Grantee Profiles

Advocates for Youth

James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth James Wagoner is President of Advocates for Youth. Advocates for Youth (Advocates) champions efforts that help youth make informed, responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health. The organization believes strongly in both the right of young people to comprehensive, accurate reproductive and sexual health information and services, and in the power of youth development. Using its 3Rs philosophy (Rights, Respect, and Responsibility), Advocates works to shift the societal paradigm of adolescent sexuality away from a negative emphasis on fear and ignorance toward the acceptance of sexual development as healthy and the belief that adolescents are a valuable resource. Staff provides information, training, and assistance to youth-serving organizations, policy makers, youth activists, and media in the U.S. and in the Global South. The organization works domestically and internationally, providing Advocates with a unique opportunity to disseminate “lessons without borders” within the adolescent reproductive and sexual health (ARSH) field.

WestWind Foundation: James, you have been very involved in Women’s Reproductive Health and Rights organizations over the past 20 years. How did you enter into this field of work? Why is it personally important to you?
James Wagoner: I entered this work with a human rights frame from my work in the U.S. Senate and with NARAL, Pro-Choice America. I view sexual and reproductive health and rights as central to individual health, freedom, and well-being. I have long been appalled by efforts to restrict access to information and services in this area because such restrictions not only produce bad public health outcomes, they also undermine agency – the ability of individuals to regulate their own sexual and reproductive behavior guided by their own values and beliefs.

This work is important to me because it dramatically impacts individual lives and at the same time engages values that are central to democratic society – pluralism, personal freedom, and respect for diversity within culture.

Finally, I believe that young people are the conscience of a nation and engaging the idealism and energy of youth is a marvelous antidote to the cynicism and materialism in our culture.

WWF: Why is it so important to build youth leaders? What can they contribute that others can’t? Can you give an example of an outstanding youth leader in the last year and what he/she accomplished?
JW: Half the world’s population – more than three billion people – is under the age of 25. The decisions they make regarding their sexual and reproductive health will control the quality of life on this planet for decades to come.

It is not just the numbers that make youth important and powerful. It is their role in driving the amazing pace of global cultural change. It took television fifteen years to gain fifty million viewers. It took the Internet five. Young people are at the center of this largely urban, technology-driven change in the global movement of ideas, people, and goods. If we do not engage young people as leaders and partners, then our vision, policies, and programs will end up in the dustbin of history.

What young people contribute that others cannot is an existential grasp of their generation’s reality. For them, technology has become culture and this fact is having a profound impact on issues in society, including sexual and reproductive health. They are the “sherpas” who can best guide us in the design, implementation, and evaluation of policies and programs that impact young people’s lives. Purely adult paradigms, ideas, and funding streams will always lag behind youth culture. We cannot achieve positive, long-lasting social change without engaging youth.

In terms of an outstanding youth leader, I cite the case of Danny S. from Parma, Ohio, who single handedly managed to remove an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum from the city schools by petitioning the district superintendent and board members. Danny, a quiet, unimposing young man, attended Advocates for Youth’s Urban Retreat, a week-long training and networking conference for promising young leaders. He didn’t stand out or make waves. He simply absorbed all the information, honed his advocacy skills, and was inspired by the power of being part of a youth movement aimed at changing sex education policy in America. Danny reaffirmed for me the belief that young people, even those who are quiet and unassuming, can be empowered to lead and to create change. We adults have to provide the information, training, and inspiration that can only come from a partner that authentically respects the potential of youth.

WWF: What role does Advocates for Youth play in the Women’s Health and Rights movement?
JW: Advocates plays three significant roles in the Women’s Health and Rights movement.
First, we are a respected ally of the Reproductive Justice movement, a key engine for engaging critically important constituencies too long neglected by the Women’s Health and Rights movement- most notably women of color.

Second, Advocates champions young women leaders in the movement by providing significant opportunities for career development and mentorship within our organization.
More than 40 percent of Advocates for Youth’s budget is now managed by young people in their early to mid-20s. Few organizations provide young women leaders with this level of training, responsibility, and authority in the management of program and policy work.

