Sydney Tolchinsky works in sexual health education, teaching teens about what healthy relationships look like. She grew up learning about nonprofits and advocacy from her mom and one of her first jobs was working at Planned Parenthood. When asked about what it means to her to be good, Sydney said, “I’m fighting for a thing that needs a fighter.” Listen to this episode to get an inside look at sexual violence prevention, supporting LGBTQ teens, and working in a field that other don’t understand or actively resist.
Mentioned in this episode:
- The Do Good, Be Good Facebook Page
- The Do Good, Be Good website
- This American Life Story about consent on college campuses
- Death, Sex and Money series about Sex Ed fails
For a full transcript of the episode, read on below:
00:00 Sydney: I can say I grew up in a house where my mother was a real activist. So I don’t know if I was helpful when I was little, but I was certainly raised in a house where we were a helping house, like friends would come stay with us between housing, and she piloted a legislative program to end corporal punishment schools in Arizona, which is now a law because of her.
00:34 Intro: This is Do Good, Be Good, the show about helpful people and the challenges they face in trying to do good. Your host is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom, a career do-gooder, who also loves craft beer and a good hard tackle in rugby. Sharon speaks to everyday people about why they do good and what it means to be good.
00:57 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Greetings, it is really great to be back. This is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom, I’m your host here at Do Good, Be Good. And it’s been basically a year since I brought you a new episode of this show. I really apologize for that, but I am back. You’re going to have new episodes coming out every two weeks probably. That’s looking like the new schedule, and I’m really excited. I’ve got a couple of interviews already completed, more this week, several coming up. So we are back on track and I’m happy to be bringing you real stories of everyday people who are trying to do good and how they navigate that.
01:40 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: In today’s episode, I interview Sydney Tulchinsky. Sydney lives here in Flagstaff, Arizona, where I’m based, and we’ve met through various connections over the years in the way that a small town happens. Sydney is a educator, she works on sexual health education, mostly for teenagers, but she’s also had a very interesting career with different types of jobs in the world of sexual violence prevention and working at a Planned Parenthood, and we’re gonna get into several different experiences she’s had over the years in today’s episode.
02:19 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: By the nature of Sydney’s work, today’s episode does acknowledge the existence of sex. But it might still be appropriate if you’re listening with kids, particularly older children. Use your own discretion. As you heard at the top of the episode, Sydney got her start working alongside her mom who is a great helper herself.
02:40 Sydney: You know, I grew up going to rallies and putting together mailers and like volunteering at places like Planned Parenthood without really knowing what that meant and PTA. So, I know I was raised this way without consciously being told it, but I don’t know if I was a helpful child. [laughter]
03:00 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: What was one of your first memories from getting involved with the kind of work your mom was doing?
03:06 Sydney: I remember we always had… So in Arizona, I don’t know, there are still places in the country where you can still spank children at school. And in Arizona, you used to be able to spank using a paddle of certain size and width. And we had one on the wall in like my mother’s kind of work area, her office area in the house, which was also our laundry room. [laughter] And I remember like the paddle with like bumper stickers with anti-corporal punishment message. I remember that being on the wall. Like I said, I remember feeling very special and important in folding flyers and stuff for mailers. I don’t really know what they were, but I’m sure they were related to these things. We would go to polling places and I would go with my mom, she had a job at a place called Kids Voting Arizona where she did voter education in elementary schools. And so I would go with her sometimes and be able to take off school and like run elections in classrooms on like which type of cookie and stuff like that to educate about voting. I remember all of that stuff.
04:05 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: How did this fit into the rest of her life and what she was doing?
04:10 Sydney: The corporal punishment stuff was before she way working full-time. When she started working full-time, like she still always would volunteer afterwards so she would still always be in PTA meetings at my school. So she would work full-time at a place like Kid’s Voting, so I learned about nonprofits because this was a nonprofit. So I learned about like that you could work for a place that wasn’t just to make money for yourself, it was also to be helping.
04:37 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I asked Sydney about what was one of the most surprising things about working at Planned Parenthood.
