Local youth

Maritza Roberts-Padilla, 18, is a BASIS Tucson North junior.  (Institute for Citizens & Scholars/Submitted)

Maritza Roberts-Padilla says quality sexual health education is lacking. 

So the 18-year-old created Increasing Sexual Literacy Matters (ISL Matters) to bridge the sexual health gap among teenagers. 

A junior at BASIS Tucson North, Padilla is one of 33 national Civic Spring Fellowship recipients. 

The New Jersey-based Institute for Citizens and Scholars seeks to engage in the development of civic learning. Audra Watson, senior program director, said that the institute’s mission is to develop young people who are knowledgeable, engaged and hopeful about democracy. 

“Civic learning encompasses a number of things,” Watson said. “It includes developing civic knowledge, skills and dispositions, understanding what the systems of our government are and how to engage with one another on an individual level.”

Watson said in 2020, the institute sought to begin work with young people and called upon youth-led organizations to propose projects and activities that were important to their communities. Most of the topics were a direct result of COVID-19, she said. The organization awarded grants to six groups to support youth’s work. 

The fellowship was developed by 40 subject-matter experts with recommendations from young people and an independent evaluation was conducted by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). The findings conveyed that the fellowship helped youth strengthen their voices and advocate for policy change. 

Last year, through a strategic partnership with PayPal, the Civic Spring Fellowship was expanded to Maricopa County. The program’s third iteration selected fellows in Tucson, Phoenix, Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City, and includes an $1,800 stipend to help fund their projects.

“What we were most interested in were young people who understood not just what they were passionate about but what was needed for their community,” Watson said.

Padilla said that she heard about the fellowship through Junior State of America (JSA), a nonpartisan political youth organization that centers activism based on discussion. She is the national vice chair. 

“I’m really passionate about this,” Padilla said. “I believe that Gen Z has become one of the largest activist generations because of hyperpolarization in our government.” 

Through activism-based discussion, she said that it is possible to find a common ground. 

A driving factor behind Padilla’s ISL Matters project is Arizona-specific legislation in which schools are not required to teach sex nor HIV education. 

“But if schools do decide to teach it, they have to stress abstinence,” Padilla said, according to Arizona Revised Statutes § 15-711, 15-716 and 15-102. Sex education is also an “opt-in” program that requires parents or guardians to provide written permission for their child to participate. 

“I’m creating a website that will have a comprehensive sex education curriculum that can be self-taught,” Padilla said. 

Her project gives access to information about basic anatomy, proper hygienic practices and sexual health. She said she hopes to include a collection of Arizona-specific data as well as a youth coalition aspect, to provide an opportunity for youth ambassadors to contribute toward the website. 

Padilla and the other 32 fellows will work in small groups for 10 weeks, meeting with coaches to support their work through communities of practice, Watson said. The goal is to work on their respective topics which vary from education, community health and wellness, economic opportunity and others. 

“Depending on their particular project, they will gain a better sense of where change can take place,” Watson said. “I think they walk away with a sense of agency.”

With the third class, the fellows range in age from 15 to 24. As a former middle school teacher, Watson is looking forward to the program expanding to 14 year olds. “The younger that you get people started, the more that they’re going to be able to do in their lifetimes,” she said. 

“My goal is to continue expanding the project and continue collaborating with organizations, initiatives, local health clinics and just spreading the awareness of the website because I want someone to have a question answered,” Padilla added. 

Padilla, whose interests range from activism, policy and environmental science, is also involved in the local Unidas Teen Philanthropy Program affiliated with the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, serves as secretary on the National Honor Society, assists with environmental chemistry research at the University of Arizona and runs an academic blog called @maritzastudies where she posts studying content for students. She said that she is interested in studying public policy or environmental studies after she graduates high school.

“That’s something that I also care about a lot, the access to education,” Padilla said. “It’s just unfair to students who were never given the opportunity to learn to be hindered by their ignorance of sexual health, their lack of literacy.”

Other local fellows include Farah Mohamed, 21, Myleigha Truitt, 22, and Samuel Turner, 21, whose community health project MIA (Mental Health Awareness) seeks to address mental health and trauma that impact young people. 

“I think one of the things that is exciting to me about the diversity of the group,” Watson said.

“Some of the fellows had just a kernel of an idea about what they wanted to work on and were able to put one or two action steps on paper, while others had a much clearer sense of the steps they would take over the course of the 10 weeks. It will be exciting to see how the group learns from each other.”

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