Third, Advocates for Youth works to ensure that the interests of young people are front and center in the advocacy campaigns advanced by the Women’s Health and Rights movement.

WWF: What are the most critical or concerning changes you have seen in the Women’s Health and Rights movement in the last five years?
JW: In the positive ledger, there is the gradual expansion of engagement with communities of color, the significant success in opposing anti-choice referenda at the state level, and the growth in collaboration of organizations working globally.

In the negative ledger, there is the marginalization of reproductive health issues on Capitol Hill evidenced by the Stupak debacle in health care reform; the over-reliance on legal and Washington-based policy work as opposed to grassroots organizing and mobilization; and the inability to balance short-term tactical priorities with long-term strategic and vision-building activities.

WWF: What are your 1-2 most important strategies for making change happen in our current political and legislative environment?
JW: While it is critically important to push back on the radical attacks on reproductive health emanating from the House of Representatives, it is important not to develop a siege or bunker mentality. We have found that the best way to do this is to balance our youth activist mobilization work in defense of family planning, sex education, and abortion with “cultural advocacy” initiatives aimed at shifting current cultural norms from fear, shame, and denial to a more open, honest, and healthy approach to sexual and reproductive health. One such initiative involves a documentary film called “Let’s Talk About Sex” and another involves young people using popular music to produce PSAs for HIV/AIDS prevention.

A second strategy is to engage the administrative agencies of government. This is particularly important when it comes to international sexual and reproductive health issues. Both the State Department and the Office of Global AIDS Coordinator are developing major directives that will impact everything from the integration of family planning and HIV prevention, to the structure of family planning services abroad, to the type of sex education global youth will receive under U.S.-funded prevention efforts. In addition, there is a major U.N Commission on Population and Development convening in the spring of 2012 that will focus exclusively on young people. This gathering is also a valuable strategic focus for advocacy work.

WWF: If you could secure passage of any legislation, what would it be? And why is that legislation so important in your opinion?
JW: On the domestic front, the passage of the bill to repeal Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funding and transfer those resources to comprehensive sex education would represent a major shift from an ideological policy driven by denial to a science-based policy driven by the rights of young people to honest sexual health information. Good sex education provides an essential foundation for sexual health.

On the international front, the passage of the Global Sexual and Reproductive Health Act would represent a major shift in policy from a fragmented, dysfunctional approach driven by anti-abortion politics to an integrated, holistic approach that offers the full continuum of reproductive health services for women while recognizing the special needs of youth.

WWF: What are some of the steps Advocates for Youth takes to build youth leaders within your own organization?
JW: Authentic youth partnership is a cornerstone of Advocates’ organizational culture. We make an effort to promote from within. We recruit staff from our youth activist network and provide them with training and meaningful, significant roles within the organization. In addition, we ensure that our younger staff members are empowered to represent the organization at key coalition meetings, policy and program sessions, and international conferences. Finally, we require that a third of the Advocates for Youth board be comprised of young people.

WWF: What have proven to be the most effective ways to get youth to take action?
JW:Empathy and outrage are the most effective message frames for engagement. New media and social networks are the best highways for engagement, because that is where young people hang out. Letting young people themselves inform our messaging, issue selection, and style of communication helps us to stay connected with our audience.

WWF: What is the biggest challenge that Advocates for Youth currently faces?
JW:Clearly, the current political climate in Washington that is promoting negative sexual and reproductive health policies which in turn reinforce the fear, shame, and denial in our culture.

WWF: What has been your organization’s biggest success to-date?
JW:Raising the visibility, credibility, and impact of the youth voice in the national debate on sex education. By so doing, youth became our partners in helping to eliminate two-thirds of the abstinence-only-until-marriage funding in the federal budget, urging Congress to allocate nearly $180 million in new federal funding for evidence-based teen pregnancy and sex education programs, prompting 20 states to continue rejecting abstinence-only funding and encouraging hundreds of school districts to implement a more comprehensive approach.

Last updated March 18, 2011