04:42 Sydney: The most surprising thing to me about working at Planned Parenthood, I think, looking back after all these years, was always how grateful and surprised the patients would be that we were not judgy. It’s almost like they came in expecting to having defend themselves and we were like, “It’s cool. Like you don’t even got to have to explain literally anything to us.” [chuckle] I’m like, “Let me take you through this process, let me guide you through some options, let me. Like you’re gonna talk to the actual medical provider and then I might see you again or I might just take your money at the end or I might help you navigate your insurance.” And even that, they were like so grateful. I know, of course, I know that it is controversial to work there or to even say the name, Planned Parenthood. [chuckle] But I don’t know. I guess I didn’t realize, I thought that if you were coming to Planned Parenthood, that we all sort of agreed that this was like a fine place to get the services you needed, but I think people were really scared and for all I know maybe still are. And to be faced with someone who’s not judging them always seem to surprise them which surprised me.
05:55 Sydney: It’s easy to forget how the rest of the world view sex and sexuality when you’re in a profession where it’s so normal. [chuckle] And it is so normal and I want everyone to know that it’s a normal part of human development, but at the same time, we don’t talk about it like it’s normal in our culture. We don’t treat it like it’s normal. We treat it like a joke or something to hide or something that’s only for like side glances and side conversations, and I love that I’m doing this in this room with you. And I’m making side glances and I’m doing it, but no one can see me.
06:00 Sydney: How shifty I’m trying to be because that’s how we treat sexuality.
06:00 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Sydney is making side glances at me now.
06:00 Sydney: So it’s like, you know, I sit at my desk at the window, and I expect everyone to come in and be totally open, because I’m gonna be… And it’s not that easy, by the time they leave hopefully they felt like it was. And it’s the same way in my job now. I teach sexual health now to teenagers, and they come in thinking it’s gonna be so embarrassing and so scary. And by the end of the first day, after we’ve laughed together for an hour, and I’ve said penis and vagina a few times, [chuckle] and then I’m like… By the second class, they ask me the most open questions, and it’s so incredible. I think every person just wants to know that the person isn’t gonna… The person they’re talking to isn’t gonna judge them, and then they feel safe, and then all of a sudden it’s okay to talk about stuff.
07:20 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I ask Sydney, what inspired the next step in her career?
07:23 Sydney: You meet these people, and you’re like, “I wanna be her when I grow up.” [chuckle] And like, and in a sense, I already was grown up, I was working at this clinic. I was just out of college, and she was a grown-up person. And as I moved through staying in Flagstaff and wanting to still work here… When you’re at the window of a place like Planned Parenthood, what you’re hearing is, “Help, I’m pregnant, and I need options,” or, “Help, I have an STD, a sexually transmitted disease,” or, “Help, do I have something? There is something happening.” And there’s this whole world of prevention instead of direct aid in the moment. So I was really interested in being an… A public health educator, even then. And I moved from Planned Parenthood to Northland Family Help Center, which had a sexual violence prevention program, and I did that for several years.
08:11 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I wasn’t really familiar with the term sexual violence prevention, so I asked her to define it.
08:17 Sydney: Sexual violence prevention is essentially rape prevention, but that also entails healthy relationships, sort of domestic violence prevention. Sexual health curricula have an element of healthy relationships and violence prevention in them. And we also have, at least in Arizona, programs to… Just for sexual violence prevention, so there’s a sexual health, like teen pregnancy prevention umbrella and there’s a sexual health healthy relationships umbrella. They are two topics that go hand in hand. They almost always have elements of each other in them. And basically, what you’re doing is educating youth what a healthy relationship looks like, and what red flags are, because domestic violence or intimate partner violence doesn’t always start as violence, it starts out as a loving relationship that becomes violent. But if you know what early, early warning signs to look for you can be, hopefully, safe from that, ideally.
09:23 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I hope you’re enjoying Sydney’s story. If you’d like to get connected to others in the Do Good, Be Good community or follow all the updates about this show, please join us on facebook.com/dogoodbegoodshow, or you can get show notes and other information about what I do at dogoodbegoodshow.com. Another way that you can help the show is by leaving us a rating or review in your podcast listening app of choice. Let’s get back to my conversation with Sydney as she talks about what she learned, moving into that field of sexual violence prevention.
10:00 Sydney: It was a huge education for me. I knew a little bit, I knew I was interested, I knew it was important, I knew I wanted to do it. I learnt a lot of statistics about sexual assault, its relationship to alcohol, its relationship to college campuses in particular, there was a lot, a lot, a lot of education that has informed what I do now. I mean, I feel like I grew up working in sexual violence prevention, and then I was able to take a step back, just for my own professional growth and in a way, to help even more preventatively than I was, if that makes sense.
