S.3 E.7 “Valuing Youth and Youth Voices”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Hope Crenshaw ‘04, Executive Director of Teen Health Mississippi.
Posted on September 8th, 2020 by

Gustavus graduate Hope Crenshaw ‘04, Executive Director of Teen Health Mississippi, recalls her experience as a young black woman from Mississippi at mostly white Gustavus, and talks about her response to the murder of Mr. George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the mission and impact of Teen Health, and leadership.

Season 3, Episode 7: “Valuing Youth and Youth Voices”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Teenagers, sex, and sex education. These four words in combination are a combustible mix in our political and cultural discourse, raising all kinds of questions that have been and continue to be, subject of intense debate, and even legislation. For example, is sex education a private matter best left to parents, rather than schools? And when taught in schools, what form should it take? As executive director of the nonprofit Teen Health Mississippi, based in Jackson, Gustavus Alum and Mississippi native Hope Crenshaw is well-versed in such issues.

Hope graduated Gustavus in 2004 with a major in Sociology and Anthropology. She went on to earn an M.A. in Sociology at Minnesota State University, an Educational Specialist Degree from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and a Ph.D. in Education Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Hope has extensive experience and expertise in educational policy and leadership, with a specific focus on data use. She has numerous single-author and co-authored publications and presentations in these areas, and is a recipient of the University of Mississippi’s Forest W. Murphy Award in Educational Leadership for Outstanding Public Educator. She served as Director of Education and Training for Teen Health Mississippi in Clarksdale, before being named the organization’s Executive Director in 2018.

In addition to their regular work in sex education and reproductive health, she and Teen Health have also been active around the well-being of teens amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the question of whether to reopen schools. Which is why I thought it would be particularly interesting and timely to speak with her for the podcast. Welcome, Hope. I’ve been looking forward to learning more about your work and Teen Health.

Hope Crenshaw:

I’m glad to be here today, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks. I should note before we dive in to questions, I should note here, that the views you express in our conversation are not necessarily those of Teen Health Mississippi. And with that stipulation, I would like to ask you, first, about your path from Crenshaw, Mississippi, where you grew up, and if I’m remembering correctly, no relation, but your path from Crenshaw, Mississippi to St. Peter, Minnesota and Gustavus. What led you to choose Gustavus, and by the way, we’re glad that you did.

Hope Crenshaw:

Well, thanks, Greg. So it was a fascinating journey that started, I think even before I was born. So, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was this big recruitment of students from Mississippi, particularly Quitman County, Mississippi, which is the county that I grew up in, to come to Gustavus in Minnesota. My basic recollection of the historical account, Bruce Gray who was part of Gustavus Class of 1961, and I think he was the former Dean of Students at the time, connected with a local counselor in that area, Paul Rucker and there was a connection fostered to bring young black youth from Mississippi to Gustavus.

So, of course, this was all on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, and at that time, Gustavus was really eager to increase their diversity since prior to 1965, the only non-whites at Gustavus were international students. So, Bruce Gray wrote this book, this really amazing book called, “Black and Bold,” where he outlines all of that. But if I fast forward time to 1990s, the connection between Gustavus and my community hadn’t fully been severed, although it had been slowed tremendously. My parents had three children. All three of us graduated from Gustavus. My brother, Gregory, graduated from Gustavus in ’96. My sister followed my brother, and graduated in 2000, and I followed my sister, and graduated in 2004. We’re all four years apart, and so we always joke and say that, my parents were picking up one child from graduating from Gustavus, and as they were preparing to send another one of us to Gustavus. So that’s kind of like my little story.

Greg Kaster:

That early history involving Bruce Gray, and I do want to interview him and Owen Sammelson, as well. They worked together on that, for the podcast. I’ve only learned a lot more about that early history that you were just describing, and the way former president, long before our time at Gustavus, Edgar Carlson, was really involved in the pursuit of civil rights, both within and outside the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which Gustavus is a part of.

So you found yourself at Gustavus in St. Peter, Minnesota. It’s a mostly white campus then, even still, although we’ve made a lot of progress. When in a mostly white town, mostly white state, what was that like for you as a young, black woman?

