Doing Good Everyday in South Texas

Rural Texas, like the rest of rural America, is often overlooked by the rest of the country. Like my native state of Iowa, much of rural America is viewed as “flyover” country, and of little importance because it thought to be occupied mostly by livestock and farm fields. What a sadly mistaken…and, frankly, ignorant…understanding of rural America. 

Rural Texas, like the rest of rural America, is often overlooked by the rest of the country. Like my native state of Iowa, much of rural America is viewed as “flyover” country, and of little importance because it thought to be occupied mostly by livestock and farm fields. What a sadly mistaken…and, frankly, ignorant…understanding of rural America. 

Fortunately, groups like the Community Action Corporation of South Texas (CACOST) know better. CACOST serves an extraordinarily large part of the state – 16 counties that cover the entire southern tip of the state. For the past several months I’ve been working with CACOST on the implementation evaluation of its teen pregnancy prevention initiative, the South Texas Teen Leadership and Development Program (STTLD). Sadly, this is one of 80+ programs of the Office of Adolescent Health Teen Pregnancy Prevention program that is going away due to significant budget cuts under the current administration. STTLD serves a very rural part of Texas with some of the highest rates of teen births in the state and the U.S. It is a significant loss to the youth, families, schools and communities it serves. But what does it matter? Isn’t it just all livestock and fields down here, anyway? Does any good thing come from rural America? (Read with a “sigh” and eye roll for effect.)

For the past several months I’ve been reviewing the weekly facilitator logs that

With STTLD Facilitators in Corpus Christi

document the work of the STTLD program facilitators. These facilitators conduct approximately 50 classroom programs each week, for at least 25 weeks in the school year. Now, let’s do the numbers and see if they are seeing anyone other than livestock. 50 classrooms X an average classroom size of, say 20 (to be conservative, since we know there are few if any people in rural America), equals: 1,000. Now it is true that the STTLD facilitators have to travel large distances to see 1,000 students a week but there are still at least 1,000 students in rural South Texas who will lose the program on June 30th unless something changes.

Each year the leadership of CACOST sponsors a board and staff leadership retreat in Corpus Christi. About 125 to 150 board and leadership staff attend. This is only about a fourth of the number of all CACOST employees in all positions. This is the second year I’ve had the privilege to attend this meeting. Last year I did a plenary session that focused on the poverty of hope experienced by too many people in our country. I was asked back this year to do the closing keynote on working more effectively together. I have come to understand the value and appeal of the meeting to board and staff…it feels like a family reunion and it is wonderful!

While I was here, I also did interviews and focus groups with the STLLD leadership and staff as part my evaluation work with CACOST. The STTLD leadership and the leadership of CACOST are doing everything they can to continue the program because they know how important it is to the youth and communities they serve. What impresses me most about CACOST is that the organization and its leadership are intentional about keeping the people they serve foremost in their thoughts and plans.

Case in point…yesterday several CACOST staff led the retreat in a very complex yet

The Zuppot Family – Zenobia, Xander, Zeke & Zola

powerful poverty simulation. I was assigned the role of being a disabled grandpa (Zeke), with diabetes, who was raising his two young grandchildren (Xander and Zenobia) with his wife, Zola, who did not speak very good English. Zeke’s disability kept him from working and Zola had a low wage job. Our grandchildren came to us from a daughter who was incarcerated on a drug distribution charge. One of our grandkids, Xander, dealt with ADHD. His medication requirements and Zeke’s need for insulin, meant the family faced a pretty big monthly prescription bill plus the regular monthly expenses. It was a moving simulation for people in the room as they experienced a full range of emotions including, embarrassment, shame, frustration, anger, and hopelessness. Several were moved to tears. In debriefing the experience, it was clear that it was a powerful tool for helping CACOST board and staff experience, or re-experience, what it is to live without enough resources or opportunity.

