Public Health at Planned Parenthood (feat. Sara Flowers)
Alumni Aloud Episode 70
Sara Flowers received her Doctorate in Public Health from the Graduate Center and is now the Vice President of Education and Training at Planned Parenthood.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Sara talks to us about what it takes to become a sex educator, the benefits of developing strong relationships within your cohort, and the advantages of finding clarity as soon as possible when it comes to how you’ll apply your degree.
VOICEOVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with the GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
SARAH HILDEBRAND, HOST: I’m Sarah Hildebrand. I’m a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a fellow in the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I interviewed Sara Flowers who graduated from our doctoral program in Public Health and is now the Vice President of Education and Training at Planned Parenthood. She’s going to be talking to us about what it takes to become a sex educator, the benefits of developing strong relationships within your cohort, and the advantages of finding clarity as soon as possible when it comes to how you’ll apply your degree.
All right, so Sarah to begin, would you mind giving us an overview of Planned Parenthood’s mission and what your role is there?
SARA FLOWERS, GUEST: Sure. So Planned Parenthood is an over 100-year-old organization and we work to provide sexual and reproductive healthcare and education to folks all across the country and we are fighting for access to reproductive and sexual healthcare, information rights, including abortion care. So that’s the work in a nutshell. My role is as Vice President of Education and Training. Planned Parenthood is one of the largest, if not the largest, provider of sex education across the country, and so we are a Federated… Are you familiar with the Federated model? So Planned Parenthood is a Federation, so I work at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which is the National Office. And then we have 49 affiliates that are operating as member organizations across the country that run—they each have their own autonomous health centers, 501c3, and Departments of Education. And so my role in the team is to be sort of like thinking about high level strategy and support for infrastructure for the way that sex education is being delivered across the country.
HILDEBRAND: Great, and how did you become interested in the field of sex education?
FLOWERS: So the story is kind of interesting. I’ve sort of been in this work since I myself was 18 when I was in 10th grade. I went to Spring Valley Senior High School, which is in Spring Valley, NY outside of New York City. And a senior came to me and said that they had started AIDS Awareness Day, which is what we called this in the 90s, and that they were graduating and they didn’t want AIDS Awareness Day to end when they left school and went to college. And so they asked me, would I be interested in learning how to run this schoolwide program, which involves scheduling speakers, talking to media, talking to teachers, talking to the administration. You know, like we had like these little postcards that we moved all the Social Studies and English classes around and supplemented them with sex educators from Planned Parenthood.
And I learned all these things and what I remember was one of the workshops that I organized, I remembered listening to a facilitator or speaker, wrap up their presentation, and these you know, like I said, I was an 11/10 grader and there were kids older than me that I looked up to and these two kids walked out of the workshop, and they looked at each other and they said, why are we not talking about this all the time? We should be talking about this all the time. And those two people, I don’t remember their names, but I remember their faces and that that exchange like struck me. And I did that work.
I continued to lead that program every year that I was in high school and then did the same thing. Passed it on to another student. And when I went to college I was a psychology major. I went to GW in DC and no shade to psychology majors, but I graduated and was equipped to do nothing. People wouldn’t hire me to file. And I had this professor who at the end of my senior year asked me what I wanted to do. And all my papers had been about, like, I mean again, this is the early 2000s. I graduated from college in 2001 and so we called it teen pregnancy prevention right? We didn’t talk about sex education as the big field that we know it to be today, and she asked me what I wanted to do. And I described it and she said, “Oh, why don’t you get a Master’s in Public Health?” and I was like, “Oh, what?” and I’d never heard of that as a field. And she literally pointed out a window across campus and was like there’s a school of public health, walk over.
And so I literally… I applied and got a fellowship to stay at GW for Graduate School and enrolled and went right into the Master of Public Health Program at GW, and I learned all about community health interventions and program delivery and evaluation, and all of those things. And I got an incredible job coming out of that graduate program where I taught sex education to 5th through 9th graders for Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, in after school programs, and in DC public schools. And it was amazing. There was funding to like teach sex ed to these incredible kids and, like, I did sex ed all day all year with all these young people and like did evaluation and learned all of these wonderful things. That’s how I got started. I can keep talking about my career but that is the start.
HILDEBRAND: That’s very cool. I’m kind of curious… Is there something you really wish people knew about sex education that they don’t seem to?
