“Tribal PREP” is more than just sex ed
Five years ago, Alaska public health authorities celebrated a reduction in sexually transmitted disease (STD) rates among the state’s population. Programs promoting safe sex and STD awareness had significantly helped curb the growing problem. But fast-forward to today, and chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are on the rise, particularly among Alaska Native and rural populations.
CITC’s newest youth initiative, the Tribal Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), aims to help history repeat itself and reduce the rate of STDs among Alaska Native populations — by teaching young people how to become better adults.
“We really want to focus on the reduction of STDs, but we realize all of it — making healthy decisions, knowing how to end unhealthy relationships, building effective communication skills — it’s all connected,” explained Tribal PREP Curricula Developer Anna Morrison. Tribal PREP aims to prepare youth aged 12–21 to successfully navigate adulthood by increasing their knowledge and equipping them to make good decisions.
“We could just do sex education, but we’ve seen that’s not enough on its own,” Anna elaborated.
For Teens, By Teens
Still in its developmental phase, Tribal PREP will feature activities and classes that focus on topics like financial literacy, career success, parent-teen communication, and healthy life skills. Unlike most other CITC programs aimed at youth, the program won’t just provide its services on the CITC campus: Tribal PREP will be mobile.
“We’ll be more successful if we can meet teens where they’re at instead of hoping they’ll come to us,” said Tribal PREP Coordinator Alex Lyle.
Already, Tribal PREP maintains hours at CITC partner Dena’ina House, a transitional living home operated by Covenant House Alaska that houses up to 25 homeless youth. There, every Monday and Wednesday, from 1–5 p.m., Anna and Alex offer advice and assistance to residents. They hope to provide similar services with additional partners like MyHouse, Job Corps, and UAA Native Student Services. Tribal PREP is making regular outreach trips to bring in other interested partners, as well.
Their goal is to provide help, but also to gather information that will help shape Tribal PREP curricula to meet the needs of its target audience.
“We hang out with the youth, just having conversations, getting to know them,” Alex described. “Just the other day, we helped a girl practice her job interview skills and talked to her about writing thank-you letters. Moving forward, as we shape existing curricula to meet our population’s cultural needs, we’re going to rely on the youth who will participate in the program to guide us.”
“If we can have youth involved, we’ll know — is the curriculum relatable, does it have ‘teen speak,’” added Anna. “What a great way to empower our youth — by giving them an active voice to help us create the program.”
Tribal PREP youth will also have an opportunity to inform the program beyond its inception. Alex and Anna are developing a strong peer education component, which will offer training for youth to become mentors and teachers for their peers.
In the meantime, Anna and Alex are holding a series of Roundtables this summer, where youth and their parents and guardians are encouraged to contribute ideas for building the program.
STDs On the Rise
Though Tribal PREP aims to ready teens to become more informed, empowered adults across an array of subject areas, its main goal is to reduce the occurrence of STDs and unplanned pregnancies among Alaska Native and American Indian youth.
“We’re not just looking at one component; we’re looking at the whole person and setting them up for success.”
– Anna Morrison, Tribal PREP Curricula Developer
A 2016 study from the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center found that while sexual activity among Alaska Native high school students had not notably increased between 2003–’05, by 2015 those same students reported significantly higher rates of sexual activity than Alaska non-Native students. The highest rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis among young people 15–24 years of age correlate with those areas of Alaska where Alaska Native youth are most sexually active — particularly in the Anchorage/Mat-Su, Southeast, and Bristol Bay/Yukon-Kuskokwim regions (according to a 2014 survey from the Centers for Disease Control).
Meanwhile, the rate of birth among Alaska Native teen (ages 15–19) women was more than three times that of Alaska non-native teen women.
At its core, Tribal PREP aims to bring these rates down. But the program’s methods take into account more than just condom demonstrations and abstinence talk.
“It’s not just that we’re wanting to decrease unplanned pregnancies or STDs,” Alex shared. “We want to give them a more holistic view on how unhealthy relationships can lead to negative outcomes. How financial literacy and career success can be impacted by pregnancy and STDs.”
“We’re not just looking at one component; we’re looking at the whole person and setting them up for success,” Anna added.
Still, the program will directly address much of the stigma around getting tested for STDs.
“A lot of teens know about testing, but they don’t want to do it because they think they have to go to the Alaska Native Medical Center, and they’re afraid they’ll run into someone they know there,” Alex explained.
But STD testing is available from a number of Tribal PREP partners, including Planned Parenthood, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Wellness on Wheels mobile testing unit, and other Anchorage clinics. Tribal PREP is even in talks with the Municipality to offer youth one free clinic visit.
Alex and Anna will be removing additional barriers to getting tested, including letting youth know that they do not need a parent present or parental permission to get tested. They’ll also encourage adults associated with the program to get tested themselves.
“If we open up the door to allow adults to get tested as an example, it might prompt the teens,” Alex said. “It’s just a swab for this test — there’s no blood draw. Hopefully that will encourage our youth.”
Transparency is a big factor in earning the trust of Tribal PREP’s target audience. According to a 2012 study, adolescents whose parents express their values and beliefs clearly to them are more likely to avoid risky sexual behavior. So not only will Tribal PREP allow Alex and Anna to talk frankly with the teens about relationships and sex, but a key component to the program’s methods is to establish lines of communication between youth and their parents and/or guardians.
“Parents are the primary influence on their child’s development, so we can’t ignore that relationship,” said Anna. “As part of the curriculum we’re developing, we’re working on embracing having conversation with parents so they can have a mutual experience and remove barriers and stigma. If a parent or teen is struggling with communication, we can help.”
With its collection of straightforward, simple tools — mentorship, peer education, open conversation, partnership — Tribal PREP has its sights set, not just on tackling the problem of rising STDs among Alaska Native youth, but on helping young people become the best adult versions of themselves.