Organizations like CACOST are critical to the survival of families in rural America. But is that all they deserve…to simply survive? I don’t think so. Neither does CACOST or the other Community Action Agencies that were created in the 1960’s as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” I have the privilege of currently working with CACOST and another Community Action Agency in San Luis Obispo, CA. I’m very proud to be associated with these two organizations and to be helping them to achieve the greater good in their service areas. They both know it is not about helping their clients just survive poverty, but to thrive and rise. Both CACOST and the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo are being impacted by the cuts in teen pregnancy prevention at the Office of Adolescent Health. Even worse, the youth they serve are those that suffer. Both organizations know all too well what happens when we fail to invest in the future of our country and care for those in greatest need. We must never forget…poverty is not a choice. That is the lesson we learned again in the simulation yesterday.

On a personal note…I had a wonderful surprise today when I finished the keynote for

Tom with Nisa and Megan
Tom with Nisa (on the left, who actually owns my books) and her colleague, Megan

CACOST. A young CACOST staff member, at the urging of her colleague, approached me for a selfie. Now, I’d like to tell you that I get that request a lot, but I don’t. So, I asked, “Of course…but why?” The young woman replied, “I’ve got two of your books. I heard you speak last year but it was only this morning that I realized you were they same person that wrote those books. They were recommended to me by a professor in a counseling class I took and I found them incredibly helpful both professionally and personally.”

Okay, I was shocked speechless. Both books were written over 25 years ago and I had no idea any even still existed…except on my shelves. I was really honored and moved by her request. Thank you Nisa and Megan for making my day!

If you’d like to join Nisa as an owner of these books, you can still find them on Amazon: If Your Parent Drinks Too Much and Counseling Helpsheets, co-authored with my good friend, G. Lamar Roth. I cannot vouch for their condition…I’m still stunned they are available.

Be greater. Do good. Everyday. Change Forward!

Tom Klaus


The Challenge of Competing Ideas

“Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?” That was not a question I had expected, though I had responded to plenty of difficult questions in the preceding three hours of the meeting.

“Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?” That was not a question I had expected, though I had responded to plenty of difficult questions in the preceding three hours of the meeting. For two years I had been piloting a sexuality education curriculum to prepare it for wider dissemination and replication in public schools. My visit to the rural Midwestern community on this winter evening was to meet with the curriculum committee of a local school considering adoption of the program. When I arrived at the school, I learned the meeting was to be held in a large multi-purpose room that served as both a theater and cafeteria. This seemed an odd location for a committee that was typically comprised of less than a dozen people. As I walked into the room, I realized it was not a committee meeting after all, but a community meeting and up to 200 people were expected. My mind raced to understand what this could mean.

I took a walk through the empty hallways of the school to center myself, focus my thoughts, and calm my nerves. I had not prepared for 200. I did not have nearly enough handouts. I could not understand why someone at the school had not given me advanced notice. I puzzled why so many people were expected to attend a committee meeting that even the official members probably skipped as often as possible. The knot in my stomach told me this was not going to be a good evening and that I had better remain calm and focused. I resolved to keep my comments and answers short, simple, and embellished with only a touch of gentle humor to convey friendliness. Walking back toward the meeting room I passed a large group of people huddled in the corner of the school’s main lobby, busily taking notes, and listening intently to the instructions of a man who was obviously in charge. He would be, as I would shortly learn, the first inquisitor of the evening.

A single member of the curriculum committee finally greeted me. I never did meet the other members.

By the time my host escorted me to the podium at the front the room had nearly filled to capacity. The leader of the group in the lobby was seated in the middle of the front row, surrounded by his followers, directly in front of the podium. My host briefly introduced me. I delivered a 15-minute opening presentation as requested and then invited questions.

The man from the lobby rose and asked in a booming voice, “Do you believe in moral absolutes?” and then smiled broadly, while his followers murmured their approval. I breathed deeply, remembered to smile, and said quite simply and very succinctly, “Yes.” For half an eternity, we simply looked at one other, smiling. Slowly, his face began to flush and his feet shuffled uneasily. Finally, he nervously turned to his followers for guidance, his confidence and certainty quickly dissipating. He mumbled something and hastily sat down, even as others in his group leapt to their feet and began shouting their questions at me as if to protect and defend their leader. Some of the questions were about the curriculum, some were about me, and many were philosophical and even theological. Thus, the evening began and continued for more than 3 hours until a man in the last row of chairs stood up and asked: “Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?”