FLOWERS: I think people assume generally, people assume that sex education has this start and stop. Like right before puberty, tell people about puberty and then you’re good. Tell people like take tab A and put it into slot B and you’re good. And that’s not enough and sex education is really this incredible… I mean, and this is also to talk about what I learned at the Graduate Center, right? It’s this incredible opportunity to integrate theory and practice. Like really bridge research and practice and that it is a lifelong learning process, you know, that people are getting or should be getting inclusive sex education and sex positive sex education from very very young ages. Like babies when you are changing their diapers you should be… they should know the correct names of their body parts, right? That we are talking… we are teaching consent when we don’t let little kids take trucks from other little kids without asking. These are building blocks that grow and become foundational for the skills that we assume we’re teaching in middle school and high school.
And just to like lean into the consent piece again, another piece is around accepting unknown. We used to just assume that one person needed to assert what they wanted, but actually, when we’re teaching consent, it is both me being able to determine what I want, the person I’m talking to be able to determine what they want, having a conversation, and finding common ground. And that may mean accepting, you know, that may mean making a compromise, it’s not just I asked for what I want, you give it to me. That’s not enough. So I think that those are some. I mean we can talk about pleasure should be in sex education, we can talk about inclusivity that everyone’s experience should be in sex education, all body parts, identities, orientation should be reflected in sex education and frankly in the rest of our education.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, so it’s just so much more complicated…
FLOWERS: It is. And it doesn’t stop at high school or college, right? We are still learning about our bodies, which continue to change. We are dynamic. Our life experiences are dynamic. And it’s really important to understand that these are evolving. Yeah, so education always has to be a continuous process. That’s something… we find out more information and learn more about each other. It’s lifelong learning.
HILDEBRAND: What did a typical day look like for you pre-pandemic? Are your days mostly the same or are you doing different things all week?
FLOWERS: Every day is different. The best thing about this job for me… as I mentioned to you, I’ve been in sex education, only in sex education since I was 16. I love this work, so the best thing about this job is I get to think about sex education all day, every day. I make the joke to my staff—even budgeting is fun because we are talking about ways that we are going to invest in sex education. And we do that differently. There’s days when we’re really thinking about the adult learning theory behind the delivery, where we’re talking, you know, about the pedagogy. There’s days when we’re talking about how to support any one, solve for any one issue or challenge. And then there’s days where we’re talking about, like, there’s media asks. There’s… we’re thinking about solves that the pandemic is posing and how do we respond to that? So I would say every day is different. It used to be that I went to an office in Lower Manhattan and now I sit in my house in this little purple room.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, that sounds like a really intellectually and emotionally fulfilling diversity of experiences that you get to have at work, which is very nice. I think a lot of people would love to have that.
FLOWERS: Yes, I’m very lucky.
HILDEBRAND: So I know that you’ve said that you’ve basically been involved in this field since you were 16. What was your journey like from graduate school to your current position, and what kind of positions did you hold in between?
FLOWERS: So I mentioned that my first job out of my Master’s program was running a teen pregnancy prevention program, where I was the teacher. I co-drafted curricula and got feedback from other leaders like you know, leading sex ed organizations. We did program evaluation. We hired consultants. We wrote grants. We ran case management work. I worked in an accreditation accrediting body for sexual reproductive health training for clinicians, which was an interesting experience which was still education but not teaching sex education to young people. It was, you know, more from the provider side. And then I moved to, I was in DC for those years, and then I moved to New York City. And that is, I moved to New York City when the bottom dropped out of the economy and it was super hard to find work and it was then that I decided to pursue a doctoral degree. Actually, not only because of the economy, but really because I was really yearning to be an expert in this work in this field. And those things sort of combined.
And so I worked part time for an organization that ran HIV AIDS prevention programming for young people in New York City and the surrounding Metro area. And was accepted into the program at the Graduate Center. And so I did those two things together. I learned about New York City and about running programs in New York City and supporting youth and sex educators in New York City. And I started at the Graduate Center and I was in that role, that role evolved, and I got my doctorate in tandem. I got my doctorate in 2016, and stayed in that role until this role in 2018. I started with PFA at the end of 2018.
HILDEBRAND: OK, great yeah. So you’ve had multiple experiences before and after grad school.
HILDEBRAND: What do you think it was about your experiences at the Graduate Center that helped prepare you the most for your career?
FLOWERS: You know, I would say there’s three key things. There were key mentors and advisors, and my cohort that I think shaped my experience there and the way that I was set up to be successful. I took a class, my very first class as a doctoral student with Juan Battle. And the first thing that he asked was what are we going to do with this doctoral degree? I mean, and here we all were, like with our little… I don’t know if we had pencils or laptops or whatever, but like, he sat in there and he said, “Decide, why are you here?” Right? And he said, “Are you going to be an academic or are you going to be a practitioner?” The Doctor of Public Health is a practical degree and just framing it like that helped me shape my trajectory. I knew I was going to be a practitioner and then I knew that I needed to develop a skill set to integrate the research into practice and so that question shaped my path and helped me be really clear when there were forks in the road… which there are throughout your doctoral path, right?
