First Person

I Grew Up in Tom Price’s District. The Sex Ed He Promotes Is Dangerous.

Last month, the Trump administration silently slashed $213.6 million from at least 81 institutions working on teen pregnancy prevention. The cuts hit a wide variety of programs: the Choctaw Nation’s initiatives to reduce teen pregnancy in Oklahoma, the University of Texas’ guidance for youth in foster care, and Baltimore’s Healthy Teen Network’s work on an app that could answer health questions from teen girls.

This move came at the recommendation of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), headed by Tom Price. In many ways, it’s on brand with Price’s career as an enthusiastic advocate for restricting women’s choices: He has signed personhood acts that ban emergency contraception and abortion, opposed the Obamacare birth control mandate, tried to defund Planned Parenthood, and defended cuts to Medicaid that would deny millions of low-income women health care.

On an intellectual level, Price’s cuts are frustrating because they represent another piece of a regressive puzzle the Trump administration is assembling in order to control women’s choices. And personally, I’m devastated because I know what these cuts mean to the communities that they will affect.

I attended public school for my entire K-12 education in Tom Price’s former district, where abstinence-only education is the norm. The single day of sex education I received promoted the idea that all sexual acts outside of a heterosexual marriage are dangerous and shameful, and did not make any distinction about whether these acts were consensual or not. It espoused gendered roles that posited women as defenders of their precious virginity, and put the responsibility on women to prevent sex from happening to them. That’s perfectly in line with the content requirements for sex education in Georgia: They consciously exclude information about contraception, coercion, orientation, and HIV/AIDS, and they stress abstinence and marriage.

Because I was lucky, and because I am privileged, I was able to go to a college with real resources—extracurricular trainings, a health clinic, and actual academic courses—that helped me unlearn the detrimental sexual education I received in high school. I got the practical information that I needed, and I started unraveling my skewed concept of consent.

I attended public school in Tom Price’s former district, where abstinence-only education is the norm.

When I attended a “Take Back the Night” rally my freshman year of college, I realized that my abstinence-only education had led me to view myself as responsible for sexual acts committed without my consent. Consequently, I felt shame instead of empowerment to take the steps I needed to recover. This is a common phenomenon for young people that experience abstinence-only education; when all expressions of sexuality are described as negative and shameful, the lines between consensual and nonconsensual acts become blurred.

College gave me a second chance at sex ed, but a lot of people don’t have that opportunity. For rural communities, low-income communities, and communities of color, high school sex education and community-based programs are often the only options available to acquire stigma-free, accurate education about consent, contraception, and sexual health. These populations already face myriad barriers to sex education, including culture, finances, and distance. In my home state of Georgia, there are only four Planned Parenthood clinics—one of the only affordable health centers with enough name recognition that people know to seek it out when they need help—and three of the four are located in the Atlanta metro area in the northwest corner of the state.

Still, teen pregnancy and birth rates are at an all-time low across the country. Georgia has experienced one of the most drastic declines in these rates, from the highest teen birth rate in the United States in 1995 to the 17th in 2015. The grants that Price slashed last week were a part of that story. The target audience of all of these programs are marginalized youth who have a demonstrated need for increased education. And these are the groups that are at the greatest risk for high teen birth rates: Rural counties reported an average birth rate of 30.9 (30.9 teens per 1,000 females aged 15–19), compared with the much lower rate of 18.9 for urban counties. Similarly, black and Latino teenagers experience teen pregnancy at rates twice as high as white teenagers. For these communities, removing teen pregnancy prevention programs that these grants funded will restore the negative effects of abstinence-only education that the grants were originally provided to combat. For example, one of the programs cut was run by the Augusta Partnership for Children Inc., which focuses on reducing teen pregnancy and STI rates in four rural East Georgia counties. In one of these counties, Augusta-Richmond county, the teen birthrate is 22.9 percent higher than the state average.