I smiled, thanked him for his question, and said, with a touch of humor to diffuse a tense situation, “I don’t think my spouse would appreciate me having sex with another person.” The man exploded in rage. He jumped up and screamed, “I asked you a question and I demand an answer! Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?!?” All eyes flashed toward him, then shifted back toward me to see what I would do. I stood silent for a moment to quell my fear and compose myself. Finally, I calmly replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t believe that is an appropriate question.” All eyes turned back to him and throughout the room I could hear the whispered pleas from embarrassed community members for him to, “Sit down and shut up.”

Mercifully, the meeting was soon over…but the evening was not.

As the meeting was breaking up I was gathering my wits and materials. A woman strode up, stood in front me, glared into my face, and said, “I cannot believe you were ever a minister of the Gospel.” I was stunned and did not respond, so she moved closer and repeated it louder. I still did not know what to say so she came even closer and yelled it at me. I finally managed to mumble, “Thank you for your comment,” turned quickly, and started walking for the door.

Just before I reached the door, a man ran into me…hard…knocking all the materials out of my hands onto the floor. I was shocked to see he was a priest. I bent down to pick up the materials, keeping one eye on my assailant. To my surprise, the priest bent down and started helping me pick up the material. As we were both bent over, our heads close together in the gathering work, he whispered to me: “I really appreciate what you are doing and support it. I just wanted you to know I can’t say so publicly.” He handed me the last paper he collected, straightened up, and walked out the door.

The drive home was nearly 200 miles in the middle of the night over frozen roads, and I would finally get home at 4:00 AM. I never once feared for falling asleep as I intently watched the road ahead of me, and wondered what kind of place I had been where I would be accosted by a priest, just so he could speak to me. I nervously watched the rear view mirror for fast approaching headlights on the isolated rural highways.

It was months before I would sleep well again, even in the security of my own home.

As I drove home my mind tried to make sense of the evening. I also tried to make sense of my career move barely two years before. I had moved from a career in religious work to social services, where I was put in charge of piloting and replicating a teen pregnancy prevention program. I wondered if I had made the right move and if this kind of thing was going to be a regular part of the job. Even more, I wondered if I should stay with it. I did. Now, more than two decades later, and many similar community meetings, I am still in the field, as are numerous other veterans of the conflict over sexuality education on both, or many, sides. Since that winter evening I have wanted to more fully understand why and how we provide leadership amid such conflict.

This true story was featured in the opening pages of my doctoral dissertation, which was completed in 2013 after years of living the intractable conflict over sexuality education in public schools. It is a battle for public support and funding that still rages today, having originated in Chicago in 1913.

When I completed the study, I promised everyone who participated that I would share a summary with them. If you are interested in reading it, you can find it here and are welcome to download it free of charge.

The study focused on the intractable conflict over sexuality education in public schools. However, the “lessons learned” in the study can be applied wherever competing ideologies keep people from working together for a greater good. Have we not seen this competition in many community change coalitions, collaborations, and collective impact initiatives? Of course, it happens regularly in politics, leading to the infamous gridlock that hobbles any administration and legislature from leading and governing.

I am not offering this summary because it has all the answers. I am offering it because it may have some insights that are timely, especially for those of us who live in the United States. Indeed, it raises some important issues and questions if we are going to find a way to work together – regardless of our cause and despite our differences.

Be greater, do good, everyday.


Community Mobilization, Red Noses & Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month

Yesterday (Tuesday, May 24) I finished a multi-month project with Child Trends for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) teen pregnancy prevention grantees. Today, my heart is full of appreciation for an incredible experience.

Yesterday (Tuesday, May 24) I finished a multi-month project with Child Trends for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) teen pregnancy prevention grantees.

Today my heart is full of appreciation for an incredible experience.

My assignment over the past few months has been to design, develop, and deliver two 2-day long training events in Denver, CO and Washington, DC for teen pregnancy prevention grantees on the topic of community mobilization. It was a capacity building training event that focused on teaching them to use a number of tools and processes to more effectively lead mobilization efforts in their communities.

The OAH staff was terrific to work with. Jacque McCain and Tish Hall were the “point people” on this project for OAH and I could not have asked for two better folks to work with. They thoughtfully considered the training design and materials I submitted, provided useful feedback, and were willing to let me do a few unconventional things to make the training more meaningful and memorable for the grantees. In DC, ten of the OAH staff were also able to attend and it was great to have them there too.

