#NoTeenShame: A Universal Goal

Date: May 15th, 2014
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Guest Blog Post by Natasha Vianna

#NoTeenShame is a movement and a campaign serving as the public voice on the issue of teen pregnancy and the unnecessary stigmatization of teen parents. Created by a group of seven young mothers across the country—some of whom have never met in person–#NoTeenShame believes no young person should be shamed for his or her reproductive choices. Our goal this May is to continue highlighting successful relationships with organizations within our communities who are working in safe, inclusive ways.

Our progress on this movement may have started in 2013 when we initially launched a counter-campaign against #NoTeenPreg, but the truth is that our growth on the issue started long before we knew we were advocates. We had already spent years reflecting on our experiences and trying to make sense of the way teen pregnancy prevention has been framed.

For too long, our children have been dehumanized as public health issues and epidemics on the same list as all the other consequences of practicing unsafe sex, like AIDS, HIV, and STIs. There has been this narrow description of teen pregnancy force-fed into our culture that claimed teen pregnancy had a simple solution: shame teen moms and use them to scare teens. But missing from this discussion was the structural framework and institutional inequities that perpetuate the dichotomy between teen parenthood and success.

As young moms and self-determined advocates, we search through sites and teen pregnancy prevention campaigns and review connected strategic messaging materials for constructive and deconstructive frames—exactly in the way the Healthy Teen Network so amazingly put it—with  the focus on finding a solution.

We’re young moms and we know what the research says. The statistics may point to our likeliness of failing, but we recognize that there aren’t many researchers pursuing new questions and data sources that work to create new frames. How many researchers are collecting data on how the birth of a child can sometimes improve a teen’s life, prompting him/her to go back to school or push harder? How many researchers are asking whether or not an at-risk youth may be more likely to succeed after having a child and sense of new purpose? How many researchers are collecting data on the harmful effects on entire communities when shame-based approaches are used?

If we had more of those kinds of data, we wouldn’t have to constantly turn to our own individual stories, sometimes exploiting the most traumatic moments of our life, for the news and media, in hopes of shifting this negative dialogue to an already often disapproving society. The negative statistics and data realistically set up the dichotomy between teen pregnancy and success. When a teen parent does reach any level of society’s driven definition of success, he or she is “otherized” and perceived as the exception from parenting peers. And the same negative data continue to otherize teen parents from their non-parenting peers, who prior to being exposed to negative messaging, may have been more supportive of teen parents.

Harassment, bullying, discrimination—it’s against Title IX regulations to treat an expectant and parenting student in these ways, but it continues to happen on a daily basis. (In fact, just less than a month ago, Massachusetts revised the state’s Bullying Bill to include expectant and parenting students within the language of targeted youth.) And while bullying and harassment is often expected only from student peers, we know teen parents are often shamed, stigmatized, otherized, bullied, and harassed by adults within the school’s administration.

In my own story, three of my teachers and a guidance counselor made it their mission to ensure my experiences in school weren’t easy. One teacher would use my growing belly as an example of making irresponsible choices; another would compare other struggling teen parents to my ability to balance schoolwork “better than them.” I remember my guidance counselor telling me it would have been a waste of our time to apply to colleges because “statistics say…,” and another teacher reprimanding me in front of my class for “using my sick child as an excuse” to miss class.

#NoTeenShame subscribes to the belief that our culture is capable of doing better. It takes leaders within organizations to step up and acknowledge that language needs to change. It takes allies who listen to us and develop their own strategies for improving their work. It takes those with privilege and power to continue putting tools and frameworks together to spark the change our culture so desperately needs. And it takes strong young mothers across the country to help shift the way our culture perceives and defines motherhood for others.

Change happens at the edge of the system, at the very rim of impossible. And it’s through connectivity, activism, and collective impact that makes things like #NoTeenShame a universal goal.

Natasha Vianna is an advocate for young families and member of #NoTeenShame, a movement led by seven young mothers, Natasha Vianna, Gloria Malone, Lisette Orellana, Marylouise Kuti-Schubert, Jasmin Colon, Christina Martinez, and Consuela Greene, to improve strategic messaging campaigns and conversation around young parenting to a non-stigmatizing and non-shaming approach.

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