Native American Youth Work To Prevent STDs Through Peer Education

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Commentary Sexual Health

Native American Youth Work To Prevent STDs Through Peer Education

Nicole Lovato

As a young person from the same Native American communities as my students, I find it more and more culturally relevant that our younger generation educate each other.

Published in partnership with the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD).

See all of our coverage of STD Awareness Month 2013 here and our coverage of National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day here.

As someone who works with young people and primarily young American Indians, I know I play a unique role in sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention efforts. Not only do young people ages 13 to 24 account for nearly half of all new STDs, but among American Indians and Alaska Natives rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia are four times the rates among white Americans. What’s more, between 2009 and 2010, gonorrhea rates increased 21.5 percent among American Indians and Alaska Natives.

As a Native American from the Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico, I provide trainings focused on cultural sensitivity and diversity to youth and adults working with or within New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos and two tribal nations. These youth-focused trainings are useful for STD and teen pregnancy prevention, and they are truly effective when young people use the tools and information learned in the training to become youth educators. As a youth worker, my role is not only to provide youth-positive health education, but also to foster youth educators and leaders.

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I work with people of all ages to improve the health and well-being of our Native American community. My audience includes everyone from fifth graders to adults to at-risk youth in treatment, detention centers, or leadership programs. And while working with people of all ages is rewarding, one of the best successes I’ve had is when I use youth trainers. I believe that all young people flourish when they see “people like them” leading events and teaching them new information. This not only increases personal self-esteem but also increases interest in Native American culture and traditions for our community. Fostering this community connection is essential for STD prevention among young Native Americans.

I greatly enjoy this work and I know it is greatly needed work. Creating and designing programs about teen pregnancy prevention, STDs, and healthy relationships is a challenge. And although crafting “hands-on” interventions is difficult, I provide my groups with accurate information that meets the needs of young people. Through the use of games, incentives, classroom discussions, and wilderness settings, I have been able to explore not just STD prevention, but concepts such as substance abuse and suicide prevention, health education, creating healthy relationships, and boundary setting.

One of the main reasons why I was able to meet the needs of my students through such a youth-positive and interactive way was because of the Native STAND (Students Together Against Negative Decisions) curriculum. Native STAND is a comprehensive curriculum for training peer educators that promotes healthy decision-making for Native youth. All youth—including Native youth—face extreme pressures to fit in and belong. To make the best decisions for themselves, youth need factual, science-based information delivered to them in a way they can relate to, by people who they can trust and feel comfortable talking to. Peer educators can fill this important role—and my role is to believe in peer educators, train peer educations, and support peer educators.

I use Native STAND in partnership with organizations like the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD). NCSD spearheaded this curriculum, and it was the best curriculum that I could find that is not only culturally appropriate but fun and educational.

As a young person from the same communities as my students, I find it more and more culturally relevant that our younger generation educate each other. I don’t think we can work on sexual health education for young people without working with young people. This model not only fosters a caring atmosphere, but also promotes an environment where younger generations revitalize the culture of our ancestors. The traditions and values that I was raised with and still practice today are the values of community, family, love, support, and cultural pride. These values help me to enrich the lives of people with whom I am fortunate to cross paths and I plan to do this work for a long time.