Maryjo Oster and Kristine Andrews of Child Trends were the official liaisons between me and OAH. They were also training colleagues who were willing to do whatever was needed to make sure both events ran smoothly – from managing handouts, to helping people use the Catchbox microphones, to assisting grantees with their learning activities, to providing orientation instructions for “The Community Mobilization Game.” Even more, despite the long hours and hard work, they kept their wits and senses of humor about them. I especially appreciate that they were willing to try some out-of-the-box participant engagement strategies with me. For example, Maryjo, who is also an outstanding professional musician, brought her guitar to both events and led the groups in just the right songs at the right times.

Margaret Black and Stephanie Hines of Capital Meeting Planning were incredible for their ability to manage the travel and lodging arrangements for nearly 250 people, deal effectively with hotel and audio-visual staff, and also manage all of the materials I needed for the training events. They did all of this…and more…with grace and humor!

Ideas & Insights from Denver CM Training
A moment of clarity for a grantee.

Finally, the 235 grantees (120 in Denver and 115 in DC) attending the events were absolutely amazing! They participated with wild enthusiasm – whether they were listening to a mini-lecture, engaged in one of the many group activities, doing some reflective writing, giving in to the Cha Cha Break, speaking up into the Catchbox mics to share their ideas, trying on Red Noses, throwing themselves with gusto into “The Community Mobilization Game,” or smiling and laughing with one another throughout the event. It was incredible – and was made incredible – by the grantees! Grantees traveled from all over the United States and the Marshall Islands to attend the training events. I feel honored and humbled by the efforts each made to be with us. 

Finally, as you will see in these pictures, Red Noses were an important part of these events. There are two reasons. First, Thursday, May 26th is Red Nose Day and I made sure I gave out about a dozen Red Noses as prizes, recognitions, and just for fun, all to call attention to the day. You see, Red Nose Day is about raising money to help children and youth who are in poverty. Last year about $33 million was raised in the United States for this cause. This brings me to the second reason: May is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month in the United States, which was founded by my late colleague and close friend, Barbara Huberman. The correlation between poverty and teen pregnancy has been well-established. Community mobilization, Red Noses, & National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month – to me, they all just seem to make sense together.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day!

Tom Klaus

© 2016 by Thomas W. Klaus

Hey, What’s that Buzzing Sound?

A buzzing sound can mean many things. When I was a kid on an Iowa farm it usually meant scary bees. But there are buzzing sounds that indicate good things. I heard one just last week in Buffalo, NY.

A buzzing sound can mean many things. When I was a kid growing up on an Iowa farm, Bumble Beea buzzing sound usually meant bees were near by…typically a scary thing since I was pretty sure they had me in their tiny stinger sights. Ah, but there are buzzing sounds that are not at all scary and indicate good things are happening. I heard one just like that last week in Buffalo, New York.

It intrigues me that I can almost immediately distinguish the type of buzzing that is happening, even before I know the source or the cause. Last week in Buffalo there was definitely a strong, positive buzzing sound. It was the buzz of genuine participation.

For the past few months I have been working with a group of volunteers in the community who have come together to see what can be done about teen pregnancy in Buffalo. Last year the community was funded through the Office of Adolescent Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to replicate prevention programs and facilitate referrals to youth friendly health centers in an effort to reduce the teen pregnancy rate by 30% over the next five years. That is a tall order. The effort, known as the Buffalo Collaborative Community Initiative to Reduce Teen Pregnancy (BCC), is led by Cicatelli Associates Inc. (CAI Global). The BCC includes partnerships with key organizations and groups throughout the community, including the Erie County Department of Health, numerous community based organizations (CBOs), the faith community, and “just plain folks.”

The group, known as the Community Action Team or CAT, was originally convened about six months ago and I had my first meeting with it in December 2015. I was asked to help the group get a better understanding of its community mobilization work and how it relates to the overall project. In that meeting the group was still new and forming and there was not much to buzz about…except for just a little bit of confusion about its role. This is pretty typical for new groups in the early stages of development.