Hope Crenshaw:

So, I want to start with the community that I grew up in. So the community that I grew up in, not the town itself, but the particular community, was all black. Despite the many poverty labels and deficit labels placed on my community, I saw myself represented in that community. I saw black teachers, principals, business persons, factory workers, pastors, all represented, all looked like me. So then, I fast forward to Gustavus, and suddenly, I’m the only African-American student in my incoming and graduating class.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Hope Crenshaw:

There were about 20 African and African-American students on campus at the time. We all became very close. I saw one African-American teacher on campus. There was no other African-American representation. So, I really have mixed feelings about my time at Gustavus, and I’ve been thinking about this, I guess for the last 20 years. Man, that’s been a while. Since I first came to Gustavus.

First, I love Gustavus because this is the place where I found my voice as a leader. I found the lens through which I could really see the world and shape the lives of Mississippi youth and Mississippi communities, and that’s through the lens of sociology. I learned more about the history of Mississippi at Gustavus, because of the amazing history department, shameless plug for the history department.

Greg Kaster:

Ah, thank you. Thank you.

Hope Crenshaw:

Yes. I was given opportunities to connect with community outside of Gustavus. I was given opportunity to study away, in Ghana, and I met amazing professors like Kate Wittenstein, Suzanne Wilson, Elizabeth Jenner, who became my cheerleaders.

At the same time, I felt increasingly isolated. I was reminded that I didn’t quite fit in, or I didn’t quite belong. So, I recall walking home from a friend’s dorm one night, and someone in a moving vehicle threw what I assumed to be water at me. I recall that an anthropology professor said I couldn’t make it, that I would never get into Berkeley, and wouldn’t get a Ph.D., and just in case he’s listening, I did get into Berkeley, and I chose a Ph.D. at another institution. So that became a different type of motivation for me.

I remember becoming increasingly popular during Black History Month, on campus, and increasingly popular when education classes needed to interview a Black person about what it meant to be Black. There was this assumption that was made by a lot of people that I was only there for diversity when I graduated from Gustavus, with honors.

When I say I have mixed feelings about my education and my time at Gustavus, it’s really mixed. It was a great education that phenomenally shaped who I am, and I’m proud that I had that experience, in terms of education. But it fundamentally left me feeling like I didn’t belong. Perhaps, on some levels, maybe I didn’t belong, but I made it through and I’m happy that I’m able to do what I’m able to do. And that was because of Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

Well, we’re glad. We knew you’d make it through. We’re glad, and I love that answer about Berkeley. Yeah, you turned down Berkeley.

Hope Crenshaw:

I turned down Berkeley.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I love that. What about, could you say a little bit about some of your leadership. I think at the time, listeners might be interested in that.

Hope Crenshaw:

So, I think for the first, maybe, year, I was just like, “I’m not going to be a leader. I don’t want to do anything. I just want to take my classes and go back to my room.” And then, when you start, begin to have these experiences, and you begin to feel otherwise, you can either fully retreat, or you can be a spokesperson. Given that my experiences weren’t isolated experiences, I began to speak out in classes, which was a huge point for me.

I began to be a part of the, what we called, the Diversity Center, at the time, and I think they have a different name for it?

Greg Kaster:

Right, Center for Inclusive Excellence, yeah.

Hope Crenshaw:

I’m proud that they’ve removed that name. I was a part of the Pan-African Student Organization. I was a part of the St. Lucia Group for Leadership, and just various other ways to speak out and bring representation to the campus that expressed, or that really showed that my culture, where I was from, where other people were from mattered. Those were really great experiences to be a part of. But again, having no other option but to either retreat, or become a voice meant that I wasn’t going to retreat. I was definitely going to be a voice, but that voice carried me throughout.

Greg Kaster:

You are anything but a retreat-er. I know that. And I think what you’re saying is true of so many experiences, so many students, regardless of backgrounds. It’s not all, but many who find their voice at Gustavus, in part because of its liberal arts college ethos, size, and go on to do, and try to find as you’re suggesting, to find leadership skills, or leadership talents that maybe they didn’t know they had, and develop those a bit, that come into play after graduation.

What about the trip to Ghana? I am glad you mentioned that. I had completely forgotten about that. That was, how did that impact you? That study abroad experience?

