Recently we had the chance to talk with our new Chair of the Board of Directors, Marla Becker, to learn more about her 20+ years in public health, and what drives her to promote sex ed in Bay Area schools.
HC: Let’s start at the beginning—tell us about your professional background.
MB: Sure. I first entered the world of public health when I did a college internship with Planned Parenthood. After graduation, I worked on a teen pregnancy prevention program with middle school students through UC San Diego. This was a very challenging time to work in the field because while teen pregnancies were at near record highs, California was promoting abstinence-only sex ed, which our research continually showed to be ineffective. That experience eventually helped fuel my interest in returning to school to pursue a Master of Public Health at UCLA, which I did the following year.
Since then, I’ve continued to focus on adolescent health. I spent three years at the Family Welfare Research Group at UC Berkeley evaluating state-funded teen pregnancy prevention programs, where I also co-authored “Power Through Choices”, a sexuality education curriculum for youth in out-of-home/foster care. It is still used today in organizations throughout the United States.
I eventually transitioned out of that role and became the Associate Director of Youth ALIVE!, a youth violence prevention nonprofit in Oakland. I was there for 13 years where I oversaw staff, programs and evaluations, and developed curricula. Most recently, in 2009, I co-founded the National Network of Hospital-based Violence Prevention Programs that provides intervention services to individuals who have been injured by violence, primarily by gun violence. Today, I continue to promote adolescent health as an independent contractor.
HC: Serving on a board is a non-paid role. Why is it important to you to promote sexual health education?
MB: I became involved with Health Connected when my oldest son attended Ralston Middle School in Belmont. After some members of the community vocalized concerns about implementing the Health Connected curricula in our school, I volunteered to join the district’s task force to review our implementation of sexual health education, largely because of my professional background. My initial impression of the Health Connected curriculum, Teen Talk, was very positive, but after reading through it in its entirety, and comparing it to alternatives, I was even more impressed. More than any other, Health Connected’s series of curricula provided scientifically-based sex education in a manner that was highly interactive and engaging to youth and unique in the manner in which it involved the parents. Ultimately my school district adopted the curriculum and they still use it today. Soon after the task force concluded, I joined the Health Connected board. I’m proud to work with and represent an organization that does such important work and is a leader in the field.
HC: What makes Health Connected unique?
MB: Health Connected is on the cutting edge in terms of recognizing that sexual health education is not something that should be taught to young people once and then never discussed again. They recognize the need for a continuum of developmentally-appropriate sexual health education, beginning at puberty, and continuing at multiple key points throughout their middle and high school years. The issues youth face regarding their sexual health change year-to-year, so it’s crucial they have the opportunity to learn about and discuss these issues when they are most relevant to their lives. Our Health Connected educators are also exceptional in their ability to relate to youth, because they are specialists in the sexual health field and can respond thoughtfully and accurately to the questions that come up in the classroom.
HC: What are the greatest challenges facing youth today in terms of their sexual health?
MB: Our youth are bombarded by sexual images and topics at a much earlier age and with much more frequency than when I was growing up. It used to be that you had to go to a video rental store or buy a magazine to view porn, but now it’s available at the swipe of a screen. And as much as we’d like to, as parents, we can’t block all of these images from our kids. That’s one of the primary reasons I believe so strongly in the need for quality sexual health education—so youth learn about healthy sexual relationships, rather than thinking the images they see online or in porn are the norm.
HC: What are some of your goals in your new role as Chair of the Board?
MB: The recent passage of the California Healthy Youth Act has exponentially increased the demand for Health Connected’s curricula statewide, since we are one of the only programs that is designed specifically to meet its broad requirements. We now need to be strategic as we determine how to expand our programs. One of my goals is to help bring our high-quality curricula and program model to other communities in the state in the most thoughtful and effective way possible, without taking away from the amazing work we are doing in the Bay Area.