At 26, Julonna Peterson, is one of IPPF’s Member Associations’ youngest Executive Directors. With a degree in Psychology with Sociology, Julonna brings a wealth of experience as Executive Director (ED) of the St Vincent Planned Parenthood Association (SVPPA).
Driven by a passion for volunteering and helping others, Julonna’s immediate focus upon taking up the role in January 2021 was to coordinate and manage an emergency response following the devastating volcanic eruption on the island. As part of our Women in Leadership series, IPPF spoke to Julonna about her stance on sex education, supporting the LGBTI+ community, and the importance of youth representation.
What led to your interest in sexual and reproductive health (SRH)?
I have always been a curious person – I am always on a quest for more knowledge, so learning about my body and the amazingly "weird" things women's bodies go through was always fascinating to me. When I got the opportunity to volunteer at Planned Parenthood in 2017, I immediately was intrigued, and I'm addicted now.
Are there grey areas and taboos regarding SRH in St Vincent?
Our grey areas are more like black holes in my opinion – we tend to focus strongly on one aspect of our downfalls and assume that we're liberals, when in actuality we overcompensate for what we refuse to or are scared to address.
The LGBTI+ community feel very discriminated against and burdened to speak about anything regarding their sexuality or even to ask a question about an STI without immediately being labelled. Religion and culture play a big role – we are mainly a Christian society but the tolerance in the community, which should be welcoming if we are ‘Christians’, is not there. At St Vincent Planned Parenthood we are very inclusive. We treat the LGBTI+ community just like anybody else. Outside of St Vincent Planned Parenthood it is very difficult, discrimination is real as is the prejudice, violence and intolerance towards the LGBTI+ community.
What are the challenges in your community around sex education? Growing up in St Vincent and Grenadines, did you receive sex education?
We have yet to fully address the needs of youth and their sexual and reproductive health and rights, accessibility etc. The community and society are very closed off when it comes to sex. It’s almost a taboo even though we see every day that persons are contracting diseases because of sex. We see it and blame other factors, but we don’t think it is the education, allowing the youth to have the knowledge and proper understanding of what sexual reproductive health and their rights are, you try to cover it up and say “wait until you are that age”. The biggest issue is the education and allowing young people to have access.
My mother made it her mission to parent me a bit different in that regard than her mother did with her, so she did teach me about menstruation and pregnancy (as much as she knew from life lessons I suppose). In terms of in-depth information or education from school, it was extremely limited. I didn't know much besides boys have penises and girls have vaginas and at a certain age girls can become pregnant. So, in a nutshell, fundamental sex education was a luxury and very much was determined by how knowledgeable or liberal your parents were.
Shortly after you resumed office as the new ED of SVPP, St Vincent was unfortunately hit with a volcano eruption. How did you lead the response?
When the initial eruption happened, obviously this is something new for the majority of the country because of the age group. I wasn’t really prepared, because I am also new in this position having only started in January but because of my training as a disaster volunteer I liked to make sure that we [staff] are okay as human resources, so I closed the office and told the staff to go home make sure their homes are okay. This happened on a Thursday, by Monday we opened the office with amended hours to enable beneficiaries’ access vital sexual and reproductive health services. Every day after work I would go to the shelters and help, there has been an outpouring of interest in contraceptives, more so Plan B and condoms from the youth.
I did this every day for over a month, seeing children walk around in ash, skeletons of animals – it was a lot for me mentally. I heard unofficially that the volcano has been having some reactions and the pattern looks like there may be another eruption soon, so we are listening out for that. Should it happen, we have a new task force, guidelines, and we have a much more structured response than we had in the first one.
Although you are now an ED, do you still find yourself volunteering in the field?
Of course, it's embedded in me! I don’t think me being the ED has sunk in and I don’t think it ever will. Unless I am in meetings after meetings which often I am, I'm always outside helping the staff. Most recently I helped with the arrangement and distribution of relief packages.
How would you sum up your leadership as the ED of St Vincent Planned Parenthood?
I would like to think of my leadership as one that's open and involved, in the sense that I believe in the input and ideas of others. Especially seeing that most of my staff have been a part of SVPPA prior to my arrival, I made it my mission to learn from them. I believe greatly that in order to be a good leader you have to be a good follower and I enjoy listening to their input, their passions about sexual and reproductive health and rights, their knowledge and experiences. However, from my military background I am a bit firmer with regards to order and proper planning so that aspect most definitely has been integral in keeping SVPPA running smoothly and us being able to adapt when necessary.
Finally, as a young woman in leadership, do you think we need more youth representation in this area?
Most definitely we do! And I say that with no uncertainty. As young people we know what we need, we know what we would like to know more of etc. It is extremely disheartening that we are side-lined, when I think that youth are the only ones that truly can speak for what we're going through at this stage in our lives. After a certain point in adulthood our outlook on things gets blurred so we have to incorporate the individuals who are currently at that stage. Gives everything fresh eyes and new perspective. The world is developing, and we are the navigators.