Last week I returned to Buffalo to work with the group again. This time there was a different kind of buzzing. Early in the meeting I led the group through a series of exercises that were designed to get them moving about, meeting other CAT members, and having substantive conversations with one another. There was a buzz at that time because the members really put themselves into the exercises and, yes, they were participating.

But the real buzz of participation was the one I heard after the exercises were completed, and the CAT divided into its five different “action groups” and went to work. Now, overall, the CAT has responsibility to lead effort to mobilize the community in support of the teen pregnancy prevention work. I decided to sit in with a group that was working on a survey for new and recent parenting teens. As part of their contribution to community mobilization, members felt it would be motivational for the community to know more about what it was like to be a parenting teen today compared with “back then” (10 or more years ago). Mostly I listened in to the conversation and only occasionally asked questions or offered ideas.

There was this moment when my ears and mind, though, were pulled away from my action group by a buzzing sound. The room was alive with buzzing, and not a bee was in sight. All five groups were meeting in the same large groom and the sound that had arisen in the space was the strong, positive buzzing of engaged people working together in genuine participation. Wow! What a sound! What a moment!

How is that groups come to make this kind of sound together?

I believe it happens when we, the “experts” who are often asked to lead such groups, allow it to happen. To allow it, though, we have to let people actually participate meaningfully. Meaningful participation is, in part, what I mean by genuine participation.

The temptation we often face in leading community change is to be in charge, set the agenda, make the decisions, and “demonstrate” collaboration by recruiting members to a group like the CAT, yet without really allowing them to have a meaningful role. That is, we create the appearance of community participation without actually having community participation.

Look, I know just how tempting it is to do that. We often work with tight deadlines, and too few staff, so we feel pressure to shortcut the process by convening groups and, mostly, having them “rubber stamp” our ideas and plans so we can “check the box” of community involvement for the annual report to the funder. I have observed a lot of that and research I have recently published with a colleague supports that observation. (See the contact box below to request more information on this research.) Also, frankly, I have experience doing the same darn thing…much to my embarrassment and shame.

We can do better though, right? Of course! We will know we are doing better by the kind of buzzing we hear. Listen carefully. Token participation creates a buzzing from discontent, disappointment, frustration, and irritation as people grow to feel ignored, over-ruled and used. Genuine participation generates the buzz of excitement, enthusiasm, hope, and empowerment that comes from having a meaningful role in community change. I know which kind I want to hear.

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.

Tom Klaus

New Teen Pregnancy Prevention Funding Opportunities Posted

Good Saturday morning!

The U.S. Department of Health Human Services Office of Adolescent Health posted four new teen pregnancy prevention funding opportunities last weekend (January 10) and one just before the holiday break on December 23rd. These are major funding opportunities for organizations that are working in teen pregnancy prevention. Each of the five opportunities has a different focus and funds very different activities. Please be sure to read them carefully. Each also requires a letter of intent to apply for the funding as well as a full application. In addition, each opportunity has a different timeline for receipt of letters of intent and applications.

To learn how to access detailed information on each of the opportunities, click here or on the “Funding Alert” link above. To learn more about how we can help, click here or on the link above to “Evaluation Research.”

Best wishes for a successful application!

Be greater, do good, everyday.


For Barbara: The Power of One

May is Barbara’s month. In the United States, May is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. Since it first began in 1991 in North Carolina, National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month (NTPPM) has taken root and grown throughout the country. As a result, hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations and communities throughout the United States will seize upon the annual moment NTPPM offers to rally their communities to reduce adolescent pregnancy. Over the remaining days of NTPPM 2014, articles and editorials in support of teen pregnancy prevention will be run in newspapers; faith communities will conduct services that include a focus on sexual responsibility and the value of parent/child communication about sex; mayors, even governors, will sign proclamations; and special forums will be held, just to name a few of the many possible activities. Already this month, both Seventeen has featured an article on teen pregnancy resources and The Huffington Post has posted an editorial in recognition of NTPPM.  National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month has also inspired important offshoots. For example, in conjunction with NTPPM, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has been sponsoring the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy which is two days from now, May 7th.

