Responsibility and prevention
Milwaukee — RESEARCHERS in sociology have predicted that 40 percent of American girls now 14 will become pregnant before they leave their teens. As teen-age pregnancy has grown to what is popularly called epidemic proportions, the awareness is also growing that sex education and contraceptives -- the technical fixes -- cannot solve the problem. The best, the most heartfelt, evidence of this comes from those who speak out of firsthand experience.
LeHavre Buck was 17 and a senior in high school when his 16-year-old girlfriend told him she was pregnant.
``It was a traumatic experience,'' he recalls. ``You don't know what to do. You just don't want to hear it.''
As the shock wore off, the young man came to terms with his responsibility. He quit school, enlisted in the Marines to provide a steady income, and married his girlfriend.
For the Bucks, the story ends well: They have been married 21 years and are the parents of three children. But the Rev. Buck, now a businessman and part-time minister, still remembers the hardships surrounding that early experience, and he wants to persuade a new generation of teen-age boys to postpone sexual activity and accept responsibility for their actions.
``When we talk about male responsibility, we're into prevention,'' he says, referring to the local workshops he gives as part of a new National Urban League campaign on male responsibility. ``The idea is not so much to bring water after the fire has started, but to prevent the fire from starting by informing the male, helping him find some self-esteem, and helping him find alternatives to becoming sexually active.''
Building self-esteem and offering alternatives -- those goals lie at the heart of several innovative efforts to lower Milwaukee's black teen-age birthrate, now the highest in the nation. In addition to the Urban League's program for boys, a new group called Reach for the Stars seeks to give girls a sense of possibility for the future by using successful black women as role models. This week has also been declared Reach for a Dream Week in public schools, with workshops on self-worth, goal-setting , and the importance of postponing instant gratification.
``You get kids who are born into a cycle of poverty,'' says Janice Anderson, founder of Reach for the Stars and organizer of Reach for a Dream Week. ``Their parents are on welfare. You probably have a generation of kids who grow up in neighborhoods where they never actually see a person put on a suit and go to work. Therefore they feel the welfare system is all there is. They don't see any way out, because they don't have anyone around them to say, `Look, there is an alternative to living in this housing project, an alternative to teen-age pregnancy.'
``The black community has to assume part of the responsibility,'' she continues, ``because those of us who make it leave, and we never go back. And we have to go back. All of us have a story to tell.
``I don't know of many black persons who have made it who didn't really pull themselves out of a hardship. We need to go back to the kids and say that we were able to come out of some of the same conditions that they are living in now, and let them see that they can do it, too.'' DR. ANDERSON, now president of a health maintenance organization, knows firsthand the importance of models.
``I grew up on a farm in Mississippi with seven brothers and sisters,'' she says. ``By odds I'm sure that I shouldn't be where I am, but I am, and I'm blessed. My mother was very strong and my daddy very kind. Neither one was formally educated, but they always instilled in me a sense of trying to do the best you can in whatever you attempted to do. They were two of my strongest role models. But it isn't always in the home that someone touches your life.''
Monique Lewis, a 13-year-old honor roll student who has attended Reach for the Stars workshops, cites the importance of positive examples.
``My mother has always been my idol,'' she says. ``She came through a lot and made the best of what she can be. And a lot of the women here have given me the push I need to do better in school and plan a future for myself. They showed me the bright side, the good side of what you can do with your life.''
Conveying a sense of hope is, of course, only part of the solution to teen-age pregnancy.
``There's a lack of information,'' the Rev. Mr. Buck says. ``We must get parents to teach children -- male and female -- about sexuality, or get them to bring those children to an accredited facility to tell a child exactly what's going on. A lot of kids don't know that the first act can bring about a child. The young man says, `Trust me, I know what I'm doing.' And it backfires in their face.''
But he emphasizes that ``it's not a matter of getting kids contraceptives. We've got to teach these kids some self-esteem. If you love yourself, there are some things people just can't do to you. If you care enough about yourself, no boy is going to come and tell you, `I'm going to make your day by falling in love with you -- everything will be all right, and you're not going to get pregnant.'