Hope Crenshaw:

Thank you for the great memories. Yeah. I went to Ghana to study the African [inaudible 00:10:42], the transatlantic slave trade, and that experience was everything. Especially on the heels of having felt like I wasn’t being, seeing representation of myself on Gustavus campus. Going there, and just having the experiences of seeing things that we’ve talked about in terms of history. Hearing history and hearing oral history of accounts that somehow transferred over to the United States, but may not have transferred over correctly. The experience was amazing, and I think it really shaped how I see people from all walks of life. I think Gustavus even shaped that. Being at Gustavus, hanging out with Hmong students, and students from international backgrounds, it just really opened my eyes up to a broader world, from coming from the small town of Crenshaw, which had about 1000 people, to being placed at Gustavus, which really values that liberal arts education, and values that global perspective, to actually being able to not only say, “This is what I value,” but to actually go somewhere and fully immerse myself in another culture and another space. It was phenomenal.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I think that study abroad experience is so important, regardless of where you go to school. I’m proud to say Gustavus really does emphasize global education, even more than you, than it did when you were there. We’re just, we’re adopting a brand new Gen-Ed Curriculum, which centers that much more deliberately, and I think, more successfully, at least on paper, we’re still implementing it.

The other thing is about, I wanted to ask about Ghana, was that with Professor Kyoore, Paschal Kyoore, or was that through, was he there, was he leading that study abroad?

Hope Crenshaw:

So that study abroad was through the School of International Training.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Hope Crenshaw:

So, yeah. It was a completely separate program. I met about, was there about 10 other students from around the nation, around the U.S. that was also interested, and we became amazing friends, and we’re still friends to this day, because of that experience.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fantastic. I was asking about Paschal, because I did a podcast with him on Guinean folktales a while back, and I know he took students to Ghana, I believe once, at least. You’ve had such an amazing educational experience. You know all different places and ways, and I’m glad you, you said, “Thanks for the memories.” You were the one who mentioned Ghana, I had forgotten. So I’m glad we got a chance to talk about that.

What about, before we get to Teen Health, it’s hard to avoid the murder of Mr. Floyd by police here in Minneapolis, on May 25th, coincidentally, the very day this podcast began, with Professor Pam Conners of Comm Studies, and a conversation with her about civic discourse. What were your thoughts as you learned about what had happened? Especially given your time in Minnesota. What went through your mind and heart?

Hope Crenshaw:

Yeah. So, initially, I was horrified. I still have not sat and completely watched that entire video. But at the same time, as I was being horrified, I wasn’t surprised. It’s no different than what we’ve seen and what we’ve heard about in America previously. There’s a long list of names that have been murdered just like George Floyd. I believe Will Smith was the person who stated, “These things have been happening for a really long time. We’re just now recording it.”

When I see black bodies being killed on television, when I see them being replayed in the media, I’m forever traumatized. That’s just something that I can never get over. But I’m also cautiously hopeful in that, I see young people raising their voices. I see institutional racism, in some aspects, being dismantled, and where it’s not being dismantled, it’s being heavily scrutinized. And I’m very careful about saying that things are now better, we’re in this great world, because I think we still have a long way to go.

I also think that each state has its own problems. So policing is definitely an issue everywhere, but I love the larger dialogue that it’s creating, even in the state of Mississippi, about the now, the former flag, of Mississippi, I’m proud to say. Yes. As of yesterday, it was officially signed and the flags are coming down. It’s a really proud moment, but a really heavy space to be in, especially seeing young people in the streets rioting and standing up for what they believe in. It’s so interesting, because if you think about youth and the youth perspective, even in the Civil Rights Movement, the youth were at the forefront of that movement. So youth today are kind of taking their rightful place in history.

I was in a meeting the other day, and I met this lady, her name is Colleen, from Oakland, who, we were discussing COVID, police brutality, and racism, and she says, “Everyone’s in a rush to get back to normal, when normal is really what’s killing us.” That really resonated with me, because, again, I think everybody has their own issues. Every state has their own issues. But it’s important that we begin to tackle those conversations at the national level, and then also act locally, in response to those.

So if I think about our work at Teeth Health Mississippi, one of the many problems in Mississippi is that communities have, historically, and even present day, lacked access to resources and information, and access to healthcare and education. And because of that, that impacts educational attainment, that impacts health, it impacts wealth. So one of the things that, I know we’re going to talk about Teen Health a little later, but just being part of this greater movement at Teen Health, where we’re talking about, we’re having mobilizing youth summits, where we’re teaching youth to have voices about issues impacting their lives. The Mississippi Youth Council, where we’re teaching youth to write legislation on sex ed, and just the general type of education they want.

