Ninety minutes. That is the length of the training a teacher in Chicago Public Schools must undergo to earn a four-year certificate to teach sex ed. Compared to other cities, CPS has comprehensive sex education, but even so, certain issues can slip through the cracks, Karla Altmayer explained. Altmayer is co-director of Healing to Action, a survivor-led, grassroots organization dedicated to ending gender-based violence by building the leadership and collective power of the communities most impacted.
“Even if you have a mandatory state policy, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the resources to go along with it,” she said.
Last December, CPS passed a new sexual education policy. Altmayer and the other survivors of gender-based violence or allies who lead Healing to Action advocated for recommendations to be passed in the new policy—but CPS ignored their wishes.
Their main fight focuses on caregiver support and educator training, which was actually reduced in the new policy from a maximum of eight hours to just ninety minutes. The caregiver support that Healing to Action is advocating for recognizes that students learn first from their parents or guardians about sex ed. If there is a stigma issue, shame, or educational gap, without the correct resources, they can’t communicate.
On August 20, Healing to Action hosted a “Sex Ed Works” rally at Herban Produce in East Garfield to share their concerns with the community and increase dialogue. Although CPS has made some changes in accordance with inclusivity and antiracist programming, Altmayer believes this isn’t enough, saying:
We were so furious and devastated because we were all advocating for caregiver support, and nothing was incorporated in the policy. . . . When the policy passed in December nothing was included that we had advocated for, and we didn’t know what it would include until two days before it would pass.
Most members of Healing to Action are Black and brown women, including immigrants for whom English may be a second language. They had to translate the new CPS policy, announced only in English, for themselves.
Auri Aguilar and Gladys de la Torre, survivor leaders with Healing to Action, spoke at the rally about their experiences with sex ed as young women and why they set out to change the narrative for their children.
Aguilar got her period when she was eight, but she didn’t feel like the adults around her took her feelings into consideration.
“I had no idea what was happening to me,” she said. “When I was young, I promised myself what happened to me wasn’t going to happen to anyone else.”
Aguilar also talked about generational harm caused by gender-based violence that she noticed in her life and how advocating for the umbrella of issues that fall under sex ed has provided a sense of healing for her. She said,
My peers and I are making this big effort because young people in our community have suffered harm. I know this because I have seen it in my community. When parents know more about sex ed they can establish deeper connections with their kids and reduce gender-based violence. My hope is that CPS values our efforts as survivor leaders and they show this by financing more support for parents and teachers.
Even if the curriculum is more inclusive and reduces shame, that doesn’t mean that parents or teachers are fully equipped for conversations about sex ed.
Gladys de la Torre shared similar experiences to Aguilar. After she immigrated, de la Torre got more involved with her two children’s studies, including sex ed. She explained,
In the US, I learned how important it is to have comprehensive sex ed because it is important for the emotional health of children. In my community we really cannot talk about sex ed because it is taboo. Many of us who have immigrated to this country don’t have access to the same kinds of resources that others have because we don’t speak English. If we don’t speak English or Spanish, how can we have access to help out kids?
De la Torre speaks her Native Kichwa language, and when she immigrated to Chicago, she learned that resources aren’t spread so evenly when it comes to sex ed and language barriers.
She talked about the North Side of Chicago having better resources and translators, whereas the South and West sides lack resources to adequately help students and invite all caregivers to the table, regardless of language.
“We need to recognize that what CPS is offering now is not enough to make sure that our young people have their own agency and power to make their own decisions,” she said. “They have to integrate us more into the CPS community. Our kids are the future.”
The Chicago Period Project and Sexpectations had booths at the event with resources for attendees. Ashley Novoa, the founder and executive director of the Chicago Period Project had information on her organization as well as period kits with pads, tampons, and wipes for people to take.
“As we know, menstruation is a huge part of sexual health education,” Novoa said. “I want to let them know we are here, and we have their back.”
A significant part of Novoa’s mission is to be inclusive in her work, accomplished by de-gendering periods, referring to “menstruators” rather than “women.”
“We want to start moving away from a society where it’s just a woman’s issue,” she said. “Not everyone who is a woman menstruates, and not every menstruator is a woman. We want to be here for everyone who is bleeding.”
Sexpectations members Elhom Karbassi and Thalía Chicojay had a table full of external condoms as well as posters for people to write on asking questions about sexual health. Sexpectations, a collective of Black and brown femmes in Chicago, works to bring an inclusive lens to sex ed for Chicago youth.
“A lot of people are interested in having these conversations as well as facilitating them, so it’s all about how we can empower other people to lead these conversations in their community,” Chicojay said.
They recognize not every young person in Chicago goes to school, and not all Chicago students attend CPS, so making sure sex ed is accessible and normalized in community areas is key to their work.
We are currently building curriculum through an antiracist, decolonized, abolitionist lens to talk about sex and identity,” Karbassi said. “In a dream world, CPS would allow us to come in and teach CPS students, and all CPS schools would have a sexual health educator young folks could trust to go to.
On July 28, CPS voted to approve their budget for 2022. Healing to Action requested that at least one million dollars be allocated toward implanting sexual education support for educators and caregivers, but transparency has led to this decision being under wraps.
Although Healing to Action’s efforts are moving slowly with CPS, not all has been lost, as it was announced this week that CPS would be investing in virtual caregiver support workshops. It’s a move in the right direction, but the fight is far from over.