``If you've got enough self-esteem, you can tell him to go fly his kite somewhere else, and you know that you're good enough, pretty enough, and care enough to get a young man who meets your standards.''
Yet he understands the challenges some girls face in saying no. ``My daughter right now says, `I don't have a boyfriend,' he continues. ``She's a virgin -- maybe there's two in the whole school. She's a pretty girl -- it's not like she can't get a boyfriend. But the boys say, `Your standards are too high.' They tease her every day. You have that peer pressure. If your parent is not a parent you can tell that to, you can sometimes succumb to the pressure and submit just out of wanting to be like the othe rs.''
To counter that pressure, he says, adults must try to change youthful attitudes that equate manhood with sexual experience. ``You've got to come in as a parent and tell your male children, `You're a man when you accept responsibililty for the things you do, whether they're good or bad. Then you become a man. But until that time you can be a hundred years old and not be a man if you can't accept responsibility for the things you do.' ''
Anderson believes the same test applies to girls.
``When I was 12 or 13 or 14 I could not have weighed the implications of sexual activity or sexual responsibility,'' she says. ``We need to direct teen-agers in how to handle certain important choices. We can't say, `It's OK to have sex if you protect yourself.' That's ludicrous. That does not get at the implications of the choices you make, or get at the scars that may result from making adult decisions while you are a child.
``We owe it as adults and parents to provide guidance and direction, and let them know the importance of timing -- what is appropriate at various stages of life. We have to say that to our children.''
As the Rev. Mr. Buck sees it, the problem of teen-age pregnancy relates to the moral health of all of society.
``These kids that are having all these babies are the kids of the '60s kids,'' he points out. ``The permissive society comes back to haunt you. Until we start putting back in discipline, respect, honor, goals, and caring about the person you're with, we will constantly have this great breakdown of morality that we are suffering from today. But if the community and the parents somehow get the message across to the kids about what real love and affection are, the problem can be turned around.''
Anderson stresses the need for teen-agers to escape from the vacuum of idle teen life. ``Kids really want something to do,'' she insists. ``They're thirsty for attention from adults.
``The greater community has an obligation to provide employment opportunities. It's very discouraging to think that Milwaukee's unemployment rate among black teens exceeds 50 percent. You have kids out there looking to get jobs. They see no avenue for those jobs. They become discouraged. Who knows the effects of that discouragement? They may stop achieving in school. They may say, `What's the use?' ''
This basic desire to be involved in the adult community -- to be put to use -- is recognized by still another program for teen-age boys, Project Alpha, sponsored by Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. The project pairs successful black men with teen-age boys to ``hang with them and be a guide,'' according to Reuben Harpole, an urban specialist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Adults must ``reach out and grab someone by the hand,'' he says, ``whether it's one person or 20. That's the way to go. Without even talking you'll say to the youth, `I care.' ''
The gesture can be as simple as ``taking them to breakfast at McDonald's once a week or once a month,'' Mr. Harpole says, or as involved as working in a project he headed last summer for boys from an inner-city middle school. He found a plot of land near the airport, and the boys grew cucumbers to sell to a pickle factory.
``At 13 or 14 years old, it's difficult to get a job,'' he says. ``So we created our own jobs. Obviously 14 boys will not put a dent in the 20,000 that need some kind of care. But we demonstrated that it could be done if people get involved.''
These efforts to give students activity -- and thus reduce despair and the teen-age pregnancy that is one consequence -- are finding increasing support from community leaders here.
``We've known this has been a serious problem for years, and we've found various ways of communicating that in the schools,'' says Lee McMurrin, superintendent of Milwaukee public schools. ``But the community efforts are so important today, because students hear from us all the time about responsibility, and about being able to say no -- no to drugs, alcohol, smoking, sex. They also need to hear it from others. There must be a concerted effort on the part of parents, school authorities, important person s in the lives of children, important persons in the community, and religious leaders. We've got to be together on this.''
Second of two articles. The first article appeared Dec. 9. (Tomorrow: Barbara McRae writes on teen pregnancy in Appalachia.)