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Empowering Young New Yorkers
An interview with Aliyah Ansari, Teen Health Strategist for the NYCLU

This summer, the NYCLU welcomed Aliyah Ansari as our Teen Health Strategist, a new position within the Education Policy Center. Prior to joining us, Aliyah worked as an adolescent sexuality educator for local community-based organizations and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

At the NYCLU, Aliyah is helping advocate for comprehensive sexuality education in New York’s public schools and bringing her education experience to bear through her Teenagers, Health Care, and the Law workshops, covering content in our newly updated guide about minors’ rights to confidentiality. Offered as part of the NYCLU’s Teen Health Program, the workshops help adolescents learn about their rights as minors regarding confidentiality and their physical, sexual, and mental health; Aliyah also provides similar training and resources for administrators, teachers, and medical professionals. She is working with participants in the NYCLU’s Teen Activist Program (TAP) to develop youth-friendly resources and train them to provide peer-to-peer education on these topics.

We spoke with Aliyah about her position within the NYCLU’s Education Policy Center and her work to empower young people throughout the state to advocate for their rights. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

NYCLU: You joined the NYCLU in the summer of 2019. What drew you to this work?

Aliyah Ansari: My time as an educator was fruitful, and I’m proud to have done it. But I wanted to fix the system, especially in regard to sexual health education and helping adolescents make more empowered decisions about their bodies. It’s a lofty goal, and I will be able to have a much bigger impact on adolescent sexual health throughout the state here.

There’s never been a position like mine, but the NYCLU saw the need to focus on teen and adolescent health. It’s exciting to work with individuals who are so passionate about helping young people understand their rights and advocate for them. And to get a first-hand look at the policy side — seeing what it takes to ensure these rights, whether through litigation or as legislative advocates — has been an amazing experience.

How do you think about civil liberties in the context of your work?

AA: It is essential to becoming an independent adult that youth can exercise their right to access quality healthcare and navigate that system on their own. There is also a lesson here in consent — a young person is so often being told where to go and how to do something. Adding this civil liberties lens [to health and sexual health education] allows youth to understand their rights and have a say in their sexual, physical, and mental health.

It’s incredible to see them understand their own agency, especially in regard to their own bodies. My approach ensures they have the information and can advocate for themselves so they can make informed and healthy decisions for their bodies and relationships. This helps them in the immediate sense, taking a worry off their minds so they can focus on other responsibilities. Longer-term, it helps them develop ways to make healthy choices, ask questions, access services, and establish healthy habits and patterns. If we go really broad, and think about their future, this is the first step to their empowerment, which will help them help the generations after them.

What’s the reception like to your workshops?

AA: The youth have a lot of questions, and I feel like they really get a sense of empowerment. You can see that they want to now carry this information and pass it on to their friends and siblings. It’s clear that just having the information alone impacts them, because they now know what they can do for themselves.

At these workshops, we sometimes talk about instances where a provider broke confidentiality, telling parents or guardians things that they weren’t supposed to. Youth have talked about betrayal and how they trusted the doctors to do the right thing and then they didn’t. Explaining their rights is important. It wakes them up to know that can refuse something or say no.

And for the adults?

AA: School administrators and teachers are excited for the workshops. They know their students need this. And the medical professionals love the information, though there is pushback sometimes on the rights of a minor to refuse care. The exercise yields great discussion about how when we help young people be in charge of their own healthcare, we teach them how to be independent and take care of themselves.

Tell us a little more about your work with TAP.

AA: I’ve been working with TAP’s youth health committee to make a youth-friendly version of our law guide about teenagers’ rights to confidentiality. This version, for youth and created by youth, is really exciting to see come together.

We’re also training these members so they can go out to their schools and after-school programs and do peer education about health and sexual health. I feel like they’re more engaged when they see another young person up there, when they see someone their age talking about taboo subjects without any problems or reservations. Peer education programs make it okay to talk about difficult things.

TAP members are obviously critical in the NYCLU’s fight for Comprehensive Sexuality Education in New York. There was some progress on this issue in New York City this year. What does the future of this work look like now?

AA: Comprehensive sexuality education has been on the NYCLU’s agenda for years, and we’ll really push it in 2020. Two important resolutions passed in New York City in September 2019—through one, the City Council called upon the Department of Education to adopt all of the recommendations made by the Mayor’s Sexual Health Education Task Force, and the other will increase transparency around who’s teaching health education and the number of students receiving it. This can be a help to youth in New York City, and potentially all across the state.

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Aliyah Ansari