Episode 74: Reducing Unintended Teen Pregnancies with Terry Greenberg

Terry Greenberg leads an effort in Dallas to reduce unintended teen pregnancy. She and George talk about the lead causes of teen pregnancies and how they can be avoided through conversation, education and the support of the faith community. Visit ntarupt.org and TalkAboutItDallas.com to learn about these local efforts.

Listen here, read the transcript below, or click here for the full video version.

George Mason: Unintended teen pregnancy brings unwelcome consequences. We all agree to that, but how do we go about addressing it? Terry Greenberg founded an organization to help all of us make better choices, give better information, and address this challenge among us. She'll be on Good God, stay tuned.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm George Mason, your host, and I'm delighted to welcome to the program today, Terry Greenberg. Terry, we're glad to have you.

Terry Greenberg: Thanks for having me.

George Mason: Terry is the CEO, founder, and overall imaginative creator of the organization called NTARUPT. It's a big acronym, so I'm going to try it. Okay. See if I can get this. This is the North Texas Alliance for-

Terry Greenberg: To reduce.

George Mason: To reduce unintended pregnancy in teens.

Terry Greenberg: Yes, perfect.

George Mason: How about that?

Terry Greenberg: Wasn't that easy?

George Mason: Yeah, that's right. So Terry, this is exciting that it's a five year old organization.

Terry Greenberg: Yes.

George Mason: And it's your brainchild.

Terry Greenberg: Yes.

George Mason: How did it come about?

Terry Greenberg: Well, so I had been doing some work on a volunteer basis. I'm a lawyer by training and career, but on a volunteer basis with the National Council of Jewish Women to advocate for comprehensive sex education. And I have led an effort there to do that advocacy work. And then, it was a lot of work. This is a story of really the only thing in my life I really feel like I've been called to do. After a couple of years, no one would take it from me because it's not an easy subject and it's hard to gather people. And I was like I'm going to have to drop this. It's just taking too much time. It's hard to drive this bus.

Terry Greenberg: And so I dropped it, and then about a month later, the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy called me and said, "We'd like you to organize something in Dallas for us. Will you do that for us?" And I was like, "Okay." So I did that and we had this big luncheon with a lot of people, decision makers in Dallas, at the Communities Foundation. And then after that, I organized the second day of training for all these youth serving nonprofits that I already knew because I had led this coalition. And during that training, at the training, they're like, "This is a big issue that affects all of us. So it affects domestic violence, it affects substance abuse, it crosses over all of those things." And so all those organizations where like, "We really need to form a coalition." And I was like, "Well, I've been there, done that." And then someone was like, "Yeah Terry, you really need to lead this." So, I felt like I was tapped on the shoulder twice. Like keep with this, this is what you're supposed to be doing.

George Mason: Okay, so parsing through some of the language you just used, calling, tapped on the shoulder, tried to get away from it and it just kept... All of that sounds very spiritual. There's something about who you are and what you do have come together in this, right? That you have a sense that as our mutual friend, Rabbi Nancy Kasten puts it, that this is what God placed you on Earth to do somehow. How do you put those things together, your own sense of faith and this work that you do?

Terry Greenberg: Well, I was raised at Temple Emmanuel. And growing up, at that time, the biggest link to spirituality was through Tikkun Olam, which was repair of the world. So, that was what we were all called to do in one way or another. Later, the spirituality itself and relationship with God has become a bigger influence and emphasis in the synagogue. But back then, when I was in there, that was what it was. You're here to repair the world. This is your life and make the world better because you were in it.

George Mason: It's so interesting that you say that. So there's a sense in which in the Christian community, I think it has tended to go the other direction. So you just described, and Nancy and I have had this conversation. It happened for her in the same way, where the first thing you learned about your faith was your responsibility to repair the world. There was a sense of if there's to be the world God wants and desires for us all, we have to take up that responsibility. We have to do that work. We have to answer that call.

George Mason: And then afterwards, you start to realize that there's a vertical dimension to this. There's a spiritual sense of it. So, social justice first, spiritual dimension follows. For most Christians, the spiritual dimension is the first thing that happens, the relationship with God. And then in our religious communities, it's the hard work of trying to get people to realize it's not just about that. It's also about the horizontal, about the world we live in and the work we do. So as long as we both get to the same place eventually with both of these things, it seems like that's the goal, right?