These cuts can’t be written off as a difference in ideology.
It almost goes without saying that cuts to teen pregnancy prevention programs could reverse the downward trends in teen pregnancy and birth rates. And the Trump administration is attacking other lifelines marginalized groups depend on, too. Funding decreases imposed on safety net programs and Medicaid, both threatened under the Trump and congressional budgets, will significantly impact teen parents who often rely on public assistance for food, housing, and healthcare. Similarly, without sex education and community-based programs funded by HHS, teen parents and youth in general will likely need to turn to Title X providers Title X family planning clinics provide reproductive health care and preventive health services for low-income and uninsured individuals. for contraception, abortion services, and sex education. But President Trump and congressional Republicans have been chipping away at Title X providers too, by rolling back an Obama-era regulation that prevents state and local governments from denying funding to health care providers for “political” reasons—namely, the provision of abortion services.

These cuts can’t be written off as a difference in ideology. I experienced firsthand the powerlessness that results from a shaming, abstinence-focused education, and it can be a matter of life and death for communities already on the margins. I had a second chance at a more holistic education, but it was due to luck and privilege that most folks in Georgia do not have access to. And when we’re talking about pregnancy, HIV/AIDS infection rates, and domestic and sexual violence, luck and privilege shouldn’t be the factors we have to rely on.



The Movement for Black Lives Is Changing Policing in D.C.

Just a few blocks away from the White House—where President Donald Trump recently called for rougher treatment of people in police custody—the District of Columbia city council is quietly implementing one of the most progressive crime bills in recent history.

The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act of 2016, sponsored by Democratic Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, represents a dramatic and desperately needed shift in how the nation’s capital will approach violent crime. In 2015, D.C. led the country in two categories: murders and police presence. With 119 homicides, it had a higher murder rate than every state in the country; and with six officers for every 1,000 citizens, it was the most heavily policed district in America.

In his office on Pennsylvania Ave, Councilmember McDuffie sports a pink polo beneath a gray tweed jacket. He speaks in perfect prose, with none of the ums and ahs and broken sentences that plague most of us. He believes in the NEAR Act because it addresses the “root causes” of violence.

“You cannot arrest your way out of this problem,” he says.

McDuffie was raised in D.C. in the 1980’s and 90’s, when it was known as the murder capital of the United States. He grew up around the open drug markets; he had friends who were killed in their neighborhoods.

“I’ve seen a person shot, bleeding out in my arms. I’ve seen these things firsthand,” he says. “That is the context I brought to this work.”

McDuffie has also seen the perils of overpolicing. He’s watched police officers “converge on communities of color, stopping people in neighborhoods like mine without probable cause.”

The NEAR Act draws from model programs in Chicago and Richmond by establishing an Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE) in D.C. The ONSE will hire people from within the community—“people who have credibility in these neighborhoods,” McDuffie says. They will identify community members who are at risk of committing violence or becoming a victim of violence, and then offer them trauma-informed therapy, life planning, and mentorship. The bill also provides funds to train police officers on “cultural competency” and how to recognize bias, and it calls for increased data collection on police stops and the use of force.

While he was drafting the bill, McDuffie consulted with local activists who had long called for criminal justice and police reform in the district—including Eugene Puryear, an author and organizer who helped found the Stop Police Terror Project.

Puryear’s energy is contagious; he peppers his caffeinated speech with phrases like “punctuated equilibrium” and “tectonic shifts.” He lauded McDuffie for doing a “deep dive on the issue,” but he also wants to credit the organizers who he thinks helped create the political space for the NEAR Act. He believes that the national Movement for Black Lives—and its local manifestations, such as the Stop Police Terror Project—convinced the council members to care about overpolicing and mass incarceration because their constituents were fired up about these issues.

During the early phases of the Stop Police Terror Project, the group interrupted a speech by Mayor Muriel Bowser, who was pushing a crime bill that would have boosted police presence in the city. The group faced harsh criticism for the action—Puryear says that “everyone said we were band of radicals interrupting stuff with no positive program and no support in the community.”

But when the city council held a public hearing two months later to compare Bowser’s bill to the NEAR Act, nearly everyone who testified did so in favor of the latter. With overwhelming support from the community, the council passed the NEAR Act unanimously in March 2016. But neither the council nor the mayor fully funded the act in the 2017 budget, essentially putting it in limbo.

Once you would say you had any connection to Black Lives Matter, doors were swinging wide open.