Barbara Huberman

But May is Barbara’s month. Barbara Huberman, as the CEO of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Council of North Carolina (APPCNC), created Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month in 1991. When she relocated to Washington, DC in 1995 to join the staff of Advocates for Youth, with the permission of APPCNC, she brought Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month with her and launched it as a national initiative. Every year since  then, beginning in Winter, Barbara begins to get ready for the upcoming NTPPM. As recently as 2011, Barbara and her interns updated and refreshed the NTPPM planning guide which is available as a free download from Advocates for Youth.

Barbara is one of the closest friends and colleagues I’ve ever had. I met her for the first time in 1995 at a conference in Washington, DC, just as she was beginning her tenure at Advocates for Youth. I’m not sure when I really became friends with Barbara. It just seems, from the very first, that we have always been friends. In 1999, after pestering me incessantly for two years, Barbara convinced me to go on a European study tour that she had put together for people working in the field of adolescent sexual health and teen pregnancy prevention. It was a remarkable experience and the brief documentary about the timeless, revolutionary findings of the study continues to fascinate audiences fifteen years later.

Barbara is the reason that I relocated from my home state of Iowa to Washington, DC. She was instrumental in my recruitment and hiring at Advocates for Youth. I’ve never quite figured out what Barbara saw in me that told her I’d be a good bet, but I’m glad she saw it. For nearly eight years I had the most incredible experience of working side-by-side with her. Together we built stronger, more sophisticated and sustainable statewide adolescent sexual health and teen pregnancy prevention organizations throughout the United States. In that time we supported several existing organizations that Barbara had had a role in creating and together we helped bring to life several new organizations. While at Advocates for Youth, we collaborated to create the National Support Center for State Teen Pregnancy Prevention Organizations and we started the State Organization Leadership Academy and Roundtable. We loved our work and we had great fun working together.

The hours and days of travel together gave us lots of time to talk, often over dinner or in airports waiting for our flights. In these moments was when we learned the most from each other. Barbara has been a mentor to many people, including me, but she is also a lifelong learner. In 2009, when I started my doctoral program, Barbara became one of my strongest supporters and loudest cheerleaders. We would often talk about my studies and she would often ask me to share with her what I was learning through both my reading and my research. What has always been wonderful about our friendship and working relationship is that we did not always have to agree. We usually did, but not always. Though even in disagreement, our friendship thrived and created a safe space for us to remain engaged professionally until we worked out the conflict.

Prairie Home Companion at Wolftrap – 2011

Barbara Huberman is more than a friend. She is a member of our family of choice who is often with us for birthdays, weddings, and just for fun. With my family, and many of our friends in common, we trek to Wolftrap on Memorial Day weekend each year to enjoy the Saturday night performance of A Prairie Home Companion which is also broadcast live on public radio. We spread out a blanket, unfold our chairs, enjoy a “potluck” picnic, and settle in for the show. (I’m behind the camera in the photo to the left.)

Much, however, has changed in the past year. In March, 2013, I left Advocates for Youth to complete my doctoral research and dissertation. At about the same time, Barbara received a diagnosis of leukemia. Though she has bravely fought it and has been fiercely determined to beat it, it now appears she will not. Since leaving Advocates for Youth, Barbara and I have stayed as closely in touch as her illness will allow. For several months we’d meet regularly at our favorite diner for lunch or dinner. When she began a second round of intensive chemotherapy in early January, we’d communicate via email or text. More recently, as the illness has gained ground, the messages have come less frequently. In one of the last messages I received from her, Barbara asked me to attend on her behalf an event that is honoring her role in helping to start the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. On Wednesday, May 7th, my spouse and I will be traveling to Columbia, SC to be there for Barbara. It is a sad duty for me but one that I’m deeply honored to perform.

It is my reflection on Barbara’s life and professional contributions in preparation for this event that has inspired this posting. I often use this space to write about community engagement, leadership, sustainability, and other such matters. There is much in Barbara’s life and work that speaks to these issues. One of the most important lessons I, and many others, have learned from Barbara Huberman is the difference that one person can make. There is a plenary presentation that I’ve seen her do on a few occasions that really captures the essence of that message. Her presentation always ends with this video. I hope you’ll take the one minute and 43 seconds it takes to view it; it is well worthwhile.

