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The Power of Youth-Centered Advocacy – by Elizabeth Peck

STORYCENTER Blog

We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

The Power of Youth-Centered Advocacy – by Elizabeth Peck

Ary Smith

Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Peck is the Public Policy Director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, a partner on the “Hear Our Stories” project. A partnership of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the Care Center, the Center for Digital Storytelling, the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College, the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the project aims to recalibrate the existing conversation about teen motherhood from stigmatizing young moms to promoting their sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice.

I am always deeply inspired at our annual Teen Parent Lobby Day to witness hundreds of expectant and parenting teens see that they are not alone, that their voices matter, and that they have the power to influence the policies that impact their lives.

These young people need and deserve leaders in every community who will pave a path that pushes aside the shame and low expectations expectant and parenting youth so often encounter. As leaders, we must work to create environments that offer expectant and parenting teens opportunities to experience their tremendous capacity to make a difference. At the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy (the Alliance), we strive to create such opportunities through our policy advocacy and youth engagement. We believe that policies are most effective when the people who are impacted by those policies are involved in creating and changing them.

Over the past few years, we have shifted our Lobby Day so that expectant and parenting youth are at the forefront. For the first time this past year, our Young Parent Policy Fellows selected this year’s theme – understanding root causes and planting seeds for success – and a Fellow was our master of ceremony.

A particularly exciting youth-centered highlight from this past year was a digital story installation from the UMass Amherst Hear Our Stories project. The project uses digital storytelling in collaboration with young parenting Latinas to reframe conversations on young motherhood, sexuality, health and rights.

The digital stories were superbly produced videos created by expectant and parenting youth with support provided by the Center for Digital Storytelling, WGBY and UMass researchers. The stories were an engaging focal point before and after the speaking program and generated conversation among youth in a way we had never seen before. A Young Parent Policy Fellow with the Alliance, Lauren Singer, shared: “It allowed more stories to be told, and pictures are extremely powerful. When you see a picture, it puts everything together.”

Quotes alone do not begin to capture the captivating combination of video, image, voice, sound, and text-based narrative in the digital stories. However, the following youth quotes from the stories still powerfully convey themes on the complex nature of teen pregnancy and young parents’ desire to be the best parents they can be:

“Most of the time, it’s very unexpected and unplanned. I feel like teen moms are often judged.”

“The most important thing to me is giving my baby the love and care she needs and deserves.”

“Even when she wasn’t on drugs, we never had that mother-daughter bond.”

“When I got pregnant, my baby daddy didn’t believe me until I was five months along. That’s when he started hitting me.”

“I say [to my mother], ‘Do you remember I am on birth control?’ But in less than a minute, it shows positive.”

“She [my mom] hugs my boyfriend and tells him, ‘Please be there for my daughter, don’t ever turn your back’… And he says, ‘I promise I will be there for her and my baby.’ And he has been.”

As part of the Hear Our Stories project, UMass Amherst researchers have been analyzing the digital stories. Themes of shame, isolation, and violence, but also joy, love, and care, are captured in the quotes above and are also present in preliminary research findings.

The Hear Our Stories project has provided a meaningful platform for expectant and parenting youth in Holyoke to better understand their life stories. These young people are not only courageous voices in their community, but are also part of a state-wide effort to address the root causes of teen pregnancy and ways to better support young parents.