Over the next several months, the Movement for Black Lives kept growing. Thousands of protestors demonstrated in 88 cities across the country in the weeks after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by police officers. When Puryear and the Stop Police Terror Project started knocking on doors to gather signatures to fully fund the NEAR Act, they saw how badly residents wanted action.

“Once you would say you had any connection to Black Lives Matter, doors were swinging wide open,” Puryear said. He knocked on at least 500 doors, and he says that “every person who came to the door signed our petition, bar none.”

The council and the mayor agreed to fully fund the NEAR Act in the 2018 budget, which will go into effect on October 1. And the NEAR Act isn’t alone: Puryear says it’s part of a “cascading series” of local initiatives that came around in this “Black Lives Matter moment.” This includes a body-worn camera program for D.C. police officers and a juvenile justice bill, also sponsored by Councilmember McDuffie, that bans solitary confinement and court shackling for underage defendants.

Puryear believes that social change in the United States comes in spurts—long periods of very little change followed by rapid periods of huge changes. He hopes that we’re in one of those periods now, but he recognizes that progress isn’t inevitable. “What we do really matters,” he says. “The opportunities that are presented can just as easily be lost.” He thinks the next major battle surrounding the NEAR Act is its implementation: “There’s a lot of different ways this can be rolled out within the letter of the law.”

McDuffie agrees, and he says he’s working to make sure the bill gets implemented with the spirit and intent of how it was drafted.

The two models that the NEAR Act is based on have shown promise: Richmond has seen a 76 percent drop in homicides, and the Cure Violence model has curbed violence in pilot programs around the world. It remains to be seen whether the nation’s capital will have similar success—whether the old way of approaching violent crime, with militarized policing and mass incarceration, is finally on its way out.


First Person

Washington State Just Passed a Bipartisan Paid Leave Law. Here’s How We Did It.

About a quarter of new moms return to work two weeks after giving birth. Not because they want to leave their newborn, but because they need their paycheck.

I will never forget the testimony of a young mom from a Seattle suburb. During her pregnancy, she saved up every hour of her limited paid time off so that when her child was born, she would be able to spend every possible precious moment bonding with and caring for her newborn.

But one Thursday, she went into labor prematurely. Her baby boy was placed in intensive care at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and she went back to work on Monday. Her paid time off was so limited that she needed to save it for when her baby could come home. So, every day after work, she drove the 25 miles to Seattle to be with her baby until the hospital visiting hours ended.

Families have to make devastating choices every day because most working people do not get paid family and medical leave at their jobs. In particular, most lower-wage jobs do not offer any paid vacation or sick leave, though it is typically available to highly paid workers.

That’s why I am thrilled that on July 5, Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed the country’s most progressive and comprehensive paid family and medical leave insurance program into law. We built it from scratch, with bipartisan support and significant input from leaders in business, advocacy, and labor.

The new law covers everyone working in our state and is fully portable between jobs. It also includes a progressive benefit structure so that instead of providing a flat percentage of a person’s wage—which would pay lower-wage workers less and higher-wage workers more—the paid time off is graduated based on income. For a minimum wage worker, our benefit provides a 90 percent wage replacement. For higher-wage workers, the benefit caps at $1,000 a week. This ensures that every working Washingtonian, regardless of income, can afford to take the time they need with a new baby, a dying parent, or to recover from a serious illness or accident.


Crafting this policy took us a decade. We passed an initial paid family leave program that was never funded because of the Great Recession, but our coalition of lawmakers, advocates, and unions never gave up the goal. When the state’s 2016 ballot initiative campaign to raise the minimum wage and mandate paid sick leave passed easily with broad support, that let us begin serious negotiations again. Early polling indicated that a paid family and medical leave initiative that included a 100 percent employer-funded program would have received even broader support. The business community got similar results when they decided to test public opinion, so they came to the table early in the year to open discussions.

Crafting this policy took us a decade.

Though Seattle has a national reputation for being a progressive bastion, Washington state as a whole is actually quite purple. A Republican-led majority controls the state Senate by only one seat, and Democrats control the state House by only two seats. A young, socially moderate Republican floor leader, Sen. Joe Fain, led the effort to bring his caucus to the table. Fain had a baby boy last year, and he learned firsthand the need to have the time to bond and grow as a family. In state legislatures, relationships across the aisle are still important to make progress on policy.