National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month stands as an example of the power of one person to make a difference. Barbara understands, though, the power in shared leadership as well. Barbara has always believed that she alone should not and could not “own” NTPPM if it were to be successful. She supported the efforts of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’s efforts to establish the National Day within NTPPM. She has continuously made herself, her ideas, and NTPPM materials freely available to leaders of statewide teen pregnancy prevention organizations. Yet NTPPM was just one of the many innovations Barbara introduced to the field of adolescent sexual health. With each of them, she felt it was important that others embrace them and make them their own if they were to be successful.

When I finished defending my dissertation, my committee chair, Beth Birmingham, gave me a card with a message she had written, using the metaphor of dance (we are both ballroom dancers) to describe the learning journey we had taken together. I share it below because it so beautifully illustrates an important aspect of shared leadership and I also believe it is a message Barbara could give to any one of us she has mentored over the years:

When this dance started…you only had a vague understanding of the overall stage…I agreed to lead. We took to the dance floor, took to our positions and began, me leading, you tentatively following and together making the way…slowly and surely, with each turn around the floor, you found your footing and soon, your expertise and ability surpassed mine, you took the lead and I became the follower. You found your feet, you gained not just experience but expertise and today you’ve established your leadership. Thank you for letting me partner with you in this wonderful dance. 

For me, Barbara’s belief in the power of one and the value of shared leadership has had a profound impact. It led her to befriend and “dance” with a teen pregnancy prevention program developer and organization leader she found in Iowa, freely sharing her insights, ideas, vision, dreams and material with him. It led her to entrust these to me with the hope and expectation that I would continue, and extend, some of her work. I have always seen this as a challenging expectation, yet I am honored to be so trusted by Barbara and have promised that I will do all I can to honor that trust in return. That includes, I believe, affirming to the next generation of leaders, that the art of social change requires the courage and power of one person to step up, and then to intuitively step back at the right time, to share leadership with others in order to achieve sustainable greater good.

Thank you for this dance, Barbara. Here’s to you, in May, a month that will always be yours.

More later,


Community Engagement and Touchy Topics

Is there a more touchy topic in American communities than the issue of sexuality, particularly adolescent sexuality?  Recent research I’ve been doing suggests it remains one of the most difficult topics for any community to come together on to address.  I’ve spent several years of my career working in the sub-field of teen pregnancy prevention.  Though I started by developing and delivering teen pregnancy prevention curriculum directly to youth in schools and community based organization (CBO) settings, the success of my work gave me the opportunity to replicate the program at both organizational and community levels throughout the United States.  As a result I often found myself in the middle of intense organization and community-wide conversations about adolescent sexuality.

I have to confess that much of the time I did it wrong.  It’s not that I was trying to mess up.  In fact, I was doing what I had been taught to do:  identify and understand a problem, formulate a solution to the problem and apply the solution wherever I find the problem.  There are many public health interventions where that approach works just fine.  For example, immunization.  Once the virus has been identified and understood, a vaccine can be formulated and widely applied with the expectation that a vast majority of the population will benefit from it.  However, some public health issues are better informed by social science than medical science.  Teen pregnancy is one of those.  Viewing it through the lens of social science allows us to glimpse the context of complexity that surrounds teen pregnancy.  A few years ago Teenwise Minnesota (formerly MOAPPP, the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Parenting) created a visual that attempted to capture the complicated nature of the challenge of teen pregnancy.

Teenwise Minnesota Teen Pregnancy Puzzle
Teenwise Minnesota Teen Pregnancy Puzzle

The Teenwise Minnesota Teen Pregnancy Puzzle illustrates that no less than 12 factors in every community contribute to solving the complicated puzzle of teen pregnancy.  The issue is never addressed by simply addressing just one of the 12 factors but all twelve.  When we consider that each of these 12 factors interact with one another in unpredictable ways and all of these 12 factors exist within larger community, state, national, and global contexts, we begin to realize it isn’t just a complicated problem but a complex problem in which no single intervention and no formula is going to be effective in all communities.

Add to this that teen pregnancy, as a sub-field of adolescent sexuality, is an emotionally charged topic for many Americans because we tend to view it not just through a public health lens but through values, morality, and religious lenses as well.  Thus, engaging communities in order to move them toward effectively addressing the issue can be a very challenging process fraught with many perils.  I have personally experienced many of those.  They range from being shouted down in public meetings to being the subject of talk radio for several days on end to being stalked to being physically accosted.  I’ve learned some good lessons through these less than stellar attempts at community engagement on the issue of teen pregnancy.