The Mind Elevation Project, where youth are sharing their voices over social media, about mental health, and sexual health, and the Mississippi Youth Voice, where they also provide this peer-to-peer education, is something really positive to see. Again, youths taking their place, but also being a part of a larger movement where we can help shape and give youth the tools to step into their rightful place in history.

Greg Kaster:

Those are, I think, just great points, all of them, including the point about, that there’s scrutiny going on, even if there isn’t yet the kind of change we’d like to see, that we’re impatient for. Great point about what is normal. Well, you know for some people, normal is exactly what we want to get away from, and then I think the emphasis on youth. That’s been a theme with people I’ve spoken to about what happened here in Minneapolis. The way young people are out protesting, including arguably, somewhat different than in the 60s. The protests are so multicultural, so varied, and it’s the same with the memorial/murder site, or murder memorial site at 38th and Chicago, where Mr. Floyd was killed. Kate and I, Kate Wittenstein and I went there some weeks ago, and I was just, it was very moving, but it was also just so interesting and hopeful, as you said, to see so many young people of all different persuasions. That does give one hope.

What about you, so we’re starting to get into Teen Health, which I am learning more about, both by talking to you, and by preparing for the podcast. Could you tell us a little more about its genesis? I understand you were involved in its spinoff from a parent organization. Tell us a little bit about that, and about what the initiative, what time mission of Teen Health is, and what your work as Executive Director involves.

Hope Crenshaw:

Sure. You’ve given me a topic that I love to talk about. In 2011, I feel like I’m a history teacher right now.

Greg Kaster:

You are.

Hope Crenshaw:

In 2011, the Mississippi State Legislature created a bill around sex ed that said that, the communities or school districts can either choose abstinence-only sex education, or abstinence-plus sex education. Of course, abstinence-only meant that you would only hear about abstaining from sex until they were married, and that would be the curriculum, around that. Whereas, abstinence-plus gave a little more flexibility to talk about contraceptive options. So what we saw in the state was a lot of ab-only people piling in, trying to get funding, trying to get access to resources, not understanding, or maybe they understood, but our numbers, our statistics around teen birth, STI rates, and HIV rates were just astronomical at the time.

So that was kind of how Teen Health, as a program, was born, because it was really about making sure that communities had access to information and resources to protect their bodies. So fast forward time, the program just keeps growing and growing, and we were a part of Mississippi First, which is an advocacy organization for education, in general. So they saw sex education as being one of those pieces that needed to happen in order for young people to fully gain access in higher-education attainment.

Fast track all those things, the program just keeps growing and growing, and gets bigger, gets more funding, more attention as we’re working on legislation around these pieces. Different foundations want to be involved, and in 2017, this part of the program becomes so big that the organization, Mississippi First, says, “We have to spin this off. We really need to spin this off into its own thing,” because we started having mission drift, where Mississippi First couldn’t get certain policy pieces that they wanted. Teen Health, sex ed, couldn’t get certain policy pieces that it wanted. It was a bit of a mission fight, because just people who supported Pre-K, didn’t support sex ed. People who supported sex ed had an issue with Pre-K.

So in 2017, that was the plan, to kind of spin this off, and they needed somebody to do it. I was not interested. I was like, “No, I love being Director of Education and training, because I get to talk to my community about all these topics, like healthy relationships, how we’re engaging with the LGBTQ community, our treatment of youth and STI rates, and teen birth rates.” This was fun. This was my bread and butter. This was my jam. I could use sociology to do it. This was great for me.

There was this push, both kind of like internally and externally, among my friends that’s like, “Here’s your chance, here’s your opportunity to impact the state of Mississippi, possibly the southeast region. If you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?” I thought about it for a really long time. Eventually did it. Was freaked out because I didn’t know how to be an executive director, but it all worked out. I had some great mentors around me, and in 2019, Teen Health officially spun off from its parent organization, we’re now a standalone 501c3, with two offices, one in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and one in Jackson, Mississippi. And the program just keeps growing and growing.

So again, our mission is really about ensuring that you have access to high-quality sex education, and youth-friendly healthcare services. So at the center of who we are and what we do, we value youth and youth voices. So we have about four programs that teach youth, and I talked about them earlier, teach youth about how to get your voices out, how to get your voices heard on things that matter to you. And then around that, we involve everyone who touches or impacts the lives of youth. That includes legislators, parents, teachers, community-based, faith-based organizations. We provide training and opportunities to help them better work with young people. And what we’re seeing in the process is that as we’re teaching them how to work with young people, how to talk about sex, how to talk about issues like intimate partner violence in their community, these adults are also being impacted as well.