10:35 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Yeah. It feels like something that would be helpful for almost anyone to know, and I don’t know when any of us learn about it. [chuckle]
10:46 Sydney: Right. I know. Yeah. [chuckle]
10:48 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I’m like, there’s a lot of people who are concerned about either preventing sexual violence in their own life or helping friends who have been through it or whatever and I don’t think of… I mean, I listen to podcasts sometimes in which I have heard some of these statistics or I remember a really powerful episode on This American Life where they interviewed people on college campuses about consent and other things. But other than those situations, I can’t think of anywhere where I was…
11:19 Sydney: And most of us learn it as adult women, either because of our friends’ experiences or because of our own experiences. And the goal of these prevention programs is to teach middle and high schoolers before or during their first dating experiences. This is a red flag. This isn’t safe. This person needs help. You deserve better. All of these… All of this messaging that you don’t get until you’re already in college or already in that struggle.
11:45 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I just actually listened to an interesting podcast about the effect of abstinence-only education on young people, and I can definitely relate to that, and the… Just like, also the assumption that if you’re in a relationship that isn’t sexually active, then by default, you must be safe and in a healthy relationship
12:09 Sydney: Right.
12:12 Sydney: Dangerous assumption.
12:12 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Which only recently dawned on me that that is definitely not true. [chuckle] That it’s way more complicated than that. And yeah, those healthy boundaries you learn in navigating healthy sexual relationships are also true in just navigating healthy relationships.
12:30 Sydney: Yeah.
12:30 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Sydney and I were talking about all the forms of education that she received and the things she learned during this transition into this new career path. One of the topics she studied was toxic masculinity.
12:32 Sydney: What I think can happen with… Sometimes with this topic is that sometimes it can make a person see masculinity as the problem. And in reality if you talk to people who are trying to be masculine people, whether that’s men or… Whether that’s cis men or not cis men, they have the same concerns typically about the way it restricts all other feeling. Like, to put it really, really simply and not that any humans really live this way, but like women are allowed to feel feelings and men aren’t. That’s like the idea for some cultures and sometimes our own culture, but the exception to that is men can feel the feelings of anger or violence or aggression or being in charge or this forceful kind of… Those feelings are allowed. So that means they have to channel all of their feelings, if they’re sad or excited or happy or emotional or moved, it has to come out as aggression. [chuckle] I’m like, and I’m not saying that that is true for everyone. I’m talking like to the microphone. Like, “Listen, microphone.”
13:46 Sydney: But it… I think it translates that way sometimes. And if you’re able to ask the boys, “Do you feel this way?” They often are like, “Yeah. Oh yeah. I do actually. Let’s talk about… ” We all agree that’s not really how we have to feel, but for some reason we have this socialization where we do still feel this restriction. So it’s like an interesting way to… I remember being surprised that it would open the door as opposed to closing me off from that population. I remember that was like a cool…
14:15 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I remember, recently I met a woman who works in Outward Bound and works with a lot of teenage young men who are… Have often gotten into some sort of trouble and a lot of that is around their aggression or their inability to feel their feelings. And she’s now like really wanting to go back and go to graduate school and study toxic masculinity and like how do you intervene earlier in these young people’s lives, so that they know that it’s okay to have feelings and how to process them. And I was like, “I can also relate to this just because of doing a lot of adult learning in workplaces.” [chuckle]
15:00 Sydney: Yeah.
15:00 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I’m teaching interpersonal communication to people in their 40s, 50s and 60s a lot of times, and I may be telling them for the first time that it’s okay to feel feelings and I’ve had men come up to me during the training and talk about how insightful this is for them and like…
15:18 Sydney: Nice.
15:19 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Which is great, but I’m also like, “Oh my gosh. Have you gotten to the age of 55 and this is the first time anyone’s ever told you that it’s okay to feel feelings?”
15:26 Sydney: Yes.
15:27 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: And like wanted to hear about your feelings?
15:29 Sydney: Yes.
15:29 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I’m really upset for them.
15:33 Sydney: One thing that’s fun is I’ll go into a classroom where there’s the teacher and after my sex ed program, the teacher will be like, “I didn’t know any of the stuff you just told those seventh graders.” [chuckle] “Or I knew one of those things, but it was kind of wrong.” Or “I learned none of this in my sex ed class.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry. Like, you’re in your 20s or 30s or 40s. That’s so cool. Come tomorrow.” [chuckle]
15:58 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Sometimes I see Sydney post stories about how teens have come out to her through the course of her work. I asked her to tell me more about this.
