Why Civic engagement and Aggressive Grassroots tactics are more important than ever

By Angela Ferrell-Baxter of Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Justice

Photo courtesy of TBD

I remember it as if it were yesterday, the buzz that I felt in 2008 after sweeping “progressive” victories. Everything pointed to change for the better as I stood alongside other progressives and holders of the American dream of freedom and equality. Indeed there was no way that we could fail, or at least that’s what I thought.

Fast forward to 2011, and so much has stayed the same or rolled backwards. Is this what I signed up for when I volunteered at local fairs, phone banked and wore buttons and t-shirts announcing that I stand for “CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN”? What about all of the people that I had friendly debates with about how this new leadership would propel us forward? I think that many of us were so hungry for the possibility of better that we behaved like enamored teenagers.

With all of the recent buzz over abortion, health care exchanges, defunding family planning clinics and stamping out public radio and television to name a few, my head spins. How in the world could this be? How is it that those who want to launch us backwards have decided to speak for me, a District of Columbia resident?

As a DC resident I am outraged that the lives of the women in the district are being used as political pawns. In order to “prevent” the imminent federal government shutdown last week, DC women were thrown under the bus. The deal includes a rider bans the district from using its own funds to provide abortion services for lower income women. It’s the ultimate slap in the face for DC. This shady deal infuriated residents and activists alike. On Monday April 11, The DC 41 (which included Mayor Gray, council members and other activists from DC Vote) staged a protest in front of the Hart Senate Building to demonstrate their anger with Congress meddling in the affairs of DC. It was about our autonomy and self- determination. With about 300 supporters, the people amplified their voices.

I then realized that I was not the only one questioning everything that I once held in high regard and that frightened me. It frightened me because I am right on the front lines of many of these fights. For the most part I’m pretty informed on the day -to- day politics and am often sitting at the tables where our strategies come together. All of that and I still found myself disheartened and disillusioned. If I was fed up then I could only imagine the utter disdain and lack of confidence held by the folks that were far removed from the fight.

This cannot be. As upset as we are we must realize that our lack of engagement will allow more draconian measures to eke by. Throwing our arms up and ignoring what’s happening around us has never and will never save us. Grinding our teeth but not raising our voices will not protect us.

What I do know is that there is a lot at stake. For the lives of women and families, for the dignity and support of our underserved communities and for the respect of all who came before us, we must fight back. How do we fight back? We do it one story at a time, advocating for and educating on all of the issues that affect our communities. All of these issues intersect and they should be fought for and protected as a part of our progressive values. It unacceptable to just maintain the status quo. It is more important than ever that we remain engaged and reach a hand out to those who have disconnected.  We have to be the change that we seek “for real” this time. Our People ARE our power.


This article was originally posted by Huffington Post on March 31, 2011.


As a fashion photographer, I shoot a lot of pictures that contribute to the sexual imagery that confront youth every day in America. While American teens live in a society that uses sex to sell everything from lipstick to laptops, they are rarely afforded opportunities to discuss sex in an open, honest way. Because of my work in many different countries and cultures, and my involvement in a project called Move For Aids, I became interested in the issue and decided to take a deeper look at how America’s inability to talk about sex really impacts teens.

I was really shocked by what I found. Every day in America, 10,000 teens catch a sexually transmitted disease, 2,400 teen girls get pregnant, and 55 young people are infected with HIV. Also consider these cold, hard facts:

But I wasn’t just shocked by the statistics but also by the fact that most people are unaware of how bad the situation really is and also how valuable open communication and education can be in alleviating the problem.

After processing what I had learned, my mission became to bring these shocking facts to life through film and in the process offer some real solutions to try and improve the situation. That film is called Let’s Talk About Sex. For three years, I traveled through the United States and Western Europe on a journey to understand common trends on sex and sexuality, and to profile young Americans who have been directly affected by the current lack of honest, open conversation. These teens are powerful advocates for change, navigating the real world with little guidance about sexuality, and occasionally facing devastating consequences as a result.

The film highlights the price young people pay for a culture where fear, shame, and denial too often undermine education, communication, and basic common sense. It looks at a broad swath of the American teenage experience — from a teen in Atlanta, GA who discusses the disconnect between the virginity pledge movement and the reality of teen’s lives, to college students talking about the “hook up” culture of college, and a young gay man who was infected with HIV at age 17 talks about the impact the lack of sex education and information has on gay teens.

Let’s Talk About Sex concludes in Oregon, where some of the lessons learned in Western Europe are helping to create practical solutions. The differences between Europe and America are staggering. If the U.S. were able to achieve the sexual health outcomes on a par with the Netherlands, American teens each year would experience 600,000 fewer pregnancies, 350,000 fewer births and 63,000 fewer abortions. The annual savings for American taxpayers would reach $505 million.

The Internet and modern life have changed the playing field for teens. Now more than ever, we need to stand up and make sure young people have honest, reliable information and communication around this issue. Sexuality is such a big part of who we are, and I believe that most people want to talk to their children about it but they just don’t know how. Let’s Talk About Sex was created as a tool for parents, educators and community leaders to initiate healthy, age-appropriate conversations about sexual health across America. Only a community effort will really solve this problem, so please join me in getting this important message out.

The film can be seen on TLC, April 9th at 10 PM EST / 9 CST. More information on the film can be found at LetsTalkAboutTheFilm.com

James Houston is a fashion photographer and filmmaker.