Terry Greenberg: Right. We can all link arms doing this work.

George Mason: That's terrific. All right. So speaking of the work itself then, it seems like unintended teen pregnancy is one of those fulcrum points of a predictor of success or failure in life almost. Not completely, but it does have a real high correlation as you said to other social, either problems through unintended pregnancies, challenges that will persist generationally. Or if it's avoided, give people a greater onramp to opportunity and success. Is that the way you view the importance of this or is it something else?

Terry Greenberg: Correct. So, actually our tagline NTARUPT is opportunity uninterrupted. So yes, it is about the onramp to success. There's lots of research saying that the best way to attain middle-class by middle age is to wait to have a baby till you're 20, to get married first. And then a lot of other things, graduate high school, get a career. So, maybe two of the 12 factors to attaining middle-class by middle age. And in Dallas in particular, of course, we have the third highest child poverty rate. It's not an accident that teen pregnancy happens in these same neighborhoods. And so, in those neighborhoods that are affected by all the same really bad issues, teen pregnancy may not even be the biggest issue. Right? So, it's part of that entire conversation about achieving equity for all the parts of our city. So, there's a context where we're very targeted about our actions, but it's also a bigger piece.

George Mason: Right. So, poverty is an enormous amount of this. And yet, it's hard to go after just a strategy to reduce poverty. But if you go after one piece of this that has so many other consequences to it, then the poverty issue follows, right?

Terry Greenberg: We are hoping so.

George Mason: We'll have to see how the data works, right?

Terry Greenberg: We really believe that kids need the best information to make the best choices for themselves so that they can be prosperous.

George Mason: So, what are the significant top causes for unintended pregnancy in your mind, form what you've researched, information?

Terry Greenberg: Yeah, so information. So, we just launched in February a huge public awareness campaign called Talk About It Dallas. So, we have this website that gives lots of information about sexual health, but also information about how to have these difficult conversations with all different people in your life. So, yes, it's information. And traditionally, kids have not gotten just basic health information about their bodies and their reproductive health in school. Right? So in Texas in particular, in some other states they do. But it's information. It's conversations with parents.

Terry Greenberg: Every eco system supports the child, right? So, we have the kids. We have the parents. The parents have to be able to have those difficult conversations. We teach courses that help parents have those conversations, right? When kids are asked, they say overwhelmingly that they want to hear this stuff from their parents. Now it's super awkward, right? No parent enjoys talking about it. And I'm not going to say that I was any different. I did it because I know how important it is.

Terry Greenberg: But yeah, so those parental conversations. There's access to healthcare, right? So, all kids don't have access. And I guess I'm going to sort of highlight this with a story. In 2015 when I started this organization, I was asked to be a panelist for a gathering at the African American museum called Being a Teen in 2015, right? So, it was me and all these teenagers on a panel. It was led by a 20 year old young woman and she asked the panel, do you know that teen pregnancy is worse in your neighborhood then anywhere else?

Terry Greenberg: So, we were near the state fair. Their teen birth rate is five times the national teen birth rates. And one of the girls said, "I bet it is." She said, "Is it worse than in Addison?" And the girl said, "Yeah, I think so." And then the moderator said, "Well, why do you think that is?" So this young lady raised her hand, she goes, "I know why. It's three things." I'm like, okay, I'm all ears. I'm glad you figured it out.

Terry Greenberg: The first thing she said is their parents talk to them about this stuff. And I'm like I don't really think that's true. Right?

George Mason: Yeah.

Terry Greenberg: But it shows that their wanting that, they're needing that. Right? So she said two, their parents take them to the doctor. So in parts of the city, kids don't have a regular checkup every year. They don't know a doctor that asked them about all kinds of things that are important to adolescence. And then the third thing, she said is people care about those kids.

George Mason: Wow.

Terry Greenberg: That was the equity thing. That was this other device. And I was like, "Oh, we care about you." So yes, in a nutshell, she was not wrong. Right?

George Mason: Right.

Terry Greenberg: Those are the reasons.

George Mason: So you're working on various fronts then. You're not just working on school education, you're working on family education and helping to provide resources for all of these different groups. How do you get to them?

