tewa women united A'GIN project Healthy Sexuality and Body Sovereignty: Part ONE of THREE

"I realize that I want to be somebody who carries on the traditions and stories in our communities."
"I liked going to this program. I felt special and important. This program has taught me about how my body works, my reproductive organs, and how to better know about and take care of myself as a woman."
"I am more aware of the physical and emotional effects from making certain decisions."

Over the past five years, more than 300 young men and women of Native American heritage have participated in an innovative program designed and delivered by Tewa Women United. In this series of three presentations, we at i2i Institute -- evaluators since the program's outset in 2011 -- share a retrospective view of program progress and outcomes with TWU and their community supporters.

PART ONE: PROJECT OVERVIEW

Respect and honor your body. Make good decisions that honor you. Ask for guidance from mentors.

These mottos sound like solid advice for anyone. For young people navigating the challenges of adolescence, they may literally offer a lifeline through the mixed messages, conflicting expectations, and stressful life experiences they encounter en route to adulthood.

Offered to students in school and community settings, the A’Gin Healthy Sexuality and Body Sovereignty Project seeks to inform and empower young people so that they may make healthy choices in their lives. Celebrating adolescent development, understanding healthy relationships of shared power and control, making conscious and informed parenting choices -- these are some of the significant outcomes the A'Gin Project seeks to achieve through its focus on respect.

Students' journal responses reflect a profound understanding of A'Gin, "respect."

The program primarily serves youth and their families in the six northern Tewa speaking pueblos. In designing A'Gin, Tewa Women United recognized that cultural grounding is crucial to effective teaching about the physical, emotional, and social changes adolescence brings. "You have to learn about sexual health through a cultural lens," one program facilitator said. "We used to have ceremonies for these types of things, to talk to [young people] about this," she added, expressing a commonly held regret that much of this tradition has been disrupted or lost.

One youth facilitator remarked that "the program was not the traditional sex-ed young people may experience in school."
The sovereign nations of Ohkay Owingeh, Nambe, Santa Clara, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, and Tesuque comprise the six northern Tewa speaking pueblos.

By infusing the curriculum with Tewa language, customs, and history, and by incorporating mentorship, experiential learning practices, community-based activities and parental involvement, Executive Director Corrine Sanchez and her team at Tewa Women United developed a program that would tackle some of the most pressing challenges for young people in a strengths-based and trauma-informed way.

"This is a good program and may give you information your parents don't talk about." -- Youth Participant
Tewa values and pueblo life ways are at the heart of the A'Gin Project

Through a competitive funding process, Tewa Women United was awarded one of sixteen grants funded by a five-year Tribal Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) grant from the Family and Youth Services Bureau of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. Grantees -- tribes as well as tribal organizations -- are found in nine states, and those selected must participate in a rigorous planning process before implementing their programs with youth.

The Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a federal agency, funds 16 Tribal PREP grantees in 9 states. New Mexico hosts two: the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project and Tewa Women United's A'Gin Project.

Initially formulated by the funders as a teen pregnancy prevention program, the grant focus has broadened to recognize and support many factors that contribute to youth resiliency and sexual and reproductive health. (Crucially, TWU accepts, supports and honors the young people whose life paths include early parenthood, as well as those who choose to wait.) A'Gin Project youth are encouraged to become involved with the leadership component, which supports program participants to engage in service learning and to become effective advocates for their own health and well-being, as well as that of their families and communities. Young people have the opportunity to train as youth facilitators, furthering their understanding of the program elements and gaining valuable experience as peer educators.

"Including older kids as a part of the teaching team was new and innovative, and allowed [students] to open up on personal stuff." -- Teacher at host school, who mentioned that one youth facilitator had decided to pursue teaching as a career path because of her experience with the A'Gin program.

TWU's steadfast insistence that the program be responsive to the specific needs of Tewa youth -- rather than pledge fidelity to a rigid, narrowly adapted curriculum designed for other populations -- resulted in permission to adopt a curriculum not included on the list of approved, evidence based interventions. Discovery Dating, an exemplary curriculum developed by Alice Skenandore, a Native American midwife, and her colleagues at Wise Woman Gathering Place, forms the solid core. The TWU team worked with Tewa cultural consultants to enhance and adapt the curriculum before implementing it, and have continued to augment and refine the lessons as they proceed.

As one of a very few grantees to select an alternative curriculum, TWU's accrued expertise in curriculum development and program refinement has proven valuable to others. Over the five years of the grant, TWU has gained a reputation among Tribal PREP grantees and federal funders for their thoughtful and trauma-informed perspective. Their positive work with the A'Gin Project, along with other ongoing projects aimed toward ending violence against women and girls and Mother Earth, earned them the respect and support of national organizations like First Nations Development Institute, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, and others.

Successfully conducting the ACF grant has gained TWU allies and respectful relationships at the state level as well. Opportunities to discuss and collaborate statewide have advanced TWU's staff capacity while contributing to a regional network of agencies, organizations and providers committed to improving outcomes for youth in New Mexico.

