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School of Communication alumni form health collective to help educate youth

When it comes to sex education, teenagers are often bombarded with misinformation—on television, from their friends and online.

A group of current and former School of Communication students hope to change that.

Recently, they formed For Youth Inquiry, or FYI, a collective of artists, educators and activists who seek to engage young people in a conversation about sexual health and sexual violence through theatre.

FYI’s founding program director, Alison Lehner (C08) said the group addresses a real need in the community.

“Several of us who had gone to college together had been working in the city and working closely with young people,” she said. “We found that a lot of them really craved an opportunity to talk about sex and their experiences. We started asking ourselves how do we access this issue, particularly as artists?”

All the founding members of FYI shared a background in applied theatre, a term that is used to describe performance that moves beyond entertainment and works toward social change and community building. FYI brings the community together and helps educate young people.

The collective toured their first show, Project U.S., to rave reviews among educators and health professionals. The play was organized as participatory theatre, which encouraged kids to become involved in every performance.

“Something that’s really powerful about the participatory theatre model is that it creates a very open environment for engagement,” Lehner said. “Audience members aren’t just leaning back and watching, they’re on the edge of their seats, engaged and involved. And no performance is the same because the voices of the youth in the room help write the script.”

Jacob Watson (C11), a performer and the marketing director for the collective, agrees.

“Our plays are grounded in the philosophy that youth voice should be at the core of everything we do,” he said. “In our plays, we’re not saying this is what you should do. We’re showing characters in crisis with their own sexual needs and desires and turning it out to the audience—giving them games and improv and the opportunity to discuss their own hopes, fears and questions. That makes it very accessible and very human.”

FYI receives funding from small foundations and individual donors and has worked with several community partners in Pittsburgh and Chicago to make the work sustainable, including the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, Chicago Women’s Health Center, the Illinois Department of Health and Human Services and Planned Parenthood PA.

“Our goal is to help sexual healthcare providers increase creativity and accessibility in classrooms,” said Nikki Zaleski (C08), FYI’s founding artistic director. “We have to be creative about the way we talk about the hardest things in our lives. Sexual health and sexual violence connect us all. Sex is where we all come from, and, yet, the programming that you see en masse, in schools and in church programs, is often not positive or it blames the victim.”

Adil Mansoor (C08), one of the performers in the collective, said he hopes to expand offerings in Pittsburgh, where he lives. In the original performance of Project U.S. (which is short for Understanding Sex), Adil played “Matt,” an everyman sort of character who is trying to figure out how to talk to his girlfriend about sex. He said audience reaction to the performances was positive.

“First of all, the performance is usually paired with a workshop to encourage a conversation and to ensure we’re giving them the right information,” he said. “But another thing that’s really relevant here is that it’s a very nonjudgmental space. We’re different voices from the outside. We’re not the weird biology teacher or the coach that you have to see in the hall. These kids don’t have to worry about running into us again, and so they feel comfortable being honest with us.”

Currently, FYI is working on a production that centers on sexual health and sexual violence called Can I Hit it? Other members of the collective include both current and past students, Aurelia Clunie (C08), Johanna Middleton (C11), Pernell Myers (C14), Shannon Oliver-O’Neil (C11), Alyssa Vera Ramos (C11), Nicole Ripley (C06), Abby Zan Schwarz (C12), Adam Welton (C08) and Alex Young (C12).

FYI is always looking for volunteers and people who want to support the work. For more information about FYI or to learn how to donate or get involved, visit www.foryouthinquiry.org .

-Cara Lockwood