“If you’re sitting in meetings with a bunch of people who look like you, think like you, act like you, we’re never going to move things forward.”
Wise words from a man who has been dedicated to preventing teenage pregnancy in the State of South Carolina for much longer than most teenagers have been alive. Forrest Alton, chief executive officer of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and husband of Heather Brandt, another Columbia-area advocate for public health issues featured earlier in this series, has been working on the issue of teenage pregnancy since he was an undergraduate student at Coastal Carolina University.
After graduating from Coastal, Alton worked in Georgetown, South Carolina running an afterschool program focusing on teen pregnancy and three years later moved to Columbia where he immediately became involved with the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
So it’s fairly safe to say that this issue is his life’s work.
As someone who joined the ranks of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in the early years after its inception, Alton says that his experience working in the field for so long has provided him with a perspective that others may not have yet although he is only thirty-seven years old. Alton has watched first-hand the evolutions and changes in trends surrounding teenage pregnancy, specifically within the state of South Carolina, and owes much of that to the fact that he first got involved with the issue at such a young age and never personally felt discouraged to keep pursuing it.
As CEO of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Alton has had the unique opportunity to travel the country to see how other regions of the United States work to tackle the issue of teenage pregnancy. He says that every time he steps off of a plane in a new state, his local host will always claim, “we’re a little conservative around here.” With more than eighty districts in South Carolina, Alton says that they have all told him they’re the most conservative in the entire state. Everyone thinks they live in the most conservative place because it takes time to make real progress and we aren’t always patient enough to wait. So when asked if there are challenges working within a typically “conservative” state like ours, he acknowledges that of course there are challenges unique to South Carolina, but that should not deter us from seeing the positive growth we also make in our little red state: for example, the General Assembly has approved direct funding in the state budget for teenage pregnancy prevention since 1999.
With both extensive experience and the position of CEO, Alton’s leadership is strong and that shows in the people with which he surrounds himself: he makes sure that the staff and board at the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy are diverse and representative of the state, with members and employees of various genders, races, and backgrounds, bringing in public health workers, psychologists, social workers, MBAs, those with experience in communication fields, and many more to ensure “we’re welcoming all voices, not just the voices that agree with us.” With what he’s learned from years of experience in the realm of advocacy, he notes it is important to not only bring those to the table that reinforce our own belief systems, but those who also challenge us; it can often be a distraction to conflate advocacy with the desire to confirm that everyone agrees with our opinions, especially since advocacy is not about being the loudest voice in a room. As Alton says, “we can agree to disagree and still be productive.”
And he certainly knows the battle of disagreeing with others and still trying to be effective in the community.
Alton admits that the topic of teenage pregnancy can be a sensitive one, which many of us know as South Carolinians. However, he is very optimistic: the general public supports conversations about these kinds of topics, even if sometimes legislators do not. For example, he did find it disappointing that in order to see movement with comprehensive sexual health education in the legislature, the bill had to become less comprehensive, removing crucial chunks about teacher training and certifications. Alton says, “it’s important to make sure we have trained teachers in the classroom … we can understand that this bill is a watered-down version of what it once was, but it is a start” and believes that the rest “will all come later and in due time.”
And for the burgeoning advocates? Alton’s advice: “Do everything you can to build your network right now; that doesn’t just mean a network of those who look like you and think like you.” Expand your network to include both those in your peer group and more experienced people who can serve as mentors and fill out your Rolodex (or iPhone contact list, for the young’ns). Most importantly, he says, “make sure to never stop learning”: everything you can get your hands on, read. “If I’ve learned anything over the last sixteen years, it’s that when I graduated from college I knew absolutely nothing.” Both formal and informal learning are critical to personal development and growth as well as growth that can lead to progress among advocates within different movements.