The people who handed out condoms on her campus looked like they were pushing an ice cream truck or cart. This is what drew Victoria Ogunleye to health education. Sort of.
“I kind of stumbled upon being a wellness peer educator in college because I was just always interested in the people who passed out condoms,” she said candidly.
This chance encounter — combined with her background in the performing arts and a love for health science — helped set the stage for Victoria’s work in health education.
A dancer since her youth, she found an early interest in health and anatomy. “I started taking more health classes and realized that I...just love health and everything about it and the social determinants of health. But more specifically, I really enjoyed just being the wellness peer educator and the things you would do around sexual and reproductive health.”
As a peer educator in college, she worked closely with Planned Parenthood of Maryland to set up health fairs. She then began her professional career in behavioral health but a chance interaction changed her path.
“One of the students in the (Trellis Services, a clinic for children with autism) was about to get her period and everyone knew that I was aimed towards sexual and reproductive health. So they asked me to kind of design a little story book to teach her what a period was and what that's going to be for her body. From what it would look like, to get help from other people and changing pads and then eventually possibly moving into tampons and understanding why is this red fluid leaking from her body? I helped them create that little story book and in that moment I was like, ‘Okay, I really need to go to sexual health.’”
This eventually led her to Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. where she serves as the health education coordinator. In this role, Victoria is a mentor, teacher and creator who co-leads two youth groups: SIHLE (Sisters, Informing, Healing, Living, and Empowering), a program for youth of color, and PPMW’s peer health education program.
“SIHLE has more of a specific structure to it because it focuses a lot on ethnic and gender pride. We incorporate a lot of mainstream media into our conversations, we incorporate a lot more games in our teaching. So, it's not as much instruction as peer health education might get, but it's more educational games that we're playing so that they can learn.” This can mean activities like safer sex bingo or reproductive health jeopardy, all targeted with helping youth prepare for the transition out of high school.
For the peer health education program, she trains high school students about sexual and reproductive health throughout the school year. Together, they build a welcoming and supportive environment that invites a dialogue about issues ranging from healthy relationships, to HIV and AIDS, intimate partner violence, to LGBTQIA+ relationships.
“Then they take that information and they give it to their peers in the community. They host teen nights, (and) are certified to pass out and give out safer sex materials like condoms and dental dams,” Victoria explained.
In a lot of her work, she combines her love for performing arts, creativity, and movement with sexual and reproductive health education. “It's not like math where it's the same thing. Each week there might be a new study on this. There's a new framework or a new way to teach a certain thing. You have to get really creative in ways that you present information to people or teach other people. Learning the material takes discipline, repetition, and time the same way as dance.”
This creates an environment that is eager to learn, teach and share with others. This can be critical to folks and their journey to healing.
“I'm very big on healing. I love talking about healing and wellness. I say it all the time that through education you can learn to heal... and not just systematic education, (but using) knowledge from anywhere, learning from anyone. I feel like once I learn something, whether I plan on it or not, I always share it with someone in some shape or form. I'm also a big storyteller. So the education is always going to come out. I think it's really great to see youth be able to pinpoint their values and understand bodily autonomy, because that has a lot to do with them and their healing process.”
Victoria speaks candidly and honestly about everything and treats her youth with respect and honesty. Nothing is “sugar coated.”
“We're so transparent with them and we also see them as people, I think a lot of people see you as, especially with teenagers and stuff like that, they're kind of just in the mix. They're kind of just there, but they're actually really powerful because these are the same people who are going to start voting on the same laws that we're voting on, these are the same people that are going to be taking care of us when we're old. So you have to really invest in them.”
This can mean, validating them and letting them know they are not alone in what they’re feeling or may be going through. It also means validating their experiences and doing anything in her power to lift the burden they might feel.
“That could then lead them to healing, but then also letting them recognize that there's so many other systems and things in place that make it hard for them to even get to where they want to be. To know that it's not all on them. A lot of our youth are black or are people of color. So it's like, ‘We understand that you all are facing (systemic racism).’”
Education can be healing and can assist folks in their healing. This is central to Victoria’s “why.” Teaching youth their worth and power is integral to this.
"We see you, we hear you, you all have power. You have power in your voice and we're not giving you power, you already have it within yourself. We're just helping you amplify that. But usually when all that comes together, you can definitely see a youth get healing from the work that we do.”
Victoria is not only educating youth, she’s creating a community centered around knowledge, power, and healing. They’re listening, taking in the information and going out in the world and educating those around them, proof that it isn't “just for the service hours,” she joked. Some even come back to say they’re in the field now, which is one of the most rewarding parts of her job.
“Knowledge isn't (just) powerful, it's also healing. And I think the more we continue to have open honest conversations with people, being transparent, that healing will naturally happen, it would just naturally flow.”