Kemi: Describe your journey to becoming a public health professional focused on teen pregnancy prevention.
Rena: I went to undergrad thinking I was going to be an athletic trainer – very different from what I do now. They discontinued the athletic training program at my school so I had to figure out what I was going to do. At my school, you were put in health science classes to be pre-athletic training, or pre-nursing, or pre-physical therapy, so I stuck with my public health classes and I loved it. I absolutely loved it, it was great. I did my internship with young people in the Housing Authority [of Savannah] so I really bought into working with young people, which led to my first job working at Planned Parenthood in Georgia. I learned all about pregnancy prevention, STIs, and working with young folks. I moved away from that and really wanted to get back into it, which is why I made the switch to come back to working in sexual health all day every day.
Kemi: So, young people – that was really your driving point?
Rena: Right. I really wanted to be a person that was a resource for folks about health information. You see so many people who don’t know the right answers or don’t know how to get the information. I thought it was really important to me as a person of color to be that voice for my own people, and my own neighborhood, and my own family. So I just kind of took off with it.
Kemi: That kind of makes me think of Beverly Bond’s talk [at Summer Institute 2014] where you’re kind of waiting for somebody else to do it [be a resource in your community then decide] I’ll just do it [instead] because other people are probably thinking the same thing, that we need so-and-so to be a role model.
Kemi: Can you describe a typical day being a Youth Specialist?
Rena: I travel a lot. A typical day usually involves me being in the car going somewhere to meet with our providers that we work with. I do have a unique position that I work with providers all across the state and not in one particular region. So, any given day I could be in Spartanburg, or I could be in Horry, or I could be in Charleston, or I could be in Lancaster or Rock Hill. But a typical day involves me driving to see one of our clinic partners or higher ed partners.
Kemi: So, when you say our providers, you’re talking about mostly clinics?
Rena: Yes, my position is specialized to really focus on working mostly with clinic providers to help increase their capacity to provide teen-friendly services for youth coming in, or I work with higher ed campuses to help them address teen pregnancy on their campuses.
Kemi: So, have they heard of us, or you just go in and you give them [information]?
Rena: Ninety percent (90%) of the people I work with closely are receiving some type of grant funding through us or we’re working with them on a particular project like the BlueCross BlueShield project, or the CDC project, or the PREP project, or now the PAF project. So, they’ve already been identified to work on that larger sub-project and I’m just doing my piece for that grant.
Kemi: So, how did you spend this morning?
Rena: I was doing a speaker request for a group of about 300 young people on pregnancy prevention and STIs.
Kemi: Do you do these often? Is it usually that large of a group?
Rena: Well, it’s kind of random. I think it’s always different for us because we don’t do direct service, but people still look to us to provide education and information in communities. So I do feel like we get a lot of speaker requests. Those of us in the office who are public health trainers and are comfortable getting up in front of groups usually get those requests. I did one two weeks ago and one about six months ago. It varies.
Kemi: Do you prepare a PowerPoint, or what do you do to keep young people engaged?
Rena: I did a Prezi this time because there were so many young people, I felt like I needed some visuals and I think that’s a cool, different way instead of a boring PowerPoint. Two weeks ago, I did a game with the young people because I had a smaller group of about 30, and I did two different sessions so I was able to use a game called Fact or Fiction.
Kemi: Are they [young people] pretty responsive?
Rena: Yeah, they are. You get a lot of questions. A lot, a lot of questions because some people don’t have anyone they feel comfortable talking to, or someone they can talk to who’s going to give them the right information.
Kemi: How do you get your ideas for working with young people? By going to conferences?
Rena: I get ideas by reading a lot of research articles on what other people have already done, conferences and other presentations to hear what cool things other folks are doing, and also trial and error to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. In the spring, we did an event at Midlands Tech, and it was kind of off the fly, re-thinking what we were going to do. We’d participated in an event at USC two weeks before, and I didn’t think that it went well. There weren’t enough people there and folks weren’t engaged. So I completely threw out the window what I wanted to do and revamped it [for Midlands Tech], and it was fabulous because we had about 300 young people come through in those two days.
Kemi: What do you think the difference was between the USC experience and the Midlands Tech experience?
Rena: The USC event felt more like a professional event. We still see college students as adults, but they still want to do fun stuff. So [at Midlands Tech] we had food, and music, and games, and that brought the people out. We had different tables and booths with different activities going on at each table so they could go through and play the games and get information and learn something while they were playing the games.
Kemi: That sounds fun. Everyone likes a game!
Rena: Yeah, something different.
Kemi: So, are there specific journals that you recommend or conferences?
