Lessons Learned from Building a Network to Serve Youth with Disabilities
This spotlight was developed by Adrienne Griggs, Innovation and Impact Coordinator at James Madison University (JMU), in collaboration with the RHNTC. JMU houses SexEdVA, a TPP20 Innovation and Impact Network project that facilitates the Disability-inclusive Sexual Health Network (DSHN) as well as other work to support adolescent sexual health.
“Sex ed is not neutral. Bad information can be very harmful. We want to ensure that people have access to good sexual health education.”
We provide funding, technical assistance, and project guidance to 11 partner organizations—which include disability advocates, public schools, law centers, health care providers, and others—throughout Virginia.
I meet regularly with our partners, working very closely with them and providing feedback and guidance as they develop their intervention. I balance keeping a bird’s-eye view with knowing the very small details of everyone’s project. This way, I’m able to help make connections.
We’ve learned so much doing this work. The network part has been vital to our success—and especially our role convening and connecting so many different people and perspectives. But we would set things up so that our partners would be more involved earlier on. We are experts in developing and curating sexual health education resources, but we really need our partners’ perspectives, insights, and feedback. They are the ones who understand the disability community.
In general, it’s been a challenge to walk through the curriculum development process with each partner and then support each of their projects. Instead, we could have created the foundation for a curriculum and then said to each of our partners, “Here is the sexual health content, let’s look at it through your lens and make sure it works for your audience.” It may have been helpful had we provided some expectations and guidelines. But, as a new project, we were also struggling with understanding our own guidelines, with what our funder expected from us.
Another factor is that our partners experienced tons of staff turnover. Also, while some partners started with a very clear idea for how to deliver sexual health education, it took others a long time to land on something. You need to know where each partner’s strengths lie and figure out how to leverage those for the network.
The more that a partner pours into this work, the more we can pour into it. When we see partners taking steps to embed sexual health education for youth with disabilities into their programming for the long term, we do extra. We’re more engaged and involved. It’s different to know you made something significantly better over the longer term.