promotes sexual health and wellness?
The importance of sex education for young Black people is crucial given the rise of STIs and HIV among Black people — at disproportionately higher rates than other races. Black young lives matter and so does their health and wellness. Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy provides prevention and intervention resources for youth and young adults (ages 12-30), particularly Black girls and young women who are in foster care systems, and/or at high risk for sexually transmitted infections.
Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy promotes and facilitates comprehensive, healthy sex ed to Black people on related topics, including consent, boundaries, body positivity, healthy relationships, and STI awareness. The program helps Black youth think critically about influences on their reproductive life futures, including — though not limited to — media, religion, culture, peers, and parents. We do this by supporting informed decisions, using clarity, analysis, and negotiation — all based on Reproductive Justice principles as a foundation. Other topics include hyper-sexualization, rape culture, and the gendered and state violence on the reproductive health status of Black communities.
Operating under the California Healthy Youth Act means we are able to focus on topics related to gender identity/expression that are especially important for Black youth. Sex education informed by Reproductive Justice principles is very important for Black students because our challenges and our cultures were not considered when older forms of sex education were put together. Empowering Black youth with information, knowledge, and tools to recognize and avoid behaviors that increase risk and exposure to sexually transmitted infections — including HIV/AIDS — is important to our mission.We couple our education with advocacy for Black youths at the local, state, and national level to ensure we are truly making a positive impact within our communities.
Abstinence-only education is federally funded — generously I might add, through Sexual Risk Avoidance programs, which are not inclusive of contraception education or LGBTQ+ people. How do these programs harm young Black people ?
Abstinence-only education causes more of a problem and leads to disparities with Black and Brown youth being most heavily impacted. Countless studies show that abstinence-only education does not reduce and likely causes increased teen pregnancy rates.
This brings us back to our framework. The right to have a baby and the right not to have a baby is reproductive justice. By limiting sex ed to abstinence-only education, the challenge becomes that youth are not being educated on gender identity, STI prevention education, reproductive health, and sexual preference, which should be an introduction and conversation for young black people because of our disproportionately high rates of STIs and HIV.
The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP) and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) are two federally funded programs that provide medically accurate sex ed. How do such programs benefit Black young people and other communities that face systemic racism?
Programs such as TPPP and PREP benefit young Black people and other communities that face systemic racism: this is who they are specifically funding for the purpose of educating young people on both abstinence and contraception to prevent pregnancy, STIs, and HIV. These programs focus on youth who are at risk, homeless, in foster care, victims of sex trafficking, youth with HIV/AIDS, and youth who live in areas with higher teen birth rates. These programs require that they focus on both contraception and abstinence. Offering these programs in Black and other communities that face systemic racism not only lowers teen pregnancy rates, but also prevents an increase of STIs and HIV. Funding this education, along with the awareness of health equity, allows for the well-being of the community as a whole to rise.
The Blueprint Policy Agenda for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice Urges the Biden-Harris administration and Congress to increase funding for PREP and TPPP. What else would you like to see addressed?
We would like to see the California Healthy Youth Act copied in states all around the country for comprehensive sex ed. Our curriculums address the importance of sex ed for Black youth and highlights how the statistics and lack of sex ed affects Black youth. We would like to see STD and STI education and prevention strategies. Especially in our community.
Also, because we work with youth, I am able to hear their concerns firsthand, and one thing I have heard from them is the desire for a more relatable approach to sex education — instead of feeling scolded and as if they are being talked down to. With this being said, more peer education would be good. With youth co-facilitating these courses, they would gain leadership skills and also satisfy the need for relatability. We emphasize this style here at BWWLA, but to see the country include peer education in sex education could be very beneficial.
What are some of the greatest successes you’ve witnessed from the Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy program?
The fact that the Black youth and young adults appreciated the trainings being geared towards a variety of topics for example, queer culture. Youth and young adults tell us they are a part of that community. Our body image trainings for Black women and girls is something I view as one of the greatest successes I have witnessed, because I see real connection and integration happening during these curriculums. People have breakthroughs in these trainings; and for the Black community, this correlation to self-love is important in terms of healthy sex ed.
Building upon the leadership within the youth departments has been a huge success because we are giving back to others who will then one day give back to others. We are teaching the youth tools they can take with them for the rest of their lives. Also, we usually promote within. Being able to elevate youth from one position to the next is a big success because oftentimes an average 15-year-old would not expect to be promoted to a well-paid position gaining Reproductive Justice and professional experience.
And I appreciate being able to network and collaborate with different organizations, to connect to a larger audience; Paramount Pictures, seminars, panels, going into the schools, going into foster homes and really making a positive difference in the Black communities. Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy began as simply a campaign — to see what it is now is a great success story.
Where can we learn more about BWWLA and the Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy program?
You can learn more about BWWLA at our website and on our homepage, under programs, you will find the link to our Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy program. Or you can go here directly. We have plenty of volunteer and growth opportunities.
Also check us out on Instagram at:
Get Smart Before U Get Sexy - YouTube
Blueprint for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice
Tags: Sex Ed, repro justice, chat