Lena Thompson and the Importance of SIHLE
By Caroline Frentz | March 7, 2022, 4:59 p.m.
PPMW: What is SIHLE?
Lena: SIHLE stands for Sisters Informing, Healing, Living, and Empowering. It is actually also a Swahili word that means "beautiful." If anyone's ever seen the old movie the Color Purple, the lead in the movie was named Celie, and it played off that word and the struggles that she went through like finding herself and her own beauty. The purpose of this program is to teach you some positive choices you can make to become healthier and more successful in life. It is also designed to instill pride, which will help these queens define a positive identity. We kind of teach that and instill those to our participants as well.
PPMW: What is the SIHLE experience?
Lena: SIHLE is broken up into six sessions. We talk about pretty much everything that you would think that a young woman of color would talk about. One of the sessions really emphasizes ethnic and gender pride and self-esteem, and we talk about being happy to be a woman of color. So, ultimately, we talk about the things that a lot of women of color don't hear all the time, like, "Hey, your hair is beautiful," and, "You can do anything."
In session two, we discuss morals, values, and the things that we care about, and how they connect so that we have that preventative knowledge to make effective decisions to make sure that our values aren't being affected at any time. In our sessions, we talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships, and how to talk about how to enhance confidence in initiating safer sex conversations, and not being shy. We also have what we call "adult prep subjects." Adult prep subjects can depend on the cohort that I'm teaching at the moment and focus on different issues. For example, in one of the cohorts, we noticed that a lot of our participants were struggling with understanding their mental health, and understanding how important their mental health is. So, for our adult prep subject, had a person come in and talk about the stigma around mental health and getting a psychiatrist and getting a therapist and things like that. We try to make sure that our participants are just like, "Whatever you need is what we're trying to get to you," but also still provide that basic information that SIHLE comes with.
PPMW: How did your own experiences influence your decision to become a coordinator?
Lena: I actually was a SIHLE participant first. I went through the SIHLE program, the entire four sessions, and then I became a trained facilitator. When I was growing up, I didn't have many opportunities to talk about my sex ed or sexual health or any type of reproductive health at all.
My first sexual education was one very brief class period in school where they pulled out a banana with no context. They said, "This is a condom and this is how you use it," and no one even understood what vaginal sex was at this point. It was very weird, and the teacher was very weirded out by teaching it, so it wasn't very beneficial.
I was born in 1992 and I grew up in the time age when people weren't talking about sex. It was very, very hush-hush, and it was like, people were doing it, but no one was talking about it, and I was very confused. I was like, "Okay, who am I supposed to ask these questions to?" I grew up in a household and family household that also did not talk about sex very much and by working for PPMW, learning about all the things that you know can happen to your reproductive health and all the things that we want to avoid and prevent actually help me physically, like knowing that I can have that knowledge to protect myself, but also mentally as well.
PPMW: What does it mean to you to lead this group?
Lena: It means a lot to me. I think a piece of SIHLE will always be a part of my passion forever. So it's like I build the relationships that I build with my participants to teach them this information so that they can teach it to their peers and for generations to come and over and over again. So, not only do I talk to these participants on a personal level, and all of those things and just like seeing them grow up and get involved and just know that the program that they've been in all the way in middle school and high school actually affected them in a positive way. It means everything to me. So that's pretty much why I do this work. It's just like, knowing that I affected someone's life in a positive way.
PPMW: Why do you think it's important to have this community?
Lena: I think it is important because it's really what we need right now in the society that we live in. It's like technology is evolving and, you know, a lot of our participants have easy access to a lot of things that are false information. So not only does the information come out false, I felt like some of our participants have lost the unity when it comes to having a sisterhood with people who are around you who look like you. So we're trying to build that sisterhood and build that unity back up so that they protect each other in the end, and so you always have someone who, you know, I can go to and talk to about certain things, where I can always have this friend that I built in this program and I can always talk to that person forever and ever. So, just building that unity overall.
PPMW: What's it like to see those relationships being built, like for you as the leader of SIHLE?
Lena: It's like I'm a mama and I'm just like watching my children play. I feel like I just see them and they create those relationships. I have seen participants join this group and are still friends years and years later. So I can still count on them to just be with each other, and just knowing that I was the creator of this relationship, it's just like a little cherry on top.
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Tags: education, healthy relationships, teens, teens_planned_parenthood, sexual_health_education, sex education, sihle