In an era that feels increasingly divided along partisan lines on so many issues, Americans are overwhelmingly united in support of paid family and medical leave. This is why I believe that Washington’s historic victory must become the model for state-by-state enactment of such laws. The legislation we crafted, with a diverse range of stakeholders and perspectives, provides a roadmap for all states considering paid family and medical leave, whether they are under single-party control or a divided government.

Ultimately, the paid family and medical leave bill received 37 of the possible 49 votes in the Senate and 65 of the possible 98 votes in the House. The conditions for passage in Washington state may have been unique, but the law we produced provides a framework for state-level leadership in a time in which federal Congressional gridlock seems incapable of progress.


First Person

Trump’s Military Ban Will Leave More Trans Americans in Poverty

Yesterday morning, President Trump announced that he plans to reinstate the ban that prevents transgender Americans from serving in the military. It was a surprise for most of us—the Pentagon included—but the President managed to squeeze the announcement into his tweeting schedule between brags about the previous night’s rally and attacks on his own attorney general.

The reasons Trump cited to support his decision are pretty thin. He claimed that the military couldn’t possibly shoulder the medical costs, even though the military spends 50 times as much money on bands as it would on health care for trans servicemembers. He also noted that allowing transgender servicemembers would be a “disruption,” which is a pretty weighty claim to make on behalf of a force of people who are trained to deal with actual explosions.

This announcement is, of course, a direct attack on the rights of trans Americans who are already serving in the military. It will force them back into the closet, make it impossible for them to get adequate health care, leave them vulnerable to assault, or rob them of their livelihoods. It’s also an attack on trans Americans who aren’t serving. It’s a clear statement about the value the government places on their skills, and on their lives.

American rhetoric tends to talk about servicemembers as if they’re all Captain America: Hyperpatriotic superheroes fighting evil for no reason besides their love of country. To be clear, servicemembers are often heroic, and they do a brutally difficult job. But at the end of the day, they’re doing just that: a job. And it’s a good job, with a livable wage that often provides housing and access to higher education. The catch—and it’s a big one—is that in exchange for that job, servicemembers have to be willing to trade the government their lives.

LGBT Americans have been making this trade with the government for generations. There isn’t much data on LGBT Americans in the military, at least in part because there isn’t much data on LGBT Americans at all. But many of us know there’s a home for us there, the same way we just know that Tegan and Sara’s new records will never be quite as good as “The Con.”

One-third of black trans women earn less than $10,000 per year.

My high school best friend knew it. It wasn’t easy to be queer where we grew up—families tend to stick around our Rust Belt town for generations, and their old Catholic hearts are slow to change. Most folks meet social shifts with denial or quiet disapprovals, but his parents were the type of Christian who thought they could save us from ourselves. They tried to save him from his gayness every chance they got. First they tried sneaking up on him any time he left the house—including at least one incident that involved hiding in bushes—to manufacture public confrontations that were halfway between impromptu sermon and public exorcism. When they realized they couldn’t literally scare him straight, they cut him off financially. It was better to have no son than to have raised a queer.

He dropped out of college when his parents cut him off. He didn’t have the money he needed to get a degree, so he did what young Americans in need of a career have done for hundreds of years: He joined the military.

Trans Americans desperately need to have that option available to them. According to a report by the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress, half of transgender Americans earn less than $24,000 per year. One-third of black trans women earn less than $10,000 per year. Trans Americans are more likely to be rejected by their families, to be homeless, and to be forced into underground economies than the rest of the population. In some ways, that makes the military—a career that comes with a built-in family—a particularly good option for a lot of trans Americans. That option is something that trans Americans, as citizens of this country, are entitled to pursue. And it’s something that President Trump promised both LGBT Americans and veterans that he would support.

Whether Trump keeps his promises or not, trans Americans are going to fight for this country. They’ll do it in the military, even though the president just issued a declaration that orders them back in the closet. And they’ll do it right in front of the White House, with their signs raised and their heads held high, when the president tries to stop them.