Rena: Because I’m a member of the American Public Health Association (APHA), I like their conference. I think every public health professional should go at least once in their lifetime. It’s very big and can be very overwhelming. It’s cool because anything related to public health happens at this conference. So whether you’re thinking about oral health, or transportation in public health, or thinking about young people or sexual health, there’s something for everybody at APHA, which is why it’s so overwhelming. It’s a good experience. I read the Journal of Adolescent Health a lot. I read Contraception, another journal. I work with family planning and birth control, so I read that one a lot.
Kemi: Is there a particular event so far this year that has motivated or inspired you?
Rena: Our events at Midlands Tech have been the ones I’m most proud of that we’ve put on this year so far.
Kemi: Do you have any similar community events planned for the rest of the year?
Rena: I’m hoping we’ll be able to do something like that again in August with Midlands Tech as part of the BlueCross BlueShield project. Summer Institute always inspires me because it’s great to see all of our providers together and engaged. That’s a lot of fun for me too.
Kemi: Are there any particular role models or did you have a mentors you’ve had in your career so far?
Rena: Yeah, I’ve had a couple. My committee chair for my dissertation [Dr. Jennifer Perkins] is one of my mentors and she’s fabulous. She’s been working in sexual and reproductive health for over 15 years. She’s a great resource. Dr. Kirby, when he was alive, was fabulous. I’m so happy I got the opportunity to work with him and listen and learn from him about all of his experiences. I’ve had the opportunity to meet Dr. Ralph DiClemente, he’s another the big public health/adolescent health/sexual health researcher. So I had my googly-eyed moment to sit down and ask him questions about where he started, working with the AIDS outbreak in the early 80s. So that was very cool for me to listen and hear from him. I’ve met some really good people who are just solid in public health, over the years.
Kemi: Do you ever think it’s difficult when you’re talking to non-public health people, for people to really understand your passion?
Rena: [Laughs] Always. They don’t quite get it. I’m not even sure my parents really understand what I do. They know I work in the health field.
Kemi: Right. Yeah, it is a little bit abstract for those of us who aren’t in the field as far as how you are really getting things done and how do you know you’re successful. So, is there any way you can put it into perspective for people?
Rena: Usually, you can think about making communities healthier. It’s the broadest sense of what I tell people. I usually say I work for a nonprofit that does teen pregnancy prevention and they automatically assume we work with young people, and I have to try to tell them that we work with people who are working with young people, and try to break it down that way instead of using the broad terms because most people don’t get it.
Kemi: Yeah, it [public health] really affects so many parts of the community or life. I think that if people had more of an idea of what all the strings were that are connected to it, maybe people would understand that picture a bit more.
Kemi: I have one fun question. I don’t know if you have an answer for it, but what is your spirit animal?
Rena: I don’t know. I don’t know what my spirit animal is. One of my favorite things that I’ve done in my career is that I went to an indigenous health learning institute in New Mexico for five days. I learned all about native health and how they incorporate western medicine into traditional healing. I got to visit some reservations and things like that. So I learned a lot about how that kind of thinking affects your wellness and healing, and how you have to be mindful of how to incorporate traditional healing with western medicine to reach some people.
Kemi: That’s interesting to think about in terms of teen pregnancy because obviously contraceptives are physical thing. I wonder what kind of suggestions they would have in that specific realm.
Rena: When I asked them about it, sometimes they don’t necessarily see it as a problem because they look at a new life being part of a balance, part of a celebration. We see it a lot as a moral issue, not as a health issue. So from the moral perspective, they don’t see it as a bad thing, which was very interesting for me to hear and learn. They have so many different things going on with high rates of diabetes and high rates of suicide, a birth really is seen as a joy in their communities. I learned a lot. It just made me think, when you said spirit animal, it just made me think about the whole experience. It really helped define where I am and the way I think about things in public health because we may think about it one way, and other people think about it completely different.
We went to visit a middle school [in Albuquerque, NM] that had a problem with graffiti art. It got to the point where you had to go to the principal to get a key just to go to the bathroom. So they got some grant funding to provide youth with the ability to create graffiti art on walls in bathrooms and let us go see some of them. The youth respect the art therefore that stopped the tagging problem in the school.
Kemi: That sounds like a term I’ve heard “meeting youth where they are,” and that every situation and community is different.
Rena: So, I don’t know how I find out what my spirit animal is. I can tell you my favorite animals are pandas. I like going to zoos a lot, so I try to go see them at different zoos. I see them at Zoo Atlanta and I see them at the National Zoo. I have a lot of stuffed pandas.
Kemi: Yeah, well, sounds like maybe that’s your spirit animal. I feel like spirit animals, and this is just my guess, but an animal that mirrors you or has characteristics you would want to have.
Rena: [Laughs] Questions for the universe...
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