We feel so fortunate to have the incredibly inspiring Shira Taylor as this week’s #FEMMEFEATUREFRIDAY! Hailing from Toronto, Canada, Shira is a passionate and genuine soul who strives to spark conversation and change in communities near and far about sexual education. She is a powerful woman on a mission to help Canadian youth become educated about taboo subjects around the topic of sex. Shira believes that knowledge is power and we can only create a stronger and healthier generation of young adults by exposing them to the right information. Shira’s work is truly extraordinary and we admire how determined she is to make an impact on today’s youth and be the difference in their lives.

Shira is a PhD. Candidate at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. Her prior studies include a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Masters of Science in Epidemiology from Queen’s University. In 2014, Shira created a program called SExT: Sex Education by Theatre. SExT using theatre to educate young people about sexual health topics including HIV/STI prevention, consent, mental health, gender and sexual diversity, healthy relationships, racism and cyberbullying. SExT consists of a compilation of sketches, songs, poems, raps, and dances grounded in a culturally inclusive, youth-led and arts-based approach. SExT has performed at some of Canada’s largest theatre festivals, and in 2018-2019 SExT was performed nationally to approximately 7000 youth across Canada in partnership with the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR). In 2018, SExT alongside CANFAR, released two music videos on the topics of consent called Bodak Consent and partner violence called Tunnel Vision. Not to mention, Shira was a Research Coordinator at SickKids on the Art for Social Change (ASC!) project and recipient of the TD Michaëlle Jean Bursary for using the arts to address issues of concern in Canada. Additionally, SExT was the recipient of the 2018 ArtBridges/ToilesDesArts award for Remarkable Innovation in Community-Engaged Arts in Canada. Make sure to check out SExT on Facebook, Instagram, & Twitter @SExTEdShow!

What we love most about Shira is how she keeps it real! Through consistent self-evaluation, she has been able to understand herself better and hold herself accountable regardless of the circumstances she’s faced. Shira shows us how important it is to remember that we have only ourselves to answer to at the end of the day. When faced with a difficult situation or decision, her work teaches us to be honest and sympathetic towards ourselves. It is from this place of authenticity that we can ultimately move forward. Thank you for Shira for reminding us that purpose is found where we can empower others to be their best and healthiest selves!

Written by Alessia Rotino

Artwork by Chloe Bruderer (@chloeheartsart)

Artwork by Chloe Bruderer (@chloeheartsart)

What does self-awareness mean to you? Why is it important for us to be self-aware? 

When I was a kid, using my gift of the gab to escape punishment for something I had done wrong, my mom would always ask me to stand in front of the mirror and ask myself if I had really done the best I could in the situation. This taught me that no matter what other people say or think, at the end of the day it’s YOU that you have to answer to. To me, being self-aware is the willingness to stand in front of that mirror as your whole beautiful, capable, and flawed human self and to ask yourself if you are really doing the best you can in your current circumstances. I think this willingness to look honestly, critically, and compassionately at oneself is a crucial first step towards growth, self-acceptance, and self-love.

Why do you believe it is important to educate today’s youth on sexual education?

In 2019, sex education is still a hotly contested topic, despite youth sexual health remaining a notable public health issue. This May, our group performed for over 1300 students in the Northwest Territories in partnership with CANFAR in response to the outbreak of Gonorrhea and Syphilis they have in the region, with Gonorrhea rates reported at 17 times the national average. Complicating the youth sexual health landscape is the widespread use of social media, which has radically changed the way young people engage with their sexuality. We have had a 12-year-old girl ask us if she “has” to send nudes to her classmate when he asks. These are the realities young people are facing, and they deserve to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to make healthy choices for themselves.

What challenges do you believe our society faces regarding sexual health topics? What changes do you hope to see in the future?

I believe the greatest threat to sexual wellness is the restriction of lifesaving information from young people by well meaning, yet misguided adults. While some parents, teachers, and policy-makers are busy trying to ‘protect’ youth from sex education on moral and religious grounds, many kids are busy having unprotected sex, sharing nudes, and even coping with sexual trauma with substances and self-harm. 

In SExT, we put youth voices from communities where sex is culturally taboo centre stage. I am very proud of the SExT peer educators whose bravery inspires other young people to tell their own stories through art. I would like to see the youth’s voice on sexual health topics hold more power moving forward. Young people know their own realities and know what they need, and they deserve to be heard when it comes to decision-making about their health and well being.

Tell us about the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in life so far. What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, knowing what you know now?

“You can’t wade in the water without getting wet.” This wise quote was shared with me during a mental health training about working with populations that have experienced high rates of trauma. It goes well with the old “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting another person” lesson. I tend to throw myself fully and passionately into my work, and until very recently, I didn’t stop to take care of me. After years in the sexual and mental health field, this took a real toll on my own physical and mental wellness and impacted my loved ones. The concept of “self-care” was a real game changer for me. I used to think my need to go out dancing or sleep in or zone out watching hours of Vampire Diaries was me being lazy, and I would feel guilty about being unproductive. I now consider scheduling in time to decompress to be as important as keeping up with my workload. 

I would tell younger me to sleep at night sometimes, stretch and strengthen those back muscles, and that you can teach young people skills and provide support, but everyone has to walk their own healing journey.

What’s your definition of a YGTGirl?

A YGTGirl realizes that helping another girl’s candle burn bright doesn’t make theirs any dimmer.