The Chattanooga staff of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi spoke publicly for the first time Wednesday afternoon after news of their hiring set off weeks of organizing and outrage against the organization.
Kamari Sharard, the local community organizer, and Chequita Webb, the public health educator in Chattanooga, said they are working to build support in the area for better access to reproductive health care and fill in gaps in sex education.
"We believe that people deserve accurate information," Webb said. "We trust our parents, we trust families and we trust young people to make decisions that are in line with what's best for their bodies and lives, given proper resources to do so."
The ongoing controversy around Planned Parenthood in Chattanooga stretches back to March, when abortion rights opponents began organizing after news broke that the orgnaization was hiring two full-time staff members in Chattanooga. The organization has not had a full-time staff member in Chattanooga since 2005, and nearly 30 years have passed since an abortion clinic operated in the city.
The Chattanooga staff spoke Wednesday afternoon at the Sanctuary. Sharard said she grew up in Chattanooga and struggled to understand her sexuality without proper education. Sharard was motivated to join Planned Parenthood to help the next generation, she said.
"The necessary information that I needed to make well-informed decisions about my body and my livelihood was purposely withheld from me by the adults in my life, teachers included," Sharard said. "Those people failed me. I had to figure everything out on my own."
The community organizer will focus on building relationships with community partners and those interested in volunteering, while the health educator will provide training for youth and adults on topics such as STIs, birth control, healthy relationships, abstinence and consent, the staff said.
Rumors about the positions have spread in the months since the openings were announced, including speculation about whether Planned Parenthood would open a clinic in Chattanooga or work with public schools to provide sex education. The organization said it does not have immediate plans to open a clinic in the city and, by law, cannot work in the public school system. Hamilton County Schools denied any partnership in June when misinformation was circulating.
In May, Calvary Chapel Chattanooga encouraged its members to become involved in the fight against Planned Parenthood, including signing a petition for the school board and donating to support an unproven abortion reversal treatment that has little research supporting its safety or effectiveness.
Calvary Chapel leaders brought their concerns before the Hamilton County school board in June, saying parents should be in charge of educating their children about sex.
"We want to maintain our values and continue to put an emphasis on families to educate their children in sexual health and allow parents to make the decisions for when it is time to have the more detailed conversations regarding gender and sexuality at home," Anne Roth, a Calvary Chapel member, told the school board in June, reading from the church's petition.
More than 2,600 people had signed the petition as of Wednesday.
Frank Ramseur, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Chattanooga, told the school board at that time that there is broad and increasing local support for the current sex education curriculum, which is superior to anything Planned Parenthood provides.
Brandon Gilvin, senior minister at First Christian Church, joined the Planned Parenthood staff at the Wednesday news conference and said he was discouraged by the actions of some local clergy.
"We're called to speak truth in all things and not to bear false witness," Gilvin said. "And I've been disappointed by misinformation that has been spread in our community by other people of faith and other clergy, especially when that misinformation can put other people at risk."
Gilvin said his denomination, Disciples of Christ, offers age-appropriate sex education to fill in gaps left by public schools that teach abstinence only. Planned Parenthood would provide a similar, needed service, he said.
"Though we counsel our young people until they are mature and responsible enough to make decisions about being sexually active, I believe that the best way to prepare young people to make those decisions and to know that they are ready is by making sure that all young people have access to comprehensive, honest and non-judgmental sex education," Gilvin said.
The state determines the health and wellness learning standards for local schools. For example, in sixth grade, students are taught to "identify the difference between abstinence and risk behaviors and why abstinence is the responsible and preferred choice for adolescence," as well as "identify how the media influences risk behavior related to teen pregnancy."
Sharard said given the backlash in recent months, there is plenty of work to do in the community.
"I'm excited to be a part of the force that is shifting culture in our city to empower us to openly talk about sex, abortion, consent, healthy relationships, so we can break down stigma and build a community where we support and hold each other."
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.