CCPA Internship Series 2020: Family Planning Program of the Public Health Department of Seattle and King County

This past summer, Betelhem Muno ’22 did an internship at the Family Planning Program of the Public Health Department of Seattle & King County!

By Betelhem Muno ’22
It was a struggle falling asleep the night leading up to the first sexual health session.  I was imagining the different ways the conversation could go wrong with the intimate group of Eritrean and Ethiopian young women. How do you have a conversation about a topic that is usually shushed immediately? How would this discussion take shape? Was anyone going to get offended by conflicting cultural norms? How would I handle the inevitable discomfort and disagreement?
Although I have lived in the United States since I was six, I have stayed connected to the Ethiopian community in Seattle. In January, I met Celia Thomas, a health educator in the Family Planning Program of the Public Health Department of Seattle & King County. We met to talk about a possible internship working with her, focusing on sexual health. I was excited when she told me that she had been wanting to find a way to more directly connect with the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities in Seattle in a way that was culturally appropriate. I was also quietly terrified about the prospect of leading conversations about a delicate topic. Celia’s expertise in providing sexual health education to high school students gave me the confidence to start to structure an internship that would push all our thinking on many different levels.
The initial plan to meet in person was made impossible by the pandemic. I think the change to remote engagement prompted me to take a more creative approach. I took up a larger leadership role in having these conversations and made it more accessible to young women in other areas of the country.
Before this whole internship, back in high school, I had participated in the Five Girl Powers Project where I had conversations about power in a girls’ group. There, I learned about the five girl powers: Power Circle, Power Source, Power House, Power Surge, and Power Play. Out of the powers we talked about, Power Surge became essential as I started creating this new version of the internship. I had to take initiative in outreach, research, and programming. I had moments of doubt during the planning of the project about the relevancy of the project, and whether I should or could do it. I had to realize that education and conversation were always a step to making any change in a society. When it felt like there were more pressing issues like police brutality and systemic racism that I should be focusing on, I had to recognize that I could work on both issues at the same time. These were not separate issues, as they were connected and operated within the same systems of oppression.
My initial research on sexual health within the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the United States revealed some obstacles. I quickly realized the main resources available were unrelatable scientific articles. The information was not easily digestible information for someone that was not a scientist or had English as their second language. I found this lack of accessible information to be problematic. This was confirmed when I asked the young women in the program what they wanted to focus on. There was a clear need to talk about topics that weren’t discussed in our more socially conservative communities. So, with their input, Celia’s background, and some research, I created a five-week set of conversations that unpacked some of the factors that influenced the sexual health of Eritrean and Ethiopian women and girls.
The five sessions were organized so that we could cover the topics the girls wanted to talk about: sexual orientation and gender identity, sex, benefits of sex, STDs, birth control, relationships, consent, and rape culture, and looking at all the topics within the different structures and institutions that influence the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities. The five girl powers came back into play in our first session. By discussing the powers, the girls were able to identify where they had power in their own lives, and the areas that they wanted to work on to grow their powers. For the remaining sessions, Celia taught some of the subjects to create a common foundation using the same framework she used to facilitate other groups. I followed up with discussion of how each of the issues were viewed, experienced, and taught within the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities.
The common thread in all the conversations was the way information and cultural norms are communicated within our communities. Societal norms are influenced by religious institutions and a patriarchal power structure. It is apparent the kind of messages that are okay to openly communicate. It is also clear what topics are limited or prohibited outright. The beauty of these conversations we had together was that they were free of the traditional limitations. There was space to question and name the problems. There were also moments of connection and shared experiences. What was unspoken in other parts of our lives was spoken within this group.