  • First, the more sensitive the issue, the more important it is to deeply and broadly engage the community.  I believe this is because community engagement that is deep and broad enough to include the whole community (Grasstops, Grassroots, and Residents with Lived Experience) creates deep ownership thereby reducing the likelihood of controversy and conflict.  On a really touchy issue like teen pregnancy people in many communities will rally against proposed solutions, particularly those they view as morally dubious (e.g., condom distribution, morning after pill, etc.) or ethically questionable (e.g., abstinence-only until marriage), when they feel the solutions are being pushed upon them by others who don’t really “get” their community.
  • Second, patience is more than a virtue, it is a survival strategy for community change on touchy issues.    When communities are addressing issues like teen pregnancy that are very sensitive and emotionally charged, the change will not occur quickly or easily.  It will most likely be incremental and the more it is pushed on people, the more likely resistance will grow – even if the resistance is not obvious.  Here’s a quick story about unseen resistance:  A few years ago I was contracted to provide six half-day training programs in a single week to 1,000 state employees who worked regularly with clients on public assistance.  The topic was on how to make an effective client referral for family planning services.  The employees were mandated to attend, the head of the agency was mandated to provide the training, and, because he disagreed with the order and feared backlash, another order quietly came from his office to all of the supervisors that basically instructed them to attend but disregard everything they learned and to tell their staffs to do the same.  Of course I didn’t know this until AFTER all six training events were completed.  However, at the time I was doing the training you’d have thought all was great.  People were friendly, smiled, laughed at the right times, and attendance was actually quite strong.  I left at the end of week feeling pretty confident all was good.  To engage communities, even the “community” of welfare workers in that state, in a way that brings lasting change it is going to take deep and broad engagement over time that slowly builds authentic, lasting support.
  • Third, community engagement is the group equivalent of the one-on-one strategy of “meeting people where they’re at.”  One of the first lessons I learned in my first career (youth work) was that I would be more effective if I would meet young people “where they’re at” rather than pre-judge them and assume too much about them, including that they are all alike.  Most people who go into social services as I did also learn this lesson.  I’ve noticed though that we tend to forget it when we are working with communities.   To meet communities where they are we need to know not just about the community but about what the community values, how the community sees the issue we have decided is a problem, and how, even whether, the community is willing to address it.  There are more things we need to understand than these, but these are basic, especially when the issue we’ve identified is a touchy one like teen pregnancy.

There are some really scary things about patiently engaging the whole community and meeting it where it’s at on really touchy issues.  What if people in the community have not progressed in their understanding of the issue as far as we have?  What if they are wanting to take “the path of least resistance” in order to minimize the possibility of conflict even though that path may take them to less effective solutions?  What if the community’s approach is more conservative, or more progressive, than ours?  I’d like to suggest we shouldn’t be scared of these things but to expect them.  All of these are likely because most people aren’t very fond of change and change is really very messy when the issue is touchiest.  However, when it comes to community engagement on touchy issues, you have to start somewhere and the best place to start is “where they’re at.”

Once we meet them there, how do we move forward?  Here’s five quick tips on moving forward to facilitate change that I’ve learned the hard way:

  1. Patiently invest in building trusting relationships with people and with the community.
  2. Patiently listen to their ideas.
  3. Patiently present our ideas as options, not as mandates or pre-packaged solutions.
  4. Patiently work together on a plan forward toward a stretch goal owned by the community that uses stretch strategies and tactics that are supported and implemented by the community.  (By stretch I mean goals, strategies, and tactics that push everyone just a little bit out of their comfort zone and yet aren’t so extreme that most people can’t live with them.)
  5. Patiently practice faith in the desire, will, and capacity of communities to self-organize for good and to do good things when we simply support them and resist taking over or imposing our will.

One last thought…what makes an issue touchy for a community?  Defining “touchy” is a lot like how I heard “major surgery” differentiated from “minor surgery” a while back.  “Major surgery” is any surgery I have.  “Minor surgery” is any surgery you have.  So, the correct answer to the question is “It depends” on the how the community views the issue.

More later…


Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus