A theatre program giving kids CHOICES for the future

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Since its founding at Cal State L.A. more than 40 years ago, the nation’s first Department of Chicano Studies has offered enriched multidisciplinary studies examining the history, social science, culture, language, psychology, literature, arts, and politics of the Chicano(a) and Latino (a) communities.

Chicano Studies provides preparation for careers in teaching, human services, public policy, law, medicine, the business profession, and for graduate study and research.

The vital presence and increasing significance of the Chicano(a) and Latino(a) communities in Los Angeles and Southern California allows unique research opportunities for students of Chicano Studies.

Chicano Studies Assistant Professor Bianca Guzmán prides herself on being a great communicator—especially when it comes to what some might consider “taboo” social topics.

Walk into her office at Cal State L.A., and you will likely find yourself in the midst of a discussion about teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, gender orientation and other societal issues.

For more than 20 years, Guzmán ’89, ’91 M.A., a community psychologist, has been engaging at-risk communities in conversations on these topics in an effort to stem rising teen pregnancy numbers, and empower young people to make responsible and healthy life decisions. Her most recent avenue for education has been through the comprehensive sexual health education program Choices CAMP School Project, a 13-year-old grant funded program of the Department of Chicano Studies. Guzman co-founded the program with community public health professional Aida Feria.

“People are concerned that if you say the wrong thing, it will harm kids,” Guzmán said. “That’s not true. The important thing is that you are communicating.”

In the Choices CAMP project, or Community Awareness Motivation Partnership, for instance, middle and high school students learn through live theater. The project’s actors—many of whom are college students—stage a series of bilingual and bicultural skits, and host before- and after-workshops that are designed to inform adolescents about everything from sex, to relationship violence, peer pressure and parent communication.

Program coordinator and health educator Javier Hernandez explained that students in the audience are encouraged to ask the actors questions and discuss their concerns in a workshop after the performance and in surveys before and after.

“Kids get curious,” he said. “There is a lot more going on in the adolescent community that we need to be aware of.”

Currently the program is presented free-of-charge to roughly 5,000 youths and their families at nine schools in Los Angeles County, although administrators say that they would like to grow to accommodate more locations. Original grants restricted the program to school districts in San Gabriel Valley, but additional funding brought the performance to Los Angeles schools, as well.

Research collected in student surveys shows that the program is directly impacting students’ actions. Many students report that they are more likely to wait until they are older to have sex, or will use protection, after having participated in the program, said Feria. They also believe the communication effort is helping to reduce the number of reported teen pregnancies in the areas they serve, she said.

“Theater brings things to life and can be very powerful for a teenager when paired with the language they are familiar with, music they listen to, and similar experiences they have had,” said Andrea Garcia, who has acted in the program over the last two years and even fought to bring it to her childhood school district.

“I truly believe we are making a difference in the lives of this group of youths,” she added. “We are helping these kids really hear—for the first time—information they have been told countless times before.”

The program has also enabled researchers to learn more about teenage decision-making. For instance, data suggests that self-efficacy is really important—teenage girls who say they are going to refrain from sex will, and peer pressure may not be as much of a factor in decision-making, said health educator and research assistant Nathalie Serna ’07.

In the last year, Serna, Guzmán and the Choices CAMP actors have traveled to several national and international conferences, including to Florida, Mexico and Ecuador, to share their research and methods for reaching youth. Some of their research will also be published internationally in book about Latina girls and sexuality.

“This is a really strong program,” said Eddie-Jay Santos, a Choices actor for the last four years. “Sharing this information with my family, my sister, my friends, these kids is…my way of paying it forward.

“I see the change in myself. I think differently now than when I first started,” he added. “I am probably the responsible friend now.”