"Communication and transparency are essential to best implementation. The collaborative practice is the part I liked the most, [TWU's] ability to adapt to the needs of the district [and to] the different dynamics for each school. -- Director of Indian Education, Espanola Public Schools

Perhaps most importantly, TWU has forged strong relationships at home with parent organizations, school boards, health providers, tribal councils, and dozens of other collectives doing effective work in service of local youth. Four years of hard work implementing the program in schools have resulted in established pathways with host schools, positive relationships with teachers and parent councils, and aid agreements with tribal councils and organizations and various other providers who serve young people. In focus groups and interviews, parents and community members reflect on the changes they've seen in students. Anecdotal reports suggest a gradual cultural shift toward increased openness in Tewa communities around discussing issues of healthy sexuality and body sovereignty. At the same time, teen pregnancy rates among Native American youth in the region have been declining.

"FUN. COOL. AWESOME."

Students enjoy participating in the program and recommend it to their friends. They favor the experiential aspects, find the material on sexually transmitted disease and safe sex to be "weird" and "gross" but important to know, and take especially to heart the sessions on dreams and goals.

Many of the students who participate have mixed heritage and diverse life experiences. While 94% of students surveyed are Native American, nearly a third also claim Hispanic heritage. Fewer than 10% of students also selected African-American, Pacific Islander or White/Caucasian as part of their ancestry. Helping students explore the beauty and challenges of identity is a central element of the project.

"We went into conversation about how can you be in the western world and still have [indigenous] cultural backing along with Spanish descent? It's okay to be who you are and be proud. A lot of students gravitated toward that.” --A’Gin Facilitator

Students are guided to reflect on what matters to them, to identify supports, and to consider various strategies for making good decisions and dealing with stressful events and situations.

Collectively, students showed gains in more than three quarters (78%) of the cultural connectedness measures after participating in the program. Particularly notable were students' increased sense of belonging and of being valued by community.

Eight schools and two community venues have hosted cohorts over the four years of implementation.

  • Española Valley High School (2 cohorts)
  • Carlos Vigil Middle School (2 cohorts)
  • Pojoaque High School (2 cohorts)
  • Pojoaque Middle School (2 cohorts)
  • Santa Fe Indian School High (5 cohorts)
  • Santa Fe Indian School Middle (1 cohort)
  • Walatowa Charter High School (2 cohorts)
  • Ohkay Owingeh Community School (3 cohorts)
  • Tewa Women United offices (2 cohorts)
  • Nambe Pueblo Wellness Center (1 cohort)

A'GIN PROJECT, # STUDENTS BY SETTING

In the Pojoaque and Espanola cohorts, sessions were conducted during the Tewa language class. Many students in these cohorts had the opportunity to repeat the program the following year, strengthening their understanding and, for some, developing peer facilitation skills.

While a few cohorts were exclusively female, most were mixed gender.

Gender ratio, n=367

Both high school and middle school students participated. Student age at program exit ranged from 11 to 18. Eighth graders and high school freshmen -- those aged 14 and 15 -- were most heavily represented.

Age of students taking exit survey, n=244

We asked students, "How has being in the A'Gin program changed the way you think about healthy sexuality and body sovereignty?"

While some students could not point to a specific change, many others focused on increased knowledge about how to protect their bodies, how to make positive life choices, and how to treat others -- and expect to be treated -- in relationship.

Thoughtful, informed and medically accurate information about adolescent development and healthy sexuality is not readily available to students in their schools and communities. The A'Gin Project fills an important need.

Two thirds of students surveyed indicated that participating in the program had reduced the likelihood that they would have sexual intercourse in the next 6 months. While this outcome is not the program's specific intent, it may indicate increased personal agency and greater thoughtfulness around behavioral choices.

The final cohort in this grant cycle completed the curriculum in August 2016, and the results from the first five years of the A'Gin Healthy Sexuality and Body Sovereignty Project are unequivocal. Students credit it with increasing their sense of cultural connectedness. They feel themselves more likely to make healthy choices after completing the program. For more detailed information about various aspects of the A'Gin evaluation, please click on the links that follow.

A'Gin effectively engages participants in assuming a more active role in their own health and well-being.

The need is profound among local youth. With the help of a new cycle of funding and the support of the community, Tewa Women United plans to continue and expand the work.

The TWU A'Gin Healthy Sexuality and Body Sovereignty Project helps inform and empower young people so that they may make healthy choices in their lives.

To learn more about Tewa Women United's A'Gin Project, please explore these companion reports by clicking the buttons below.

The mission of Tewa Women United is to provide safe spaces for indigenous women to uncover the power, strength and skills they possess to become positive forces for social change in their families and communities. Learn more about TWU by visiting their website, below, or contact them at info@tewawomenunited.org.
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