Young, determined and capable: celebrating youth advocates within maternal child health

Photo by Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash

Of parents’ many responsibilities is helping our children navigate what’s “right” and “wrong”. 

“Rocks are not for eating,” we guide a curious toddler. 

“We don’t hit people,” we guide a frustrated sibling. “You can punch a pillow instead.” 

“Please put your helmet on,” we guide the active kindergartener on her bike. 

Sometimes this guidance is less about safety though and more about “rights” and “wrongs” in a moral sense. 

These lessons on morality are rarely black and white, they vary from family to family, culture to culture. I’ve often found that children do a better job teasing out and teaching moral lessons than the reverse. Children possess a moral clarity that often muddies somewhere along the path to adulthood. 

Not long ago, I was working on a piece about the PUMP Act for Our Milky Way. My kids and their friends played a version of tag while I typed on my laptop. One of the soon-to-be fifth graders approached me, curious about what I was working on. 

I described  to him the need for workplace protections and lactation accommodations and then held my breath waiting for his reaction. Had I done an adequate job summarizing this fairly complex issue? 

“They should definitely pass that legislation,” he replied matter-of-factly. “It’s only fair.” 

I was so pleased. A young male in favor of maternal child health protections. I offered him a fist bump and then he trotted back to his game of tag. 

Thinking more about that interaction, perhaps the most striking component was that he came to the conclusion of fairness so quickly;  no further questioning, no negotiating (as there often is with pre-teens).  

For a moment, like a movie montage reeling, I imagined our world with children in charge, making important decisions that shape policy. 

Fading back to reality, I remembered that young people do indeed mobilize and influence the world around us. 

“At certain points in history, when institutions and established leaders have failed to step up and take action, it falls to the youngest among us to take charge,” authors ​​David Gergen and James Piltch start off their piece Young people offer urgent moral clarity to do-nothing adults. 

Gergen and Piltch remind us most recently of Parkland students Cameron Kasky, Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg and activist Greta Thunberg.

“What stands out about both of these young groups of leaders… is the sense of urgency and purpose they bring to public life,” the duo writes. 

In an exchange between Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson in Goodall’s Hopecast, they too discuss the importance of youth activism.

Photo by Thiago Cerqueira on Unsplash

Dr. Johnson calls it a critical importance. 

“The moral clarity that children bring.. is just invaluable,” she says in Hope Is Courage And Taking Action Together. 

As we get older, she goes on, we get used to compromising and negotiating through the existing systems.  

“Kids are like, ‘there’s a right and a wrong.’ That of course is so powerful and really drives grown ups to get their act together…” she says in the episode. 

Dr. Goodall goes on to point out that children have to learn though that the world isn’t black and white, and that compromise can play a key role in influencing change. 

Advocates for Youth– a nearly 40 year-old organization that works to promote effective adolescent reproductive and sexual health programs and policies in the United States and the global south– has put together a Building Effective Youth-Adult Partnerships Fact Sheet  which provides guidance on how adults can tap into youth’s energy, passion, and commitment and how youth can become involved in policy change. Advocates for Youth also designed the Young Parents’ Advocacy Toolkit for individuals inspired to drive community change. 

Interestingly, the field of lactation has been criticized for being largely advanced in age, and rightly so. The United States Lactation Consultant Association’s (USLCA) 2019 demographic report shows that over half of IBCLCs are 51-70 years old. The Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice (ALPP) 2019 demographic report shows that just under 40 percent of CLCs are between the ages of 25-34 and 35.5 percent are 35-50. 

So where are the young maternal child health advocates? 

Southern Birth Justice leads The Young Mamas Leadership Institute, a 5-day immersive training for young black and indigenous mothers who have an interest in social and birth justice. During the training, participants are exposed to concepts of activism, community organizing, radical self care and learn about career opportunities as birth workers, as explained on their Facebook page. (Find more info here.) 

A partnership between the Institute of International Education and Harvard School of Public Health created the Maternal Health Young Champions Program. Ten  young people passionate about improving maternal health were selected for a nine-month research or field project internship in their home country. You can find the list of the champions along with a description of their project and impact here

A group of young Latina mothers from the Southwest side of Chicago trained as Breastfeeding Peer Counselors by HealthConnect One, have been assisting young mothers with breastfeeding through the Opciones Saludables program of Heartland Alliance. This group has presented at the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH) Youth Summit for Pregnant and Parenting Young People. ICAH is another organization working in partnership with young people, advocating policies and practices that promote a positive approach to adolescent sexual health and parenting.

Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash

It isn’t unheard of for young activists to be criticized as zealots or short-sighted. Gergen and Piltch discuss this in their piece. But it’s their future they’re fighting for.  Their determination should be celebrated, not shunned. Young people have the power to spur action and they tend to do so with a sense of urgency, which is precisely what we need within maternal child health and more broadly, what we need in this world. 

We have only highlighted a few youth organizations in this piece. Help us uplift others’ work by sharing in the comments below, or by emailing us at info@ourmilkyway.org.

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