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Young Women’s Health Leadership Summit Aims to Unleash their Potential

Monday, April 26, 2010

About 250 young women from 20 schools gathered recently at the Young Women’s Health Leadership Summit to discuss issues most important to them.

By Victoria Schlesinger

The 2010 Young Women’s Health Leadership Summit, an empowering educational experience developed by and for San Francisco high school girls, aimed to inspire participants to reach for the stars.

The spirited session did bring them to their feet.

The annual summit, co-produced by UCSF’s National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health (CoE) and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), brought together 250 young women from 20 schools for a day to discuss issues most important to them. Topics ranged from building self-esteem, avoiding substance abuse and teen pregnancy to offering a glimpse of college life.

This year—to prolong the enthusiasm and knowledge gained during the summit—the CoE and SFUSD announced that five teams of San Francisco high school students were awarded a total of $7,850 in grant money to create and implement projects that promote women’s health and wellness within their schools.

Winning projects included helping newly immigrated students manage their health and safety, teaching techniques in stress reduction, and fostering communication and conflict resolution strategies. Each team has a month to execute their projects before their work is showcased during Women’s Health Week in mid-May.

Nancy Milliken, MD, director of the CoE and vice dean of the School of Medicine at UCSF, started the summit a decade ago in partnership with then California State Senator Jackie Speier to empower young women to make informed choices about their health.

In her opening remarks at the summit, Milliken commented on the event’s theme: “Unleashing Our Potential, Reaching for the Stars.” “What a magnificent theme your peers have chosen for you today. I think this year’s theme best captures our intent.”

Carlos Garcia, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, and Judy Young, assistant director of UCSF’s National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, share a moment at the summit.

Many young women in San Francisco face serious health challenges, according to “San Francisco Girls: A Snapshot Report, 2009,” produced by the City and County of San Francisco. The statistics are startling:

  • 8 percent have been raped;
  • 9 percent have been assaulted by a boyfriend or girlfriend;
  • 14 percent have attempted suicide in the past year;
  • 8.3 percent skipped school due to safety concerns; and
  • 43 percent and 19 percent respectively of African American and Latino youth lived in poverty.

According to Milliken, a growing body of research suggests that youth are less likely to engage in risky behavior that could negatively impact their health if they feel supported by adults and their peers, are intellectually challenged and held to high expectations, and contribute to their community. The summit is designed to meet those needs through the support of the Hillblom Foundation, Metta Fund, Mount Zion Health Fund, and Lisa & John Pritzker Family Fund.

A Youth Steering Committee, under the guidance of the CoE, selected the activities and speakers for the summit, which opened with inspirational speeches by San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Carlos Garcia and now Congresswoman Speier.

Other speakers included third-year UCSF medical student Stephanie Garcia, who recently provided health care to children in Haiti and talked about her journey toward becoming a doctor. A local female drumming group, Loco Bloco, brought the young women to their feet, as did Slam Master poet Ramona Webb.

Tackling Teen Pregnancy

Morning and afternoon small workshops focused on issues such as body image, stereotypes, and health care services. Congresswoman Speier led a workshop with 20 young women interested in identifying problems in women’s health that can be addressed through public policy.

Following a lively discussion, the group concluded that the unrealistic portrayal of teenage pregnancy in recent TV shows and movies was a significant problem. They cited popular TV programs such as “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” MTV’s “16 and Pregnant,” “Glee,” and the films “Knocked Up” and “Juno.”

While the national teenage pregnancy rate hovers around 4 percent, Claire Brindis, DrPH, MPH, and director of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at UCSF, explained that California is home to more than 12 percent of the nation’s teens and about 50,000 teen pregnancies a year.

The local female drumming group, Loco Bloco, brought the young women to their feet.

“I can only tell you how much mythology is out there and how many kids still believe that if you stand up and have sex you’re not going to get pregnant or if your boyfriend is drinking Mountain Dew you won’t get pregnant. I’ve heard all sorts of things from young people who don’t have valid information,” said Brindis. “I don’t see young people getting the message about planning for pregnancy after college or vocational training through the media.”

Speier and the workshop attendees are continuing to determine how best to tackle the problem. In 2003, a similar workshop led by Speier resulted in legislation that banned the sale of ephedra, a weight loss and body building supplement, in California.

Changing Lives

Many young women who have benefited from past summits or participated in one of the CoE’s many internships, a program that has placed more than 300 young women in a dozen years, were present. Rebecca Lam, 25, attended the summit when she was a sophomore at Lowell High School in 2001. She called the experience life changing.

“It really sparked an interest and a passion in me,” said Lam, who is now a nurse for Abraham Lincoln High School. 

When Lam attended the summit as a student, she was one of a dozen or more young women who served on the Youth Steering Committee, a cornerstone of the project. With the help of the school district, UCSF staff interview and select students from a wide range of racial ethnic groups, economic backgrounds with varying ages and leadership skills to participate in an eight-month program.

Meeting every two weeks, the group learns about health through presentations and discussion and develops leadership skills through team-building exercises under the guidance of facilitator JudyYoung, CoE assistant director and manager of the Women’s Health Resource Center.

“The idea that everybody has something to teach and everybody has something to learn is the model we use,” said Young, who in March received the UCSF Chancellor’s Award for the Advancement of Women in the staff category.

The months of training and group bonding are put to use organizing the summit. The young women plan the workshops, host the event and produce all of its supporting material.

From left, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, Dixie Horning, executive director of UCSF’s National Center of Excellence (CoE) in Women’s Health, and Nancy Milliken, director of the CoE, talk with a reporter after the summit.

For Samantha Tu, 17, a senior at the Academy of Arts & Sciences and member of the Youth Steering Committee, the experience confirmed her interest in becoming a health practitioner. She also said that over the eight months she learned to be herself and how to mentor other young women. “It’s helping me a better sibling, a better friend. I’m not as quick to judge people.”

Another Youth Steering Committee member, Kimberly Guthrie, 17, from Independence High School, said the group, and Judy Young in particular, had shown her “that I can be a woman of color and still be able to do anything that I want to do.”

After witnessing the birth of her younger brother and meeting midwives through the CoE, Guthrie aims to go to college and study midwifery. “Just being around positive people who believe in me was good. They’re sending me on the right path.”

When asked about settling on the summit’s theme and what it meant, Guthrie replied, “Unleashing our potential is like letting go of all our fears and negative energy and still going for it. And the stars mean going for your ultimate goal and making sure we reach it.”

Photos by Susan Merrell

Source: UCSF News Services

Related Link:

UCSF’s National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health

Young Women's Health Innovations Awards

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