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Emerson Youth Program Hopes Sexual Health Literacy Is in the Cards

Daniel Rodriguez sits in the fifth-floor lounge of the Paramount Center drawing a grid of rectangles on a piece of scrap paper, and then starts to fill each rectangle with drawings and labels. The “Party Card” contains a mirror ball and musical notes. The “Condom Card” depicts, you know, wrapped condoms.  

The drawings are prototypes of cards to be used in an as-yet-unnamed game, featuring so-far-undefined rules and a still-undecided scoring system. But the objective of the game is already clear: teach teens about healthy decisions when it comes to dating and sex.

Rodriguez, 18, is one of seven Boston youth who are spending two days a week at Emerson College this summer designing and testing games to use in peer mentoring. The program is part of a larger collaboration between the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC)’s Peer Leadership Institute and the Emerson Literacy Education and Empowerment Project (eLEEP), under the direction of Angela Cooke-Jackson, assistant professor of health and behavioral science. The program is funded in part through a grant from the Seattle-based Ludus Project.

“One of the things we’re looking at is can games be used to connect with youth who might be uncomfortable talking about sexual health or who might be uncomfortable asking questions,” said Katie Barnes, MA ’12, who is working with Cooke-Jackson and eLEEP as part of her research for an MBA in health sector management and strategy and innovation from Boston University.

The high school students attended an intensive two-day training workshop in game design through the Emerson Engagement Lab at the beginning of the summer and are now working in two groups with Emerson students and Engagement Lab staff to devise their games.

While Rodriguez’s group works on its card game, Richelene Pierre, 18, and her crew are trying to come up with a card game of their own—this one to “dispel myths about [sexually transmitted diseases] and show how quickly they spread.”

This will be Pierre’s second summer as a peer leader through the BPHC, so she’s familiar with the challenges of getting teens to open up and engage around public health issues.

“There’re always people in the group that are quiet, so you don’t really know what they’re thinking, and you don’t really know how to get to them,” Pierre said. With a game, “everybody can interact and be on the same level.”

Barnes, who is also assistant director of communications for BU’s Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, said she’s interested in how young people can use “new media” to talk about things such as dating violence, sexual health, and drug abuse.

She said traditional communication models try to spread public health messages through doctors and medical personnel—who are much older and oftentimes culturally different from the youth they’re trying to reach.

Barnes and ELEEP are trying to understand “how peer-to-peer mentoring and peer-to-peer training might be more conducive to health training and literacy in youth,” Barnes said.

“They have a much stronger impact with their peers, if they are trained adequately. They have a much more powerful impact than me, as an adult.”

Cooke-Jackson said earlier this semester, when the Ludus grant was awarded, that she also hoped the students who were creating the game got a deeper understanding of the subject matter through the act of creating a game than they would from attending a lecture or reading an article.

And there’s one more added benefit to the Emerson/BPHC connection, she said.

“These young people walk by our campus all the time, but they don’t actually get to come in and be in the space,” Cooke-Jackson said. “So I think by being in the space, it gives them an opportunity to think about their academic future.

“I want them to think about going to college,” she added.

Daniel Rodriguez has already thought about his academic future. The Margarita Muñiz Academy graduate will study law enforcement at Newbury College in Brookline, Massachusetts, in the fall.

First, though, Rodriguez and his peers need to figure out how to turn the fraught world of teenage dating and sex into an educational card game that someone might enjoy playing.

By the first day of the second week of the program, the game resembled UNO. But the group was still trying to decide how “relationships” would work in the context of the game, how many cards each player gets, if the objective is to get rid of all the cards, how many “Party Cards” belong in the deck, and what they mean to players.

It’s a complicated business, but Rodriguez thinks the final result will make his job as a peer leader easier.

“They’re able to learn more about sexual health, and it’s not just in an informative way, but it’s in a fun way,” he said.

“You just have to make it comfortable for them and talk in a certain way so they understand each other.”

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