16:09 Sydney: I don’t know if it’s… So I don’t have anyone doing the exact same thing that I’m doing who I can compare with, but I have a lot of kids come out to me either as gay or lesbian or asexual or bisexual or also as transgender or non-binary or on the trans spectrum. And I don’t know if it’s only the way I’m teaching or if it’s because they know that sexual health also means sexual identity sometimes, I like to think it’s both because I like to think that I am… I’m emanating this safe person vibe to them. When I see these kids, I have so many kids who need supportive adults and you know, they say being of a sexual or gender minority can contribute, especially in the teenagers, to depression, to suicide rates. I mean, if they have one supportive adult, even just one, those rates go way down. I mean trans people have a rate of 41% of suicide and if they were raised in a town or a school where they have some supportive adults, that goes down. It goes down so fast. And then you have… And then sometimes you hear these micro aggressive comments or maybe it’s not so micro, these aggressive comments [chuckle] about gender and I’m like, “What?” They’re gonna need sex ed regardless and I’m gonna be the most supportive adult I can for the short time I have them.
17:36 Sydney: It’s hard to watch my students fight alone. So it’s part… I take it very seriously. It’s part of what I fight all the time for them. I think, then every new word for every identity is fabulous. Like, yes, more words, more genders, please. There was one survey that resulted in 500 different unique gender identities. I mean, I don’t know the number because that’s how variable humans are. That’s how many genders we could have. It’s amazing. [chuckle]
18:07 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: It’s fascinating to me when people who are working… Who think they’re working really hard to be open and accepting and maybe… I was in the speaking world, so even speakers who speak about feminism or women’s empowerment or things like that and then they’re very… [chuckle] They’re very clear in their speech about, “We need to make this world a better place for all women and all men.”
18:32 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: And then it’s like this really inspirational powerful speech and we’re like… Me and my friends in the back are just like, “And all genders.” [chuckle]
18:42 Sydney: Yes. All the genders. [chuckle]
18:46 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: And just the way everything is just so binary. Like, I notice it all the time now on forms and things.
18:47 Sydney: Yes.
18:47 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Even getting an airplane ticket. It asked me female or male.
18:47 Sydney: Yes.
18:47 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I’m like, “Why do you care?”
18:47 Sydney: I know.
18:47 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: And like, “Why do I have to fill this out? This is ridiculous.”
18:47 Sydney: It’s a constant barrage.
18:47 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: So I can just imagine if that’s something, and especially as a teenager, if you’re understanding your identity and you’re processing it and then every little thing you have to fill out when applying for stuff, applying for a job or applying for college, and it’s just being like shoved in your face.
18:47 Sydney: I’ve had kids ask me for advice ’cause they’re gonna fly on their first airplane, and they’re trans or non-binary, and they’re like, “What is gonna happen at TSA? Like, what… Are they gonna… ” And I… I’m happy to walk them through. I don’t know if everyone listening knows this, but they pick male or female before you go through that scanner. And if you pick female and then you have a penis it flags the penis area because there’s something there that “shouldn’t be.” And vice versa if they picked male and you have breasts, it flags the breast area thinking that there’s something there that quote “shouldn’t be.” And I’m prepping this kid for, you can tell them what gender to pick. This is a whole other level. Do you misgender yourself for the benefit of the TSA? Do you let them misgender you? Do you let them correctly gender you based on your appearance? But then you have a piece of the anatomy that doesn’t match their idea of that gender. It’s a whole thing and you have to just… I think it’s a real privilege that cisgender people don’t realize. And we all should just be trying as hard as we can to make this easier. And most of us don’t because we don’t have to think about it. Not because we’re unkind people, we just don’t know all the barriers. I think if more kind people knew it we would all be more conscientious. It’s just something not everyone knows.
20:43 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I mentioned to Sydney that I had started a new practice of introducing my pronouns when I deliver workshops or facilitate meetings and trying to model that for others that I work with.
20:55 Sydney: Not everyone’s out. So it’s an odd thing to ask for pronouns or to offer pronouns is supposed to be friendly, but every so often it might also be traumatic. It could be like “I don’t wanna talk about pronouns ’cause I’m not out but I wanna tell you my real pronouns.” Or kids will come to me afterwards and tell me, “I said this but really my pronouns are this but I’m not telling anyone.” And I’m like, “Okay.” So now I have to misgender you on purpose because you’ve asked me to. [chuckle] And that feels mean. But I must do what you ask. I must do it and respect you. [chuckle] It’s complicated.