I will also be honest that I was an adult with friends when I started this program and I sort of went into it like, I’m good, I’m going to put my head down and write my little papers and be done. And I was dead wrong. I went into it and I met this cohort of women who were in my cohort, who were brilliant. And their support and expertise and I don’t know what we’d call it like goodwill, faith, enthusiasm carried me. We carried each other through this. This is a wild experience. Doctoral study is a wild experience and we’re all growing and doing different things and pushing. And, you know, stretching our brains in different ways. And having this group of women to be baffled with, like sit there and be like, did you know that? They just said like like that is real right? I couldn’t have done it without those friends.
And then lastly, I had an incredible dissertation advisor Nicholas Groskopf was my advisor for my second exam and my dissertation, and he was clearly committed to my success. He gave strong, clear advice without giving me the answers. He let me struggle but didn’t drop me. Does that make sense? Like I flew out but he didn’t like let me fall and I needed that for growth when I was like sort of going off either feeling like I couldn’t figure out the next thing or going off in a direction that was not going to serve the ultimate goal. He helped me be grounded and so I’m forever grateful for that leadership and mentorship that he offered, and I really reflect on that in the way that I try to offer mentorship to others.
HILDEBRAND: I really love that at the very start of your graduate studies, you were asked what do you want to do with this degree? Because I think that would be so helpful to all of our students if in every single intro to doctoral studies class they asked you to reflect on that for a second. ‘Cause I think what happens is a lot of us don’t think about what we’re going to do until the very end, and by then it’s a little bit too late to have set up the things that you need to do to make yourself be successful wherever you want to go. So I think that’s really important.
FLOWERS: It was, it was, and I think it also helps you have your own clarity when you are at those crossroads.
HILDEBRAND: So I have a feeling that with the particular type of student that CUNY tends to attract, there are probably a lot of us who would be interested in working at Planned Parenthood. Are there any recommendations you have for things they could do to boost their resumes or stand out in applications?
FLOWERS: Planned Parenthood is a really big place, so I think that I don’t know that the answer that I have is specific to Planned Parenthood as much as it’s what I’ve learned about applying for roles in my career. And what I’ve learned that I didn’t know when I applied for jobs when I was younger and newer to job applications, and maybe folks already knew this and know this and did this and I’m just I was new to the game so you’ll forgive me, I’m not trying to be, you know, condescending or patronizing, but like I didn’t know that you should craft your resume to the job that you’re applying for. That you need to like, every single job, the resume should look differently and it should look like the job that you’re applying for. I think that we have been told to network. And I think we think that that was like, I mean, I don’t even know what networking was like in the Zoom era.
Well, just to be really transparent, but like in my era, when I was coming up, so to speak, networking was like, “I’m gonna go to the young black professionals happy hour and like hold this warm glass of Shiraz and try to get my name in front of some person that I think might be a decision maker.” And I think actually what I found is in graduate school, for example those people are the people that are going to be decision makers. My friends are leading public health initiatives across the globe. People that I’ve built trusting relationships with. It’s not so much that some stranger at a weird happy hour is going to come through for me. They don’t know me from anyone. But like I have this cohort of people, staying at that happy hour mattered, right? The Graduate Center happy hour mattered way more than going to one where nobody knew me from anything.
And so I think maybe the lesson is… I don’t know that that does or does not get you in the door in any particular institution, but I think that really being mindful of the purpose of a resume is to get you an interview, not a job. It’s to get somebody to say I want to learn more about this person. The purpose of a cover letter is to get someone to say I want to learn more about this person. If I see a cover letter that looks like the 27 other cover letters that you sent, I don’t know why you want to do sex education at Planned Parenthood. What’s going to hook me is showing me why you’re someone I want to talk to you more. What do I want to learn more from about you? And so I think it’s that. And if somebody that I trust was like this person is amazing, those are the things that I think are going to help. And I also think it’s a crapshoot. Yeah. The job market is wild. You never know. These websites that we find things on… I would say keep scouring the web sites and keep talking to people. Both of those things are true. Yeah, networking is a huge part of finding jobs. Whether that’s a good or bad thing. It’s hard, I mean still I’ve had so many jobs where I like totally cold applied and got nowhere or somewhere. Interviewing is also a skill set. I got coaching. I think that keeping learning is really important.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, yeah, I would agree with that. I think that’s good advice. Practice networking, interviewing, practice all these job skills that you’re going to have to have later. If someone did want to be a sex educator in particular, are there certain skills that they should be developing now?
