I ran into Shelby Knox, a passionate young activist, recently in Manhattan. We first got to know each other in 2005 when POV broadcasted The Education of Shelby Knox. Still one of our most requested films by communities across the country — the film follows Shelby, a Southern Baptist high school student from a politically conservative family in Texas, as she pledged abstinence until marriage and became the Lubbock Youth Council’s most vocal proponent of comprehensive sex education.
Shelby and I spent a lot of time together that year. Along with filmmakers Marion Lipshutz and Rose Rosenblatt, she reviewed a discussion guide that helps educators and community organizers organize successful screenings of The Education of Shelby Knox. She also attended a number of events my department co-organized with high school teachers, school boards, youth groups and GLBT organizations to draw attention to and foster conversations about the debate concerning sex education in America’s high schools.
One of the things that POV filmmakers do well is putting a human face on contemporary social issues. Through their storytelling, audiences don’t just learn about the issues, they also deepen their understanding by seeing someone deal with the consequences of public policies. Shelby, Reverend Ed Ainsworth, and the pregnant students at her school were affected by the outcomes of the abstinence vs. comprehensive sex education debate as they played out in the Texas public school system.
Discussing someone else’s experience is a safe way for people to begin sharing their perspectives and identifying solutions to ongoing issues in their own lives and communities. My job is to facilitate this process — to get the documentaries into people’s hands and give them the tools (lesson plans, facilitation tips, discussion questions, lists of fiction and nonfiction books on the topics) to make the most of the experience. We loan our films to schools, libraries, grassroots community organizations, social service agencies, prisons, foundations, and youth groups. In return, they fill out evaluations to let us know what happened at the screenings. Each group has its own goals and objectives for using a film but generally POV documentaries are screened to raise awareness, educate, train staff, create safe spaces to discuss difficult topics and inspire action.
The Education of Shelby Knox screenings ranged from a youth training at the New York Civil Liberties Union, to a staff screening at the United Church of Christ’s national office in Cleveland, OH, to a community screening in Fort Benton, MT at the Chouteau County Library. After these events, a number of students have expressed desires to start Gay-Straight Alliances at their schools, and a number of young people have been inspired to take abstinence pledges or volunteer at local organizations. Shelby told me that her favorite responses are from youth who say they are inspired to become activists because they have seen that youth can make change and have their voices heard.
As for Shelby, she continues to be active in the movement to prevent teen pregnancy and advocate for comprehensive sex education in American schools. She is currently working for Planned Parenthood. I also asked her to write a post for this blog so fingers crossed you’ll be hearing from her soon.