Terry Greenberg: Well, it's hard. I have to tell you. So, I have an amazing director of external affairs. She was the first person I hired and we have a big federal grant to deliver education. And so, she really, through her efforts and our educators and the rest of our staff too, as they've come in and along. So, we're reaching out in the community. So, we deliver our education to... Over the years, through over 50 nonprofits. So, like Trinity River Mission and all sorts of places. So, we do a lot of community mobilization. You know we have a big faith outreach where we try to be everywhere. So, we just really have been part of affecting a huge change in Dallas Independent School District, which happened at the end of February, where the school board voted to include comprehensive sex education.

George Mason: Yay.

Terry Greenberg: So, we're out there trying to be everywhere, which is not that easy, but we really want to listen to the community.

George Mason: Okay. So, comprehensive sex education in the public school in Dallas is a big first step.

Terry Greenberg: It's huge.

George Mason: It's huge because that word comprehensive should be set in a contrast to abstinence only education.

Terry Greenberg: Correct.

George Mason: Right. Which has been something that in Texas has been an ongoing debate, but pretty much a default assumption that that's what we need in the schools. Right?

Terry Greenberg: Correct. It's not a requirement. But Texas accepted more abstinence only education money from the federal government during the Bush years than any other state. And that's what kids have been receiving if they receive anything.

George Mason: So if that's been going on for a long time, I guess we really don't know what a difference comprehensive sex education is going to make yet. We'll have to wait and see versus abstinence only education.

Terry Greenberg: Well, we could wait and see or we could look at other states where they've been doing it.

George Mason: I see. Okay. There you go. All right. You mean Texas isn't unique? Aren't we different from everyone else?

Terry Greenberg: Well, we are special. But there are states where they have adopted comprehensive sex education and they have lower teen birth rates. It's not a coincidence. So, the research really shows that the more kids know, the less they do.

George Mason: Wait, you mean ignorance is not bliss?

Terry Greenberg: It is not bliss.

George Mason: Okay. It can be dangerous, in fact. Dangerous not only for unintended pregnancies, but also dangerous for lots of other consequences of sexually transmitted diseases.

Terry Greenberg: Right. And Dallas is pretty high in STI rates, really high actually and new cases of HIV in young people too.

George Mason: Okay.

Terry Greenberg: So, we have a lot of learning to do.

George Mason: All right, so let's take a break and when we come back I want to talk a little more about the challenges of the faith community and the work that you do and how we can grow in our partnerships as well.

Terry Greenberg: Okay.

George Mason: Okay. Thank you.

George Mason: Thank you for continuing to tune in to Good God. These conversations are part of a larger program that is called Faith Commons, the umbrella organization you might say of Good God. Good God is the first project of Faith Commons, which is a nonprofit organization that is intended to do public theology. You might say. It's multi-faith, not just Christian, Jewish, Muslim, other faiths, but all of them becoming involved in the question of how do we promote the common good together. There are so many areas of need and concern in our community and Faith Commons is trying to help bridge the gaps between religions and peoples in our community so that we can have a more just and peaceful society. Thanks for continuing to support us.

George Mason: We're back with Good God and Terry Greenberg of NTARUPT. And Terry, we were talking about the change at DISD, Dallas Independent School District, and now they're going to be instituting comprehensive sex education.

Terry Greenberg: Correct.

George Mason: So in Texas, abstinence only education has been something that I would say if we were honest, the faith community, and let's be more specific, the Christian faith community, conservative Christian community, has advocated for for a long time. And the idea being that the best way to prevent teen pregnancy is for kids not to engage in sexual relations.

Terry Greenberg: Well, that is true.

George Mason: That is absolutely true. But if the only information they have is no, right? There is a kind of innate curiosity that we all have about our bodies and about intimate relationships and how these things work, that if kids have to discover all of this on their own, they are likely to do so, more likely to do so in the kind of experimentation and in their relationships, than simply being told no. So, I assume that's the premise of a more comprehensive?

Terry Greenberg: That is absolutely true. So, the way I look at it is almost all of our kids have little devices in their pockets.

George Mason: Yes.

Terry Greenberg: And Primetime TV in their homes and they are exposed to a huge amount of sexuality and everything else from society. And if we're not giving real honest, factual information, we're doing them a huge disservice. They need to be able to get what is accurate and true, and be able to make those decisions for themselves. And so yes, we could maybe alleviate some of the curiosity by just giving them real information. Kids are pretty savvy these days. So if you give them real information, I really trust them to make better decisions.

George Mason: Well, and there's also a developmental thing isn't there? In terms of the brain's development and the frontal lobe and the whole idea of being able to think about consequences, that doesn't develop right away when your body is developing and is more and more ready for... because of hormonal development and those sorts of things, ready for sexual relationships. And so, there's a kind of disconnect there, isn't there? Between what you feel urges to do, what society is telling you grownups do. And you want to be a grownup, but then you can't foresee, you don't have all the developed foresight about the future and what will take place if these things happen. Right?

Terry Greenberg: Correct. So, we can give them good information. But what the kids do with those urges, that's a lot about what the parents say and the values and the faith community. So, that's where we all need to work together giving them that information, so that they have it when the time comes. And they know that they're going to set goals and make decisions for themselves. That's great. But that's where all these layers come in.

George Mason: So in our Christian tradition, there is now a kind of a debate going on, a revisiting of what had been known, you might say, as the purity culture. And this is something I'm sure you're familiar with, where the more conservative Christian churches and communities would urge that kids stay pure until their marriage, until they're married, take pledges to that effect. In fact, have purity rings and all these sorts of things. And I'm sure that much of the rationale for that is the very same thing we've been talking about, is that we want the best for our kids and we want them to have opportunity and hope and we want them to have good intimate relationships. But that's being challenged from within the Christian community too because it seems that those who participated in the purity culture have increasingly come to talk about a damaged sense of self and their bodies and their feelings about healthy sexual relationships. What have you observed or learned about that in your research in dealing with people?

Terry Greenberg: Well, so there was actually a study that came out, I want to say in like 2012, about evangelical and more religious Christians having a higher unintended teen birth rate because they are told that even to think about their sexuality or to plan for it is a sin. So therefore, they would rather just be caught in a moment than have seen as planning for it. Right? That's why this information is good. You can tell me more about that. I think that you can speak more to that.

George Mason: I'm going to tell you what it was like for me growing up in an environment where before the language of the purity culture and all of that. But I think as an adolescent, I didn't have much of a way to judge my relationship to God other than by my sexual discipline or abstinence or whatever. In a sense, I only knew that maybe God and I were on good terms if I were not acting inappropriately in a sexual way, but I also wasn't given the kind of information about how to have intimate relationships that didn't end up in a kind of sexual act either.

George Mason: So, it was sort of an all or nothing at all. A fear of touching, a fear of... And yet, as any human being, I'm going to want to have a close relationship with dating relationships. And the closer you get, it's just natural that that happens. But there wasn't enough conversation about what's happening in your body and why you're feeling the way you do and what's happening in a girl's body and in her mind about all of these things. So, you're just in this enormous gap of adolescence where you have a huge mystery that you're living and you don't know what to do with it. And so, you feel guilty if you think you've done too much, you feel lonely if you think you haven't done enough. It's maddening, really. I think we're trying to figure all of that out at this point and information certainly has to be a big part of it.

Terry Greenberg: Right, right. And I think the faith community acknowledging that sexuality is a beautiful gift from God. Which is what my mother told me, that this is a beautiful thing that you do with someone you love. Right?

George Mason: Yes.

Terry Greenberg: I think that helps, is to acknowledge this, because if... You know Aaron White?

George Mason: Yes, of course.

Terry Greenberg: We had a meeting. We're meeting with the faith community. I love what he said. He said, "A lot of times Christians are taught this is a filthy bad thing and you should only do it with a person you love the most."

George Mason: Yes. Right, right.

Terry Greenberg: So, it's like this dichotomy and it causes a lot of mixed feelings.

George Mason: Well, so for some, sex is dirty by nature and it always is. And therefore it should be reserved for marriage and done as little as possible because it's just is that. I think for other Christians, however, it goes like this. It's dirty before marriage. And then when you are married, it's not dirty anymore. Okay. With your partner. The problem is you spend all this time in the dirty phase and you internalize this wrong, dirty, guilty language. You get married, immediately you're supposed to flip a switch and now think of it differently. And so, I think what we're trying to get to is what you said that your mother, your parents told you that this is a good gift from God, and it is not dirty by nature. It is God's way of helping us to experience and practice the love of God for one another created in the divine image.

