Giving Young People a Seat at the Table: The Advocates for Youth Experience

Taken from the March/April 2018 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

After a challenging but thrilling day of meeting with Alabama legislators, I filled out my application to officially join one of Advocates for Youth’s groups, during my bus ride back to Birmingham.

Advocates for Youth is a nonprofit organization that works with young people to ensure reproductive and sexual health and rights, including comprehensive sex education; LGBT rights; HIV prevention, treatment, and destigmatization; and access to abortion care and birth control. As young people, the agency to make decisions — about our bodies, our education, our healthcare — is not a given, particularly in this political and social climate. Advocates gives us a seat at the table, whether that looks like connecting us with lawmakers, helping us distribute safe sex supplies, or giving us the tools to organize a direct action. This support is critical in ensuring that young people are at the forefront of the movement for our own reproductive and sexual health and rights.

Every September, young folk from all of Advocates’ programs meet at the Urban Retreat in D.C., where we grow our activism, build relationships with one another, and have a really amazing time! My first Urban Retreat was a magical experience. In the time that passed between the lobby day in Montgomery and journeying to D.C., I came out as transgender and was just beginning to explore my new name and pronouns, and I was nervous about being in a new space. From the moment I entered the hotel, though, those fears were assuaged. I instantly made new friends and felt completely at home. On our last night together, we had the honor of hearing trans activist Janet Mock speak during our closing dinner. As a newly out trans kid, Janet Mock was my hero and one of the first really prominent trans activists I knew about. A few other trans folk and I got to sit at her table before her speech, and I was so ecstatic and overwhelmed that, to my embarrassment, I burst into tears while trying to tell Janet how much her work meant to me.

In the years since my first Urban Retreat, the happy excitement tears are still a part of my Advocates experience, because I am continuously in awe of my vibrant and radical family of youth organizers. Last September, I returned to D.C. for my fourth Urban Retreat. Now a college senior, I know the schedule’s flow by heart. One of my favorite parts of the weekend is the very first morning, where we have breakfast and each of Advocates’ youth groups hops up on stage and introduces themselves — whether that’s through passing the mic, singing about their group, creating multi-media presentations, performing sex-ed skits, or presenting beautifully choreographed dance numbers.

Advocates has seven youth groups. I’m part of Student Organizers, one of the biggest groups. Student Organizers are high school and college students working on their campuses and in their communities to mobilize and empower other students in the fight for honest sex education; condom/contraceptive access; abortion access; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) health and rights; HIV prevention; and other issues.

Many of the great friends I’ve made throughout my years with Advocates are part of the Young Women of Color for Reproductive Leadership Council (YWOC), a group of 14-24-year-old young women of color activists. They educate, empower, and fight back against issues impacting their community within a Reproductive Justice framework. YWOC is currently made up of 12 women from across the country organizing to decrease sexual health disparities in communities of color, advocate for the inclusion of young women of color in creating solutions to address reproductive oppression’s impact, and empower a new generation of Reproductive Justice activists within the progressive movement.

The Muslim youth Leadership Council (MyLC) is a new Advocates program full of amazing folk I’ve loved getting to share space with! MyLC promotes LGBTQ health and rights, immigrant rights, and sexual and reproductive health and rights of Muslim-identifying people ages 18-24. MyLC seeks to educate, mobilize, and amplify issues impacting the communities of young Muslim-identifying people, through media, local organizing, and local and national policy change.

YouthResource is the LGBTQ Youth Leadership Program, and usually has the best introductory performance. This year, their rewrite of the #1 hit “Bodak Yellow” did not disappoint. Youth Resource is designed by and for LGBTQ young people.  Members of YouthResource provide communities around the country with information, resources and education to address LGBTQ health and rights, including inclusive sex education, LGBTQ-youth-friendly sexual health services, and safe space for queer youth. They also serve as activists to advocate on these issues on their college campuses and within the local community.

The 1 in 3 Campaign aims to destigmatize abortion by creating a new dialogue that puts people, especially young people, at the center of the conversation about abortion rights and access. The 1 in 3 Campaign’s campus organizers engage in cultural advocacy to destigmatize abortion care and serve as activists, advocates, and spokespeople on abortion access in their community and around the country.

Another group that usually kills it during introductions is the International Youth Leadership Council (IYLC), whose “YMCA” cover (I - Y - LC!) is still stuck in my head. IYLC consists of undergraduate college students attending D.C. metro area universities who have a passion for advancing youth sexual and reproductive health and rights globally. IYLC members work on a wide-range of issues, including sexuality education, international family planning and contraceptive access, abortion, global HIV/AIDS, gender equality, harmful traditional practices (such as child marriage and female genital cutting/mutilation), gender-based violence, and LGBTQ rights. IYLC members have a strong interest in or links to the global south and serve as activists, advocates, and spokespeople on sexual and reproductive health and rights policies affecting young people in low- and middle-income countries.

A new group at the Urban Retreat this year was Know Your IX (KYIX). Founded in 2013, KYIX is a survivor- and youth-led project that recently joined the Advocates family. It aims to empower students to end sexual and dating violence in their schools, and advance a world where all students can pursue their civil right to education free from violence and harassment. The group draws upon the Title IX law as an alternative to the criminal legal system — one that is more just and responsive to the educational, emotional, financial, and stigmatic harms of violence.

Throughout our time at Urban Retreat, we have workshops with our specific programs and conference sessions where we can mingle with all of the youth organizers and soak up the knowledge and experience that different youth activists are bringing to the space. My favorite workshops have ranged from topics like self-care to the U.S.’ reproductive imperialism.

When we aren’t in sessions, all of us are enjoying our time together in D.C. — taking selfies, planning to take over the world, etc. This year, after our amazing keynote speech from trans activist CeCe McDonald, we all headed down to the ballroom for a talent show and dance party, where we were blown away by a lip sync routine performed to The Cheetah Girls and some incredible poetry. We woke up early the next day to lobby to end Federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage education. Rather than dressing formally for the Hill, we wore clothing in which we felt like our whole/true selves. As an Alabamian now living in Louisiana, lobbying on the Hill can be filled with a lot of rejection. But with a crew of incredible activists at my side, it feels exhilarating and powerful.

Foster Noone is a member of the Student Organizing Team at Advocates for Youth and a student at Tulane.  Foster is a trans sex educator and reproductive health organizer focused on the regional South.