The eight teenagers gathered around the table and started sorting things out: condoms over here, packets of lubricant over there.
There were no snickers or embarrassed smiles as they prepared hundreds of safe sex kits to pass out at this weekend’s Pride Festival. Their group, Community Restoring Urban Sexual Health (CRUSH), is often called upon to speak to the community about safe sex practices to prevent pregnancy and STIs.
There are signs that reproductive health education and teen resources are working. According to a state report released last week, Minnesota’s teen birthrate dropped by more than 8 percent from 2013 to 2014, falling to about 15.5 births per 1,000 15- to 19-year-old females. That’s down 58 percent from 1990.
“There’s this stereotype that youth can’t make responsible decisions,” said Brian Russ, executive director at Minneapolis-based Annex Teen Clinic. “But that’s just not true — that comes from a time when adults were scared to talk about sex.”
Like similar metro-area organizations, CRUSH believes teens respond best to messages of empowerment that offer information and lay out options for them to make their own choices.
The data show disparities in birthrates in certain geographic regions and racial and ethnic groups. According to the report, birthrates for American Indian, black and Hispanic youths are more than three times greater than those for white teens.
“We’ve seen progress and that’s great,” said Kathy Wick, a manager at Better Together Hennepin, the county’s teen pregnancy prevention program. “But I’ve been in the field for 20 years, and we are still facing some of the same battles.”
The biggest ongoing battle, she said, is opening the conversation about what’s available to prevent unintended pregnancy and STIs.
Better Together Hennepin has a goal of decreasing the birthrate 30 percent from 2014 to 2019. Wick said that goal is feasible if people keep talking and coming up with new ways to reach teens where they are. She credits the drop to long-acting contraceptives and the success of several outreach programs. But many of those programs are funded by grants, and grants run out.
“The needs aren’t going to go away but the grant funding will,” she said.
However, grants also allow organizations to be innovative, Wick said. The goal is to develop solutions that go beyond what CRUSH co-chairwoman Trina Pearson calls the “we-adults-tell-you-what-to-do” method: empowering teenagers to make decisions based on accurate and comprehensive information.
“This really does seem to be a change from what we used to try,” Pearson said. “Now it’s saying to teens, ‘I’m not telling you what to do, but I’m telling you how to weigh the consequences and decide what’s right for you.’ ”
A recent Better Together Hennepin campaign uses billboards and ads on music-streaming websites to tell teens how to find a clinic near them. Another project, aimed at middle schoolers, encourages future thinking and career planning.
“Sometimes the best contraceptive is hope for the future,” Russ said.
The importance of talking
Eighteen-year-old Jill Berray agrees. She spent her senior year at Washburn High School volunteering on the Teen Heath Empowerment Council and working with her school’s clinic, which offers confidential and no-cost birth control and STI testing.
Sexual health services offered by these school-based clinics have been around for about three decades but are becoming more popular for their convenience and confidentiality, said Barbara Kyle, manager of the in-school clinics in Minneapolis.
Berray said every teen should know more than what’s presented in the sex education unit of their high school health class. Though her class covered the basics of safe sex, she said, more effective messages came from posters hung at school showing just how much money it takes to raise a baby.
“The message of the importance of planning for the future is always in your face in high school,” she said. “It’s important that sexual health is promoted that way, too.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat has worked with Better Together Hennepin to support initiatives to prevent teen pregnancy.
He said the declining numbers are promising, even though some of the proposed programs — including those centered on future thinking and empowerment — seemed almost counterintuitive to him.
“My parents would never have dreamed of these kinds of approaches,” he said. “Even for me — a white, Catholic guy — it sometimes feels weird to encourage teenagers to talk about this stuff.
“But I’ve seen the numbers. I’m glad to be proven wrong in this case. I guess we have to keep talking.”
That’s one of Pearson’s favorite phrases. She repeats it over and over again to the teenagers she works with: Just keep talking. “We have to change the stereotype that teens who talk about sex and know about sex are having sex,” she said.
There are other stereotypes that 17-year-old CRUSH member Saryna Montgomery wants to change. She knows what people say about young mothers — they are uneducated, poor, “from the ’hood.”
“I know a few girls who are pregnant or have kids,” she said, as she checked the expiration dates on the condoms spread out on the table. “It’s getting better, but this is still a reality. I want to change that.”