FLOWERS: So there are various organizations including Planned Parenthood affiliates that provide training series for people who are interested in becoming sex educators. So certainly those are places to start I think. Also, there’s tons of folks that you can follow. I actually am not publicly active on social media because one does need boundaries. But there are other folks who are super who are public with their platforms and who are sex educators that are, you know, their reputation precedes them, so to speak, and they have reading lists. I mean they have trainings that you can pay to be a part of, but I think really, on sex education it’s a complex thing because it looks different for different folks and what they’re trying to do. There are folks that are doing sort of like education of young people and really thinking about body positivity and making sure that young people are equipped to understand how their bodies are changing and growing and autonomy and consent, and these like sort of building block foundational pieces. And then there are sex educators that are really thinking about pleasure, and those people may or may not do adult audiences and minor audiences.
There’s also a piece around, do you have like building, facilitation skills… understanding pedagogy, and how to manage a workshop, and in this moment of teaching online that’s also a skill set. Not everyone should be facilitating on Zoom, right? We’ve been in really awful Zoom meetings and we would like to have interactive learning-centered, people-centered learning environments. And so there is a plethora of opportunities. I think also it’s really important to think about boundaries as a sex educator—that we are human and we have really clear boundaries on what we disclose right? That learning is not necessarily disclosing our own history and experiences and having clarity on those boundaries and what’s appropriate is really… These are things that we are that are taught and and should be really leaned into as someone is exploring, becoming a sex educator.
I think also it would go without saying that there needs to be a real focus on racial justice and really understanding the ways that racism has impacts, sex and sexual health in the way that people of color, black people, Indigenous people, other people of color have been hyper-sexualized. And what that looks like in the history of sexual and reproductive health, oppression, and injustice in this country. And having that understanding… like we’re just not going to hand you a curriculum and ask you to go facilitate it and you don’t have that understanding because you can actually be invoking harm rather than, you know, you might be intending to do good, but actually the impact could be negative, so I think there’s a lot of complex learning that needs to happen.
HILDEBRAND: Great. And you know it’s been so great to hear all about your career and all about sex education, as well. As a final question, we like to ask if you just have any other pieces of advice for grad students.
FLOWERS: I have two pieces of advice. And I have to say that I’m a Public Health person and Public Health is inherently a field that is rooted in practice. So I don’t know what it is like to do, what you’re doing in English, in the field of writing, or what it’s like in literature, etc. So I root my advice in my own experience and I think the two things that I would say is that it was really helpful when I wrote my dissertation that I had spent… almost every single paper I wrote was related to sex education in some way, shape or form. I didn’t write a paper on cholesterol or systolic blood pressure. So when I was ready to do my dissertation, I had all this literature I had read, all the stuff… I had already sort of built up my own library. I didn’t know what my dissertation topic exactly was going to be, but my entire path was headed in this direction. It wasn’t sort of like this amoeba.
I recognize that everyone doesn’t start a doctoral program with that clarity. That is my experience. But I think it helped me be a little, a slightly more efficient. Slightly, ever so slightly. The other thing I think I’ll raise is back to the piece on… you can’t do this alone. It’s hard. I talk about, I reflect on my doctoral study. I was so privileged to sit in this room at this task and be able to put my noise cancelling headphones on and dig into this thing that I love and learn about it. And it was really hard.
I remember sitting there and there’d be, like, this blinker on this white piece of paper and I had no idea where to start and I was just alone. And having that community of people that either could just commiserate with you, they’re sitting there in their own houses with a blinker, and a cursor sitting there on a white page. Or like one friend, I was like, I can’t do my second exam. And she was like, sit down and just start typing, just sit down. Like stop rambling. And it became a thing, that became a thing. But I needed someone to like pull me into a seat and just tell me to start typing. There’s not any one path. I bought a book on writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day. I just left it on my stoop recently. We’re all sort of flailing. It’s this hard thing, and I think recognizing that you are not… having a community to be supportive is really, really important.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, I think that’s great advice. If you can stay focused and find that clarity, definitely do that. And no matter what, make sure that you’re building a sense of community for yourself.
FLOWERS: Yes. Because we need each other. And the other the last piece I’ll say is, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, and I think that’s the perfect note to end on. So I really just want to thank you for coming in.
FLOWERS: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
HILDEBRAND: Thanks again to Sara for coming in to talk to us about how she’s put her PhD to work. The Office of Career Planning & Professional Development can help you decide what career path is right for you. Find a list of our upcoming events or make an appointment to speak with one of our career advisors at cuny.is/careerplan. You can also follow us on Twitter @careerplanGC. Thanks for listening.
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