George Mason: It's a way for us to continue creation. It's a way for us to participate with God in this beautiful project of the world. And yes, it can be used like anything else inappropriately. And it can damage instead of heal. But that's the nature of everything we do. Sex is just one of those things. It's not a unique thing.

Terry Greenberg: Right.

George Mason: And I think if we could learn to have that conversation. So, one of the ways I talk about that as a Christian minister is our theology should start with Genesis one and two, not with Genesis three. That is for us as Christians, so often we start with the sin in the garden, the forbidden fruit. Everything now is dictated by our nature of doing the wrong thing.

George Mason: Whereas if you start your theology with original blessing, not with original guilt, with original goodness, not with original sin, then there is a persistence of that where you have stronger self-esteem, a stronger sense of your capacity to make good choices, not always assuming that you're prone to bad things and that kind of thing. So, I think a different theology is called for in this.

Terry Greenberg: I agree.

George Mason: Yeah.

Terry Greenberg: I love that.

George Mason: Okay. So, what do you want the faith community to know? If we were to partner with you, what are some specific things that we could do to help NTARUPT and for NTARUPT to help us?

Terry Greenberg: Well, what we're trying to do now is to gather a bunch of clergy and faith communities to agree to talk about this issue. With their teens, with their parents. So, just to have these conversations using their own values. I think it would be great if we could be a repository for some of scriptural things and religious curriculum that deal with sexuality so that we could give it to other faith communities to share it out. So our voice, it's not NTARUPT's place or voice to say what the faith community should say about it. It's our way of just encouraging them and letting them know that their voice is really important.

George Mason: So, we could actually contribute to the resources you offer?

Terry Greenberg: Correct.

George Mason: By saying, here's a faith perspective and and here are some things that can be said and done to create a healthy, comprehensive conversation about sex in the home and school and all of that sort of thing.

Terry Greenberg: Yeah. So, that's the ideal partnership really.

George Mason: Wonderful. Okay, so again, the website is?

Terry Greenberg: Talkaboutitdallas.com.

George Mason: Talkaboutitdallas.com.

Terry Greenberg: Yes. And so, there are all these conversation starters, including conversations about abstinence, but everything else in there. I want to talk about it with my partner, with my parents, with my medical provider. And then there's also great information, on STIs, and birth control, and everything. Very practical. And also there's an action page where you can contact your school districts to say, "Hey, this is an important issue to me. I want you to teach it." So, there's also social media that you can share to encourage the-

George Mason: We can like the Facebook page and all that.

Terry Greenberg: You can go to our Facebook page or ntarupt.org.

George Mason: Great. Now, May 13th is coming up after this conversation. It will be in the past by the time most people are listening to or watching this program, but that program is called?

Terry Greenberg: It's called Pray About It Dallas.

George Mason: Pray About It Dallas, and it's an appeal to the faith community.

Terry Greenberg: So, we are cosponsoring that with the Pleasant Grove Ministerial Alliance and that will be May 13th and I'm really excited. And Pleasant Grove, the teen birth rates are the same as they are in Afghanistan. So, they're three times the national teen birth rates there. It is one of the many issues that inhabit that area and we're really grateful for that partnership and we hope to have many more like that.

George Mason: Okay. So, it's a nice model and we might see other communities doing a Pray About It Dallas event, if that is a successful model.

Terry Greenberg: Right. And we had to do, just with other issues that we're familiar with, prayers are not enough.

George Mason: Prayers are not enough. Aren't thoughts and prayers enough?

Terry Greenberg: Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

George Mason: Okay.

Terry Greenberg: We're going to have to take some action. Have some conversations, share some information.

George Mason: Well, Terry, I hope that NTARUPT and the work that you're doing is a wonderful part of Tikkum Olam, a repair of the world, and has a beautiful sense of satisfaction that you have answered your call, but also that we all celebrate good results as a result and that we'll see some beautiful things happen in Dallas and beyond because of it.

Terry Greenberg: Thank you so much for having me.

George Mason: Thanks for being on Good God. Okay.

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