First Person

I Didn’t Know I Was Poor Until I Applied to College

As a kid, I divided rich and poor into two categories: Rich people have big houses and fancy cars, and poor folks have nothing. Measuring myself against those extremes, I felt like I didn’t fit in either.

Growing up, I didn’t have video games or cable TV, but I had a yard where I could make mud pies. To my parents’ dismay, I once tried to dig a hole in that yard that went all the way to China. To my parents’ joy, I used that same yard to pick white daisies to demonstrate capillary action of water in plants. My project—adding color to the white flowers by sticking them in empty spaghetti sauce jars of food dye and water—won a blue ribbon in my fifth-grade science fair.

There were times when I wished my Pro Wings shoes from Payless were Nikes, or my dollar store dolls were Barbies. But most of the time, I was happy. My childhood was filled with laughter, family dinners, and library books. I couldn’t afford to buy tickets to summer blockbusters, so I borrowed every Shirley Temple, Nancy Kwan, Rita Moreno, and Sidney Poitier VHS tape I could find at the public library. While other kids saw movies about mutants and robots, I reveled in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routines.

All of that fell away when I started writing admissions essays. I only had one thousand words to describe who I was and where I came from to the outside world, and it was not enough space for nuance. So, I simplified. I truncated the complexities of my existence into compound words. My neighborhood, with its cul-de-sacs of homes and organic gardens (before organic was a thing), became a “low-income community.” My friends and our families, with our love for weekend barbecues and 35-cent Thrifty Ice Cream cones, belonged to a “working class.” I tried as well as I could to reconcile how I saw myself—a B-average student with dreams to make a difference in this world—with how society labeled me—a statistic, a member of the free-lunch population, a poor child. It was an early exercise in translating poverty into terms people with economic privilege could understand.

I didn’t feel downtrodden. I was not Oliver Twist.

The complexities of who I am, and where I am from, got lost in the translation. I am the daughter of Vietnamese “boat people” refugees. My mom worked in sweatshops and my dad was a day laborer. Even with all their love for books and knowledge, my parents never had the chance to finish high school. Their academic dreams were dashed by poverty and war. They couldn’t help me navigate the school system or study for the SAT because it was new for them, too. But that doesn’t mean their histories were an obstacle I had to overcome. They were a source of strength: They sheltered me, nurtured me, motivated me, and loved me.

My family and community may not have been financially wealthy, but that doesn’t mean we were less than. I didn’t feel downtrodden. I was not Oliver Twist.

We make a mistake when we assume poor children think of themselves as poor. Poverty as a label perpetuates false notions of identity—for those being labeled and for those making decisions on their behalf. It also flattens kids into stereotypes: Some are burdens to the society who aren’t expected to amount to anything, and others are grit-filled diamonds in the rough who only have luck to thank. People are tokenized, otherized, commercialized, criminalized, and even romanticized. We’re reduced to an “us” versus “them” and categorized as good or bad apples.

When it comes to poverty, there’s no such thing as “us” or “them.” Most Americans—4 out of 5 of us—will experience some kind of economic hardship in our lifetimes. But when that happens, we probably won’t think of ourselves as poor. We’ll be “down on our luck.” We’ll be “having a tough time.” That makes it harder for people to ask for the help they need—after all, food stamps are for “poor” people. And it makes it harder to admit it when you accept support, because we treat the narratives of “taxpayer” and “social service recipient” as if they’re mutually exclusive.

Those lines are designed to be blurred. I’m proof—a Head Start student that became an Ivy League graduate. Thanks to public schools and the National School Lunch Act, I received an education and never went hungry. Thanks to Medicaid, I had the dental and health care that I needed to thrive as a child. Thanks to Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, and Work-Study, I went to and finished college. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I was insured when I was unemployed.

I didn’t realize I was poor for 18 years. Perhaps it was because of the combination of support I received from my family, our community, and the effective policies and programs that were in place when I needed them the most. Every library book, free lunch, and after-school activity I had mattered. With them, a curious kid became a public school teacher, now doctoral candidate. Without them, you wouldn’t be reading this today.