Perceptions of youth health and sexuality have shifted drastically, even within recent decades.
Likewise, the ways in which youth perceive their sexuality and health have evolved, as has classroom instruction and information relayed by mass and social media around such concepts.
To expand research, training and community involvement related to these issues, Stephen T. Russell, the University of Arizona's Fitch Nesbitt Endowed Chair, is collaborating with the UA's Adela C. Licona on the Crossroads Collaborative.
The Ford Foundation has named the initiative among six in the nation to receive an "Innovative Research on Youth Sexuality" grant that, at the UA, will be funded at $730,000 over the next two years.
"The Ford Foundation wants to stimulate research to involve youth around youth sexuality and rights and also to do good science so that it does not just sit on a shelf," said Russell, who also directs the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families.
All told, $4.1 million was granted to agencies and institutions also in northern California, Illinois, Michigan and New York.
The funding is part of a larger effort to "explore the social, economic and cultural forces shaping youth sexuality in the United States," the foundation announced.
“We have long invested in groundbreaking social science research on sexuality, and these new projects represent the next generation of exploration into this very human part of our lives,” Margaret Hempel, Ford’s director of sexuality and reproductive health and rights, said in a prepared statement.
“The thing that most excites us about these projects is the explicit commitment of the teams to link their research to public conversation and public policy debate," Hempel also said.
"The evidence from this research really could give voice to some of the struggles young people face today as they search for understanding of their sexuality, and also help advance how we think about programs and policies intended to help them,” she added.
At the UA, the project, quite literally, encapsulates its namesake.
The Crossroads Collaborative is built upon a fundamental premise that academic research should be informed by experiences within the community, and vice versa.
Chiefly, the project exists to understand how youth perceive their own seuxality, health and rights, broadly defined, with the intent of informing policies and practices that affect youth.
Russell and Licona said the effort is especially necessary as youth sexuality is, quite often, a legal issue with youth sometimes being barred from the very information they need to make informed decisions about their health.
The same goes for youths' abilities to freely express themselves and to live lives free of coercion and violence, both said.
Thus, the Crossroads Collaborative exists to consider the complexity of such issues across contexts of inequality, while engaging in research and dialogue.
"We are framing issues in a way that intervenes in and disrupts a pathologized view of youth and sexuality," said Licona, a UA assistant professor of rhetoric and a filmmaker.
"I like to disrupt the idea that knowledge only lives in the academy," Licona said. "We are bringing stories and numbers together in a way that is informed by and can inform public dialogue; is community and policy relevant; and in a way that can lead to change."
That said, the Crossroads Collaborative is partnering with YWCA Tucson to expand its youth-centered racial justice program to include sexuality and gender justice. The collaborative also will work with youth in the organization who are developing a "Youth Bill of Rights," one that would ensure that younger populations are assured basic rights in Arizona.
Another collaborator is the San Francisco-based Gay-Straight Alliance Network.
The initiative serves also to train a new generation of youth sexuality experts.
"The development of sexuality scholars in the U.S. has been politicized and underfunded for a while," Russell said.
But the grant also is directly funding five UA graduate students who are conducting research either for a thesis or dissertation on topics such as sex education.
They are: Samantha Grace in the UA School of Anthropology; Londie Martin and Jenna Vinson in the rhetoric, composition and the teaching of English program; and Kali Van Campen and Ryan Watson in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Also with the funding, Licona and Russell initiated a youth sexuality and health graduate seminar with more than one dozen students this semester, including the five students being directly funded by the foundation.
"We feel we are at a crossroads," Russell said, noting that the project is targeting youth tethered between childhood and adulthood."
"We are at a critical moment where we can create another dialogue. What we really need to know is how to help youth," Russell said. "This is about asking questions and taking on a new perspectives for policymakers, lawyers and teachers."