Interview with AYA health pioneer Claire Brindis
Like many of us, Claire Brindis, Co-Director of the Adolescent and Young Adult Health National Resource Center, joined this field for personal reasons:
“I wanted to save the world as a little girl. My Jewish family left Argentina and immigrated to Cleveland when I was eight. That was the late Fifties, when there was no tolerance for any difference. I was deeply bullied for not speaking English and even for having pierced ears. Those experiences all made me sensitive to all the issues adolescents face. I thought I would be a good social worker.” Brindis was a freshman at UCLA—the first in her family to attend college—when the Pill became available and Title X allowed teens to receive confidential and free Family Planning care.
“It hit me then that being able to control your reproduction was the most concrete way for young women and their partners to make their dreams a reality. I decided I wanted to manage a family planning clinic and translate for Spanish-speaking patients.”
After earning her Master’s in Public Health at UCLA, Brindis had the privilege of working with Dr. Robert Hatcher, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and giant in the field of contraceptive technology at Emory University. After organizing Atlanta’s first citywide conference on teen pregnancy prevention and, seeing a huge need, she also set up two teen family planning clinics at Grady Memorial Hospital, as well as a city-wide Sexuality Education speaker’s bureau. She later taught health policy issues at Emory, where she also helped to establish the Master’s in Public Health.
When Brindis returned to UC-Berkeley for her doctorate in behavioral science and public health, there were zero class offerings in adolescent health. But in 1978, she attended a lecture on adolescent health given by a young M.D. from the University of California-San Francisco, Charles Irwin. It was a game-changer for Brindis.
“Until then, I had thought of teens only in terms of their reproductive and sexual health. But Charlie spoke about mental, physical, and behavioral health. He opened my eyes to a young new field and the intersectionality of young people’s needs.” She went on to write her doctoral thesis on how adolescent development impacted sexual and contraceptive behavior, as well as how health professionals can incorporate those elements in their counseling and education.
“I’m interested in how public policy shapes the lives of adolescents. And I’ve come to realize that the transition to young adulthood needs policy attention. Our country’s groundbreaking investments in early childhood need to continue into adolescence and beyond.”
With good reason, Brindis is a stickler for implementing with fidelity and evaluating emerging best practices. She has studied the impact of the Affordable Care Act’s implementation on adolescents and young adults and the health of participants of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“If you implement poorly, or if a lack of resources dilutes a program’s impact, you can cause actual harm.” The State of California learned this the hard way in 2011 when Brindis led research documenting the sex education that was being offered in classrooms throughout the state. That research led to the ACLU and AAP’s efforts to sue against a school-district that was providing an abstinence-only sex education curriculum.
“I was proud that research led to a successful outcome: the court ruled that the curriculum was dangerous because it portrayed sexually active young women as . . . sluts . . . and gave no information on available methods of birth control. And here we still are in 2021, still fighting against the myth that knowledge is dangerous.”
You might say Brindis’ groundbreaking, nearly-five-decade-career in AYA health is a metaphor for the field itself.
“We all work on cutting edge issues with built-in controversies. To me, that’s exciting and fulfilling. But cutting-edge people sometimes get bloodied. Even when we think we’ve won, we can’t assume the gain will stay in place forever. We have to keep working on the next level of change—particularly in light of widespread disparities, systemic racism, and inequities in our country.” As Brindis sees it, bringing about the next level of change depends on authentic engagement, particularly with young people themselves.
“We have to be creative about how to make this work relevant to different audiences. To me, this means staying in ongoing dialogue with adolescents and young adults, their communities, and accepting the discomfort of learning that our past strategies were not the right ones. To stay relevant, we need to keep trying something new.”
This space features diverse perspectives on what’s happening in adolescent health. Articles are submitted by guest writers from the Network and our national resource partners.
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