It ends up being a community model, even though our focus is on young people. So one of the things that we say is that, “When we focus on youth, and give them what they need to be successful, then whole communities benefit,” and I think that’s definitely what we’re seeing happen.

Greg Kaster:

And that’s a super, I think, super important point about the relationships and what you do to focus on teens, and the larger community, including parents, obviously. What about, and schools. What about, I’m curious about the history of sex education in Mississippi. It’s abstinence-only or abstinence-plus, is there any effort to change that by your organization and/or others?

Hope Crenshaw:

Yeah. So abstinence-only and abstinence-plus, the other alternative is comprehensive sex ed, right? And given that we’re in the Bible Belt, we’ve had some definite challenges around that, getting that passed. But through our Mississippi Youth Council, my council, we’re really working on legislation around that. So, actually, that bill sunsets in 2021, and we’re working hard this year, this fiscal year, this year, to either get comprehensive sex education on the maps, or to make sure that we don’t do any further harm by taking that bill away. Because, who knows what’s going to happen if schools aren’t required to teach some form of this.

I know it’s a contentious topic about whether it should be parents having this discussion, whether it should be schools having this discussion, but what we’re seeing is that young people’s lives are greatly impacted. So, we’re number, we’re chronically number one and two in terms of the STI rates, in terms of chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis. Syphilis is making a comeback. Jackson metropolitan area is number four in the nation for HIV/AIDS rates. The persons living with HIV and AIDS. So, understanding that this is really not an older people issue as it has commonly been framed, but the CDC reports that the majority of these cases are coming from youth ages 15-24.

Also, interestingly enough, we’re seeing the same things happen with COVID, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Hope Crenshaw:

Young people are greatly impacted. All of these issues are not separate. And what’s really important here is that we find a way to address this. Not only for young people, but again, for those community members as well. So sometimes, communities may not know how to have conversations, right? We’re working with parents to do that. Sometimes, conversations are considered taboo, for whatever reason. We’re working with communities to have conversations.

So we consider it a both/and notion, not just an either/or. But also making sure that when teachers go in, and they’re having conversations about sex education, because we have conversations about the liver, the heart, the kidneys, right? So, why not have conversations about making sure you understand your body fully? [crosstalk 00:27:05]

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Hope Crenshaw:

So that’s something that has been really a challenge in Mississippi, is how communities have, historically, not had access to information and resources to protect themselves. And we still see that trend happening today, but we’re very hopeful. We’re currently in about 23 school districts state-wide, that’s offering abstinence-plus, so a little more education. And then we also have programs that are outside these. [crosstalk 00:27:33]

Greg Kaster:

That’s what really, I mean, not only interesting and important, but just obviously crucial to the well-being. [crosstalk 00:27:44]

Hope Crenshaw:

Yeah. Go ahead.

Greg Kaster:

Go ahead. No, go ahead. You were saying you also have outside, I think I lost you for a minute. [crosstalk 00:27:53]

Hope Crenshaw:

Okay. Yeah, so we also have community-based programs as well. It has to be a both/and in order to save people’s lives. So one of the things that we say here, is that it’s really a matter of life and health.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Hope Crenshaw:

And we want people to be healthy. You can’t achieve your highest goals, your highest dreams, if you have these concerns about your health, about your bodies, right? So how do we move Mississippi forward? I think this is one avenue where we’re centering sex ed, but it’s so much larger than sex ed. It’s really about giving communities access and information to resources and that’s what we’re doing.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. Exactly. And I was thinking as you were speaking, is exactly that. It’s about, it’s not just sex ed, it’s about one’s well-being, and what one can do when one is healthy in all senses of that word. And this notion that it should be up to parents, well if the parents are ill-informed or uninformed, or uncomfortable with sex education and their children. That can be a disaster, too. And I always think of a high school friend whose father was extremely reserved, and apparently told my friend, “Come into this room,” he sat my friend down, he put a record on, yes, those were the days when we had record players [crosstalk 00:29:22] [and records 00:29:21]. And there was some sort of sex education talk on the record, and that was it.

