I’m a National Public Radio (NPR) junkie…I freely admit it. Each morning, as I shave and shower, I tune into my local NPR station to catch up on the news I slept through. This morning I was pleasantly surprised to hear a story on an issue that I’ve worked on for most of my career.
Check out this link to NPR’s story this morning (Sunday, March 30, 2014): What A Small Town’s Teen Pregnancy Turnaround Can Teach The U.S. : NPR.
What I really liked about this story, aside from hearing the voice of my long-time colleague and friend, Forrest Alton, CEO of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, were a couple of important lessons that I think Denmark, SC can teach the rest of us.
First, teen pregnancy prevention requires a long-time, continuous effort. The effort has been ongoing in Denmark for more than 30 years. This illustrates why investment in teen pregnancy prevention, and other social change initiatives, has to be long-term – very long-term. For years I have been arguing that systemic social change requires at least 10-15 years of focused, committed effort under the best of conditions. Anything less, will not stick. I’ve been working with a lot of teen pregnancy prevention organizations across the United States on program and organizational sustainability in order to give them time necessary to make change happen and last in their communities. One of the first messages I try to convey to these groups is that change takes a long time and attaining sustainability is an intentional process that also takes time. However, good things will come if we are patient…and work hard.
Second, it is a balanced approach. Anything to do with adolescent sexual health, including teen pregnancy prevention, is a hot potato in many communities…particularly communities in the American south. I started my career as a youth worker. The first lesson I learned was this: if you want to help individuals experience personal change and growth, meet them where they are, not where you want them to be. To do anything less conveys a profound disrespect. This is also true when it comes to working for change in communities. Michelle Nimmons, the woman featured in the interview, really seemed to understand this. For over 30 years she has been working with the people of Denmark, SC to strike a balance between effective efforts to address teen pregnancy with a respect for the community and its beliefs and values. It appears she has been uncommonly successful.
My professional research has focused on leaders of sexual health organizations engaged in social change efforts (you can download an executive summary at www.begreaterdogood.net). As with any social change effort, leadership is key. Leaders who are most effective are also long-term and have become adept at working respectfully with communities. They help their organization stakeholders understand that change takes time and continuous investment while keeping them motivated. They also help their stakeholders understand the necessity of working respectfully with the community. I’ve also come across some leaders who exhibit something a bit more than respect – what I can only describe as love. Ah, but let us save that for another time.