D.C. community youth groups adopt UUA's lifespan sexual education curricula.
The Our Whole Lives (OWL) sexuality education program, developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ 10 years ago, has been a staple of UU and UCC religious education programs, giving youth in those programs the benefit of accurate and comprehensive information about sexuality.
Until now the OWL program has been mostly limited to church youth. But that's starting to change.
In 2007 the UU Church of Arlington, Va., with the support of Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Md., and volunteers from three other congregations, began taking OWL into the community and offering it to non-UU youth. Since then the program, called "OWL OUT," has been offered in community centers and other facilities in and around Arlington and the District of Columbia. More than 100 non-UU youth have had the benefit of at least parts of the program.
"It's going extremely well," said the Rev. Archene Turner, one of the three OWL OUT organizers and coordinator of senior high youth ministries at Cedar Lane. "We're reaching youth for whom this program is truly life-changing."
Turner, formerly a ministerial intern with the Arlington congregation, said it had always been their intention to extend the OWL program into the community. When an opportunity arose in the summer of 2007 to teach a condensed OWL course at Beacon House, a UU-run organization that supports at-risk youth in Washington, D.C., OWL facilitators jumped at it.
That two-week pilot program was a success and it led to an invitation to teach a yearlong course at Beacon House and shorter courses at community centers at subsidized housing projects operated by the Arlington Housing Corporation. For the past two years the course has been taught as part of after-school programs at these centers.
The youth in those programs were enthusiastic about OWL from the start, said Stephen Colgan, an OWL OUT organizer and a member of Cedar Lane. "It's been a pleasure to see how open all of the youth have been to this. It doesn't matter that their backgrounds are different from those of many UU youth. They're really excited about getting this information."
The organizers, who mentor staff and volunteer OWL facilitators by having one of them attend every session, did find that OWL worked better with some changes for these non-UU groups. "We made it more interactive," said Turner. "We brought in a lot of videos and music, including clips from YouTube, and built in some field trips, including one to a Planned Parenthood office." Added Colgan, "We adapt it so it's fun and something the youth can relate to."
Jacomina de Regt, the third OWL OUT organizer from UUCA, observes that the OWL program is written for "middle class kids in a learning style that they are most comfortable with" and that it's helpful, when taking OWL out of a church setting, to add other learning elements. "We always start a session with a song, with five discussion questions related to the song and the topic of the session—maybe something about relationships and being respectful to women."
She added, "We also train the staff at the community centers. These are the people who have the trust of the kids and see them every day. And they're the ones who handle the questions when we leave." At least two staff facilitate OWL sessions with one or two volunteer facilitators as one team, with Turner, Colgan, or de Regt present as a mentor.
How do organizers know that OWL OUT works? "None of the community centers have mandatory attendance," said Turner. "The kids are voluntarily coming back week after week, and they ask questions that are really in depth. There have been certain topics that the community center staff wasn't sure the kids were ready to talk about—like homosexuality and rape—but the kids have brought these topics up themselves. It surprised the staff."
Turner said the course has given girls the courage to say no to sex. "They recognize they have the power to respect their bodies." And it gives them a safe space to ask any question, noted Colgan. "We get questions about what constitutes abuse, for example."
The courses range from six to 27 sessions, depending on the setting. OWL OUT is funded with a grant from the UU Fund for Social Responsibility and other donations totaling about $16,000, including many gifts from members of area congregations. It also relies on volunteer OWL facilitators from five UU congregations. "We're constantly training new leaders," said de Regt.
OWL OUT leaders hope to expand the places where the program can be offered. They're talking with a foster care program and other teen residential centers about bringing the program to them. "Once people find out about it they want their youth exposed to it," said Colgan. "I've had inquiries from UUs across the country about this," said Turner.
The Rev. Linda O. Peebles, minister of religious education at UUCA, noted that the OWL OUT program has the potential to transform congregations. "OWL OUT is a multicultural program that reaches across generations," she said. "We hope the same thing might happen in our congregations as we move into relationship with the whole community—the youth, their parents, and the staff of these youth programs. My dream is that OWL OUT will reflect back into our congregations."
The program recently drew the attention of the Obama administration. The Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has asked for information about it, said Turner. "They said this is the kind of thing they're looking for." OWL OUT coordinators also presented a workshop at the 2009 General Assembly and have done other workshops at district assemblies. On top of that, the OWL program itself is featured in the July 2009 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine.
Turner said, "When we ask the youth in the OWL OUT program what word they would use to describe their experience with the program we hear words like 'awesome,' 'fantastic,' and 'enlightening' and we know we have touched their lives in a positive way," she said. "I feel confident that we have given the OWL OUT youth—like the youth in our congregations—life-saving information that will impact their future decisions and possibly save their lives."
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.