Written by Amy Cronin DiCaprio, YEAH! Network Director of Research Development
Two weeks ago, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health released the Massachusetts 2009 Birth Data. Their report highlighted the continued disparity in the teen birth rate in many western Massachusetts communities, and underscores the continued need for a sustained and comprehensive response to improving sexual health outcomes for youth.
Massachusetts teen births have declined 11% since 2007, pushing the overall state teen birth rate to its lowest in decades. However, the statewide birth rate for Hispanic teenagers is still five times that of white teens, and there is a continued stark disparity between the state teen birth rate compared with several cities in western Massachusetts, most notably Springfield and Holyoke.
For the fifth year in a row, Holyoke reported the highest teen birth rate in Massachusetts, at 96.8 per 1,000 teen girls aged 15-19, which is almost 5 times the state rate of 19.6 per 1000. Springfield saw 65 more teen births in 2009 than in the previous year, with a 2009 teen birth rate of 72.1 per 1000. The percentage of teen births to Hispanic mothers in each city has trended upwards over the last decade: in Holyoke, 86.3% of teen births in 2009 were to Hispanic mothers (compared with 82.9 in 1996), and the increase was even sharper in Springfield, with 67.6% of teen births in 2009 to Hispanic mothers (compared with 48.7% in 1996). In each city, the majority of teen births were to older teens (aged 18-19): 64.4% of teen births in Holyoke and 64.8% of teen births in Springfield were to older teens. However, births among younger adolescents are on the rise in Springfield: 2009 saw 12 births to mothers aged 12-14 (an increase of 7 over the previous year).
For nearly two decades, Springfield and Holyoke have consistently held some of the highest teen birth rates in the state, with both cities ranking in the top five nearly every year. A new way of addressing this disparity is long overdue. Teen pregnancy and community responses to teen pregnancy are influenced by a myriad of factors including economics, education, opportunity, culture, and politics. The task of creating a meaningful impact on such a complex issue is too much for any single agency, single strategy, or even single sector: it requires a collaboration that goes beyond the approach of traditional coalitions and networks.
An article in last winter’s Stanford Social Innovation Review examined the concept of “collective impact.” The authors define collective impact as “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.” (Kania and Kramer, 2011, p.36) In contrast to the traditional approach used by nonprofits where single agencies try to invent independent solutions to major social problems (also known as isolated impact), collective impact emphasizes cross-sector coalitions, led by a single agency using a systemic approach to social impact that prioritizes the relationship between sectors, organizations, and communities.
Adopting a collective impact philosophy and approach to addressing the high teen birth rates in Springfield and Holyoke resonates with the core values of the YEAH! Network. The YEAH! Network has consistently worked to advocate for a long-term and sustainable multi-sector approach to addressing the disparities in adolescent sexual health. By making it our policy to operate in multiple cities, have steering committee members from multiple cities and sectors, resisting the pressure to seek short-term single-initiative funding, and working to link our philosophies and practices to research and national priorities, the YEAH! Network has been modeling the beginning stages of collective impact.
YOUTH FIRST INITIATIVE
The YEAH! Network believes that a collective impact approach is the best way to reduce the disparity in the teen birth rates in Springfield and Holyoke. There is a unique window of opportunity to create this collective impact strategy to address teen pregnancy in Springfield and Holyoke. Last year, in partnership with the YEAH! Network, the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy was awarded one of nine $1.1 million federal grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test the effectiveness of community-wide approaches to reducing teen pregnancy. We’ve called this project the Youth First initiative. There is an unprecedented alignment of goals and stakeholders in Springfield and Holyoke, and the timing for a collective impact approach couldn’t be better: city leadership in both cities passed policy changes (within one year of each other) in support of evidence-based comprehensive sex education in schools. Two city-wide, mayor-supported task forces exist solely to influence policy around adolescent sexual health. As part of a collective impact strategy, the Youth First initiative aims to bring together all sectors of the community in this effort, and the YEAH! Network and the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy have been continually building and deepening the relationships with parents of adolescents, teachers, faith leaders, youth, business owners, school administrators, social workers, community-based organizations, clinical providers, pediatricians, employers, and policy makers.
It is increasingly clear to those of us who work with youth, care about youth, and to youth themselves, that the strategies of the past 20 years are not effectively addressing the disproportionately high teen birth rates in Springfield and Holyoke. A collective impact approach, supported by the 5-year Youth First initiative, is a sustainable, logical, and timely strategy. Changing the way we work, and changing the way we work together as communities, is absolutely essential to create the conditions required for improved sexual health outcomes for youth in Springfield and Holyoke: access to information and education; access to reproductive health services; and access to opportunity for the future.