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Taking a STAND: Planned Parenthood program educates Native youth on sex ed

Youth participants of Planned Parenthood's Native STAND program prepare to graduate from the class. (Grace Pastoor | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI, Minn.—For years, Sierra Charwood looked forward to the year she would finally be old enough to participate in Native STAND.

Charwood's mother had worked for the program, which aims to educated Native American youth in Bemidji, Red Lake and Cass Lake about sexual health. Students have to be at least 14 to take part in the classes and, this year, Charwood was eligible.

"My mom used to be one of the workers, and she was always really excited for me to do it," said Charwood, a freshman at Bemidji High School. "She would get home from work and talk about how fun it was. I just always kind of wanted to do it."

Native STAND—a Planned Parenthood program—has served the Bemidji area and the two nearby reservations since 2012, according to education and outreach specialist Tamika-Jo Andy. The program aims to provide in-depth, culturally specific sex education to Native high schoolers and train them to educate their peers.

Planned Parenthood holds two eight-week classes each year, one in Bemidji and one on either the Red Lake or Leech Lake reservations. Students attend eight three-hour sessions, during which they learn about pregnancy prevention, sexually transmitted infections, different sexual orientations, HIV and healthy relationships.

This year's crop of 11 students—a mix of boys and girls—is one of the largest Native STAND has seen in recent years, Andy said. She and Anna Goldtooth met with the group for the last time Jan. 11 for their "graduation."

After a game of review Jeopardy, the kids took a quiz—called a "post survey" to see how much they had learned, then celebrated their graduation with bowling and dinner.

Andy said the Native STAND classes are important, because they allow the youth to discuss taboo topics in a safe environment.

"People are scared to talk about sex, or they're scared to have a conversation," Andy said. "The first session ... you could hear a mouse squeak in the room and then, now that we're at eight weeks, they are just laughing and joking and making new friendships."

To graduate and receive the $150 prepaid Visa gift card that serves as a motivation and reward for the students, they must have 30 conversations with their peers about the topics discussed in class. Charwood said most of her friends are interested in hearing what she's learned, and that Native STAND goes beyond what they might learn in their school health classes.

"I'm not trying to bash the school or anything like that, but they don't really talk about a lot of that stuff," Charwood said. "The only reason why I knew some of it was because of my mom, and the school just seems to not really talk about that much in health class. They want to wait until we're in 10th grade."

Charwood's favorite topic is healthy relationships. Because of the high levels of sexual assault against Native women—the Department of Justice says that one in three Native American women report having been raped during their lifetime—Native STAND works hard to teach participants about aspects of healthy relationships.

Charwood plans to keep educating her peers once the classes end.

"I have a lot of Native friends, or just minorities, but I tell them about how back in the day we were pretty accepting of tons of people no matter what, and how that's just something that you should be interested in," Charwood said. "It seems like most of them are actually interested."

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or

(218) 333-9796