I’m grateful, by the time I was a senior in high school, we did have sex education, I think because we were such a group of losers, senior men, we were opposed to the Vietnam War, we didn’t like doing all the exercise, and they created a bowling class, and a sex education class for us. But, I mean, I am grateful.

That’s amazing what the organization is doing, and incredibly important, and I think interesting, also, you mentioned a couple of things, actually. You mentioned you didn’t, I can’t remember how you put it, you didn’t know much about what it meant to be an executive director. I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about what you’ve learned about yourself as a leader. What leadership entails. What you’ve discovered about leading, especially around challenging issues like this.

Hope Crenshaw:

Yeah. So I think one of the things that I’ve learned, as a leader, is you don’t have to do everything yourself. You surround yourself with people who can do the work for you. So, part of things is that, when I first became executive director, I was like, “I don’t know about finance, I don’t know about this, I don’t know about that,” and just this laundry list of things I didn’t know about. You have to be willing to learn. You also have to be willing to trust the people that’s around you to really support you. So find your allies in, whether that’s other organizations, whether that’s people that you’re working closely with. Also, one of the things that I quickly learned is that, as an organization called Teen Health Mississippi, you really want to get the input of teens, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Hope Crenshaw:

So every decision that we make. Yeah. We may as well be, like Older Adult Mississippi, then, if that’s the case. So, we have two youth board members on our board of seven. They have full voting privileges. They set the trajectory, they give me a call when things are going well, when things could be better. It’s really important to have their voice and to have their input. So, just as much as it’s about me being a leader, it’s about giving other people the opportunity to lead, as well. And that’s been one of the, I say, greater successes that I’ve seen so far at Teen Health, is that, we don’t really just speak for communities, we work with communities, and communities give us, tell us what they need, and they tell us what they have. And then we work from there to really provide those access to resources.

Fundraising is huge, so that’s a big thing that executive directors have to do. Again, I didn’t have a background in that. I’m learning, and so, I think, the piece is just to continue learning. It’s always going to be something new, something exciting. I went from my first year of just trying to understand what it means to build and organization from the ground up, the policies, the procedures, the rules. And then in 2020, I get a pandemic, right?

So now I’m leading an organization in a pandemic. That requires a totally different skillset. I think what I’ve learned so far is that you won’t have all the skills, you won’t have all the knowledge, and all the resources, but you have to be willing to try, and you have to be willing to find people who you can connect with.

Greg Kaster:

And I think in this pandemic, we’re learning, at the national level, the state level, the local level, just how important leadership is, and what a disaster its absence or incompetence can be. You mentioned COVID and Teen Health, and in preparing for the podcast, I read an op-ed by you, I think early June, maybe it was in the Clarion Ledger, but I thought it was really a terrific op-ed, where you’re pointing out that we ought to consider youth, teens essential workers, and that we need to think more about that. Could you say a little bit about that perspective?

Hope Crenshaw:

Yeah, so in, I believe, March, we had a small amount of funding from some corporations, some foundations, and it’s like, “Here’s some funds to ensure that your youth that you work with are okay during the pandemic.” So we decided to just kind of open it up to the state of Mississippi, youth in the state of Mississippi, 13-21, to say, “Hey, what are you feeling? What’s happening? We have some resources.” We expected to get no more than 100 young people saying they needed some type of support. What we ended up getting was 4,000 applications. [crosstalk 00:34:17]

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Hope Crenshaw:

Yeah. 4,000, 13-21 year olds. 43% of them said they were experiencing food insecurities. About 23% said they were experiencing homelessness. And then we also saw where young people were having to ration medicine. So there were young people who were diabetics that wouldn’t take their medicines regularly, or were sharing medicine with their parents. The experiences of these young people were just shocking, and it was just overwhelming. And what we saw was, if this type of experience from COVID, I mean, COVID made things worse. But these experiences were already there. Some of these young people had experienced a tornado during Easter. Some of these people have already experienced a level of poverty before. We were seeing young people say, “Hey, things were bad before this. Now they’re worse.”

And so, when we think about reopening schools, there are some people that are thinking about the logistical pieces, and they have to focus on those things like whether it’s going to be virtual, whether it’s going to be a hybrid course, whether it’s going to be students in pods, if they’re going to be using face shields, going to be using masks, how many students are going to be in a room. I think the CDC, the Fordham Institute, and I know our local Mississippi Department of Education has some guidance around that, and I’m sure Minnesota will also be providing some guidance around that as well, but while we’re opening these schools, we really need to think about this larger piece about the levels of trauma that students are bringing to school, and how do we manage those things?