21:29 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: It’s complicated. [chuckle]
21:30 Sydney: It’s a complicated thing.
21:31 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Yeah, I did add mine then at that same moment I was like, “Oh, you know what would be really good is to put these on my signature line… “
21:38 Sydney: Yes, yes.
21:39 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: In my emails. ‘Cause I was like, “Well, that’s more useful.” ‘Cause it’s like if someone’s meeting me for the first time they’ll just know right off the bat these are my pronouns and I’m aware of asking for pronouns. So maybe they’ll feel more comfortable offering if they meet me one on one.
21:54 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I asked Sydney about over the years what different kinds of reaction she’s received when people find out what she’s done for work.
22:03 Sydney: If I wasn’t… If I was at that proverbial cocktail party and depending on who was there I might just say, “I work at a doctor’s office. I don’t feel like talking about that right now.” Other times I’d be in my scrubs and they say Planned Parenthood on them. And it’ll be at the grocery store check out and someone would be like, “That would be this much. I don’t believe in abortion.” And I’d be like, “Whoa, just give me those cucumbers. I don’t care what you think about anything. I didn’t ask. I’m on my way home.” Other times I’d be in the mood. I’d be like, “I work at Planned Parenthood,” and I get a mixed reaction. Usually positive or nothing. For sexual violence prevention almost always you get a positive reaction mixed with some anger. “That’s so great. We need it so much. All rapist should be castrated.” Or something. And I’d be like, “Oh, okay.” That’s actually really nuanced. But… It’s fine. Now my sex ed self almost always positive reactions. Every so often I’ll get someone who’s positive with a hint of judgy. Like, “Oh, that’s so great. Our kids need that. You don’t say anything weird like there’s more than two genders, do you?”
23:14 Sydney: And I’ll be like… Depending if I’m feeling up for it, I might be like, “Let’s unpack that, strange person I just met.” Or if it’s a family member I’ll be like, “Yes, grandma I do and here’s why.” But it really depends who I’m talking to and what I feel like doing in the moment.
23:33 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I now do training for some of the climate science graduate students.
23:36 Sydney: Oooh.
23:37 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: And when you talk about how climate science doesn’t seem like something that should be a political issue, but we have to accept the reality that in right now’s political climate, it is controversial.
23:49 Sydney: Right.
23:50 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: So making those decisions in everyday life, about like, while the hairdresser has scissors in their hand and has your hair in their other hand…
24:00 Sydney: Do I get into this right now?
24:01 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Right. Making those snap judgements about am I going to process this with them or am I going to maybe say, “I’m a scientist.”
24:12 Sydney: Yes.
24:12 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I work at a university.
24:14 Sydney: Or like I totally… If I’m at dinner with my friends and I see someone at the next table who I would love to get into it with because of something that happened at work, but we’re both just at dinner and I don’t wanna make this about work right now, but I do feel like I need to talk… It’s just this… A constant thing.
24:32 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Before we wrapped up, I asked Sydney, “What does it mean to you to be good?”
24:37 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: The show is called Do Good, Be Good. What does it mean to you to be good?
24:42 Sydney: I feel like I get told… This sounds so braggy. But people say, you’re doing good to you. And there’s almost this urge to be like, “No, I’m just doing what… I’m fighting for a thing that needs a fighter.” And it’s not me doing good because I need to do something good. I’m doing it because it needs to get done. I don’t know. And that is often the same thing as doing good. And you know that old debate from that old episode of Friends. It makes me feel good. So really I’m selfish. I’m doing good because I feel good doing it. [chuckle] But I don’t know. I don’t ever know the answer. I don’t know. I think we all have… We all, ever since childhood, have that gut feeling of whether something is good or not good. And we all feel better when do the good thing. And you’re lucky if you can do it for your living. [chuckle] And I’m just lucky right now.
25:34 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: I really enjoyed my conversation with Sydney and I hope you enjoyed listening in. Did you know that you can subscribe to this podcast for free? It does not cost you anything in whatever app you listen to, Spotify, Apple Podcast Stitcher, Google Music. If you don’t know how to access the podcast through an app, if maybe you’re listening to this livestreaming through our website, we have a helpful guide on the website at dogoodbegoodshow.com that will help you learn how you can get this podcast in your phone in an easy way where you’ll never miss an episode. Thank you so much again for listening today. Music in this episode is Bathed in Fine Dust by Andy G. Cohen released under a Creative Commons Attribution International license and discovered in the Free Music Archive. Until the next episode, this is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom signing off.