Teachers College (TC) has always been at the forefront of inventing fields and guiding established ones into new frontiers. In 2013, the Sexuality Women and Gender Project (SWG) was created in this spirit. Four years later, in 2017, the Sex Education Initiative (SEI) became a natural outgrowth of its mission, this time within the domain of sexual health education and reproductive mental health.
Under the leadership of Dr. Aurelie Athan, a clinical psychologist specializing in maternal mental health, and Dr. Riddhi Sandil, a counseling psychologist and expert in marginalized identities, SEI continues its innovative growth, both theoretically and programmatically.
Reproductive identity formation: A new addition to sexual health education
Twenty-first century demographic trends demand a creative new approach to sex education that includes a broader understanding of reproductive autonomy and justice. For example, the status of women and LGBTQ communities have resulted in an unparalleled time in history of how families are created and structured. Access to education and contraception, dropping teen pregnancy rates and delayed entry into childbearing or opting out are all leading to declining fertility rates in many areas-- while others are experiencing quite the opposite. Additionally, individuals once unable to participate in family formation due to biology or bias are now afforded the option given advances in both reproductive technologies and social norms. These issues will surely continue to gain importance and require paradigm-shifting conceptualizations that aptly reflect the evolving procreative lives of 21st century people and generations to come.
Many of the now foundational models of identity development (e.g., racial, cultural, feminist, sexual, gender, disability) taught here at TC came to prominence during the last half of the 20th century to balance the need for greater inclusion and representation of diversity. They rightly addressed problems with group belonging and marginalization given the dominant narratives of the era. Like sexual and gender identity, reproductive identity provides yet another useful and destigmatizing framework for students and their communities alike, to articulate and challenge presumed ideologies of what is normal and expected, and then to begin to reshape them in earnest. A theoretical framework of reproductive identity is oddly lacking despite the significant psycho-social implications of becoming a parent.
TC now provides a home to research and teach this subject. The SEI professional development training joins other SWG curriculum offerings including the first graduate courses nationally on maternal development and perinatal mental health. Exploring fundamental, yet life-altering questions like “if, when, and how” to mobilize one’s fertility or form a family, requires support. There are many complexities and possibilities for any individual regardless of the particular answers they provide. Whether a student or research subject, the reaction is usually the same, “Why haven’t I thought about my reproductive identity before?”
This phenomenon suggests a need for more educational spaces to transform how we approach such a central dimension of well-being. The timely support of the Edlow family has resulted in a fully-funded professional development program for sexual health educators. Now in its second year, SEI consists of both a foundational core skills training in sex education and a specialized focus on Reproductive Identity Formation (RIF) for adolescent pregnancy prevention.
Dr. Michael A. Carrera is the Thomas Hunter Professor Emeritus of Health Sciences at Hunter College of the City University of New York, and Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. He began his teaching career in 1959 at a Junior High School in the Bronx. Since 1970, Dr. Carrera has directed the Carrera Program for the Children’s Aid Society in New York, where he also serves as Vice President of the Adolescence Division. He has received many awards for his life’s work to eradicate teen pregnancy, including Advocates for Youth’s Supernova Award, The Robin Hood Foundation’s Hero Award, The Child Welfare League of America’s Florence Crittenton Award, Planned Parenthood’s Mary Lee Tatum Award, and American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists’ Award for Distinguished Service in Sexuality Education.
Ms. Meghan Casey is the Assistant Principal, Boerum Hill School for International Studies. Ms. Casey has worked in public education for the last eighteen years as a classroom teacher and school administrator. She has written and taught sex education curricula at the middle and high school levels. Most recently she helped to institute developmentally appropriate, inclusive, and joyful sex education lessons through a middle school Advisory program.
Dr. Sara Flowers is the new Vice President of Education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She is the former director of Love Heals/ACRIA where she oversaw the implementation of all aspects of HIV prevention and leadership development programs for young people, including Leadership Empowerment and Awareness Program (LEAP) for Girls, Sexual Health for Young Men, LEAP Alumnae Programs, and the Youth Advisory Council. These programs serve youth of color in East Harlem, Central Brooklyn and the Bronx. Dr. Flowers is also a CUNY adjunct professor for York College and the School of Public Health. At York College, she serves as a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow for The Collaborative Research Group on Health Policy and Promotion + the UrbanHealth Lab. Dr. Flowers is an advocate for evidence-informed practice and emotional intelligence in sexuality health education. Her research interests focus on fidelity and adaptation of sexuality health education curricula, and other sexual health topics as they relate to disparities, youth of color, and abortion access. Sara holds a BA in Psychology and a Master of Public Health degree from The George Washington University in Washington, DC.
Dr. Nicole Haberland is a Senior Associate at the Population Council. Dr. Haberland conducts research on a range of topics related to gender, sexual and reproductive health, and HIV prevention. As a leader of the Council’s Rethinking Sexuality Education project, she co-edited It’s All One Curriculum: Guidelines and Activities for a Unified Approach to Sexuality Gender, HIV, and Human Rights Education, a user-friendly resource for sexuality curriculum development. Dr. Haberland co-directs the Council’s RISING program, which is building the evidence base for improving the design and implementation of girl-centered programs. Other research includes improving HIV voluntary counseling and testing by incorporating discussion of relationship power, and intimate partner violence; assessing the effects of gender norms on HIV testing and treatment and exploring women’s understanding of male circumcision as it relates to preventing HIV. Haberland has also conducted policy and program research on married adolescent girls.
Dr. Lynn Roberts has a BS in human development from Howard University (1984) and a PhD in Human Services Studies from Cornell University (1991). The City University of New York (CUNY) has been her academic home since 1995. Prior to joining CUNY and the GSPHHP, she oversaw the development, implementation and evaluation of several prevention programs for women and youth in NYC. She has also served on the board of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and is currently co-editing an anthology on reproductive justice. Dr. Roberts’ current activism and scholarship examine the intersections of race, class and gender in adolescent dating relationships, juvenile justice and reproductive health policies; as well as the impact of models of collaborative inquiry and teaching on civic and political engagement.
Ms. Melissa Toala is an unapologetic Queer Puerto Rican from the Bronx. A self-identified hood feminist and healer, she is a single parent of two children and has been working in the field of youth development and sexuality education for about 10 years. She currently serves as the Manager of Youth Initiatives at the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) where she co-conspires ways to get free and advance social justice in the sex ed classroom with Black and Brown youth from all over NYC through the nationally recognized peer education program TORCH®. Through TORCH® she has partnered with Physicians for Reproductive Health and residency programs at Bellevue Hospital and Harlem Hospital to help support the training of physicians and providers on cultural/structural competent practices with adolescent patients. She is a current member and former co-chair of Youth Engagement for the Sexuality Education Alliance of NYC (SEANYC) where she helped develop the coalition’s first Youth Advisory Council to support the advocacy for K-12 Comprehensive Sexuality Education. Her work is committed to Sexual Reproductive Justice (SRJ) and the advancement of Black, Brown and Indigenous lives as well other historically/currently marginalized people and experiences through education and organizing.
Ms. Toala has developed and facilitated workshops for national conferences and has been on panels addressing SRJ issues and its intersection with other social justice issues both nationally and throughout NYC. Topics include but not limited to: Reproductive Justice, Racial Justice, Youth Development and Engagement, Sexuality Education, Peer Education, Anti-Blackness in Latinx Communities and beyond, Community Organizing, Coalition Building, Project Planning, Conferences and more. She holds a BS in Childhood Education from St. John’s University and is an MSW candidate at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, with a method focus in Community Organizing, Planning and Development and a specialization in Youth and Families.