So, what does equity in education look like in this new system, in this new… I heard somebody say that, “This is not the new normal, it’s the next normal.” So what does it really look like in this, and how do we make sure that we’re equaling, or at least equitably leveling the playing field, so that it’s not just a conversation about, if you have internet, because they’re going to need that, definitely. But, there’s also this emotional and traumatic piece that youth are dealing with, as well. And I think, even though this is happening in Mississippi, and that was where our youth, our impact report came from, I imagine that this is happening nationwide.

Greg Kaster:

It’s nationwide, I agree. I couldn’t agree more. The access to technology is important, we need to think about that, that’s part of the equity. But that’s, in a way, superficial, right? It’s what’s underneath that emotionally and psychologically that, as you say, is so important. The resources, in terms of, if you’re hungry, or homeless, or ill, it doesn’t matter that you have access to technology. It’s hard to learn under those conditions.

Hope Crenshaw:

Absolutely. Think about Maslow’s hierarchy of need, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Hope Crenshaw:

If I don’t have food, clothing, shelter, how am I really going to focus on my state standardized test, which states are still trying to do, but how am I supposed to focus on my future? So we’ve seen a lot of college students who were also relying on work-study jobs. Well, there is no work, but you still expect me to study. You still expect me to pay for this apartment that I’m in, I’m essentially homeless now, because I don’t have that. Not all environments were really welcoming and open to young people, their family environments, not necessarily, apt, or befitting. It may have been some trauma associated with that as well. So these are all levels and layers that we have to think about, not only for young people, but for teachers themselves, right?

So teachers have been experiencing trauma. They’ve been losing loved ones as well. Young people have been losing loved ones. We talked to someone from a specific subpopulation, and this young man, who’s 18 years old, lost both of his parents. The Choctaw Indigenous Group in Mississippi, they’re the hardest-hit by COVID-19 in the state. What does it mean for, not only, just me talking about young people overall, but how are particular subpopulations dealing with this? And how has it shaped their view? And how does that look in terms of providing equity in terms of education for these young people?

Greg Kaster:

Does Teen Health take a position, are you lobbying one way or the other around the question of school openings, should schools reopen?

Hope Crenshaw:

We’re not. We’re not taking a position. I think the Mississippi Department of Education has left it up to school districts on how to handle that. So they’ve given them three options. We don’t get into lobbying for one particular option over another, but what we know is that communities and schools need us, at this point, at this juncture, and they have always needed us at this point and this juncture, and at previous points and junctures. So what we’re doing is saying, “Here’s the resources.”

What we’re seeing is a lot teachers asking for trainings on trauma. How do you have conversations about COVID? It’s the same skillset that you have conversations about sex. It’s the same conversations that you have about racism, right? It’s a skillset that needs to be obtained, and what we’re doing is providing skillsets for communities in order to be able to deal with difficult times.

Greg Kaster:

I’ve gone back and forth, as I told you before we started recording, on this question of, “Should schools reopen?” I’m not talking about colleges, higher-ed, but even el-ed, and high school, and I think I’ve come down to yes, they should, there are so many reasons why, related to family circumstances, related to community circumstances, but your point is so crucial. Without resources for the students and for the teachers, what’s the point? So it’s a conversation to be continued.

This has been absolutely so interesting. You and I haven’t talked in a while. I’m so, Kate Wittenstein, my wife Kate and I are just so proud of you and all that you’ve done. Best of luck with Teen Health as you continue your work, and I’m telling you, Hope, one day, you’re going to be in, I don’t know, politics, I hope. Something. You’ll be in elected office, I think. That’s my fortune-telling for you. So thank you so much for joining me, and best of luck with everything.

Hope Crenshaw:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

And hope to see you in Mississippi the next time we’re down. I think we did, we saw you. Didn’t we see you once? Kate and I came down there, I forgot. We came. Who did we run into? Was it your great aunt? We were searching for…

Hope Crenshaw:

Oh, let’s not talk about that story. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

That’ll be off-mic. Take care. Thanks so much.

Hope Crenshaw:

All right. Good deal. Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

Bye-bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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