Sunday, December 30, 2012

Dr. Douglas Kirby, Rest in Peace, Dear Friend

My dear friend and colleague Dr. Doug Kirby died last weekend at the age of 69 while hiking a mountain in Ecuador.  According to his guide, he stopped for a drink of water, looked out at the moonlit landscape, said, "Isn't life great!", clutched his chest and died instantaneously.  The autopsy said it was a heart attack and stroke. 

Doug was a giant in the sexual and reproductive health field.  He did the first national study of sexuality education in the late 70's and the first national evaluation of school based clinics in the 1980's.  In 1988, he moved to California to become the director of research at ETR Associates, where he was working until his death.  He was one of the hardest working people I know.  We often talked about his cutting back: in our last conversation, he said, "I'm just accepting it's genetic. I'm never going to stop working this hard." 

Doug's impact on the world is enormous.  His evaluations led him to created the characteristics of effective sexuality and HIV prevention programs.  His monographs No Easy Answers and later No Emerging Answers taught us all what was effective prevention and which programs work and he taught us all how to use new logic models to improve our work.  His work formed the basis for the national programs list that is funded by the federal government.  In the past decade, he began his international work, completing the evaluation of AIDS prevention programs in Uganda, and working with the World Health Organization, UNESCO, USAID, and UNFPA on improving programs around the world.  He spoke to the House of Lords in London, Presidential Commissions, the ministers of health from around Latin America...and even more. 

He and I first worked together at the Center for Population Options (now Advocates for Youth) from 1984 to 1988.  He was the Director of Research, I was the Director of Education.  I referred to him as my "office husband"; we had lunch together nearly every day when we were both in town.  I think we must have had a thousand slices of pizza together.  We didn't always agree and we had long long discussions about the impact of some of his findings on advocacy.  He was a steadfast researcher with an unswerving commitment to data, and no one was happier than he when he finally found sexuality education programs that did change contraceptive behaviors and the research that allowed him to say that existing abstinence only programs did not.  I had wanted him to say so earlier; he would not. 

We moved from CPO at about the same time, I to New York to be the head of SIECUS, Doug to Aptos, California.  Fortunately, we were often at the same conferences and so continued to have time together.  Doug always made the effort to drive to see me if I was speaking anywhere in California; and we often had meals and shared time together when he was working in New York City.  We explored Cuba and Puerto Rico together.  We shared countless meals where we were the last people at the restaurant as we hungrily caught up on each other's personal and professional lives. 

And we took walks.  Anyone who worked with Doug or was friends with Doug knows the importance of those walks.  Dinners out were less important to Doug, although desserts -- especially chocolate desserts -- were very important.  My husband and I were once with Doug and his dear wife Gail in Puerto Rico and we had spent the day hiking in a rain forest.  We all wanted pina coladas at the beach; Doug had us stop at a Wendy's first so he could have a chocolate milk shake.

Doug introduced me to the Unitarian Universalist church while we were both in Washington.  He encouraged us to come, saying a line I have repeated to so many others, "Try it, but you have to commit to coming twice.  Some weeks aren't as good as others."  He also, as I struggled with my call to ministry, aid to me on one of those beach walks, "Debra, you can start seminary part time.  Just start."  Those two moments changed my life.

Doug was infinitely curious about people and I have been so struck by how many people in the past week have said how close he was to them.  He made people feel special because he was so interested in them.  He always asked questions about people's lives before he turned to the work at hand.  That so many people felt Doug was a close friend surprised me because he never gossipped, he never shared one's confidences.  He was a mensch in the fullest meaning of that word.

Doug's last gift to me was for his 69th birthday.  He told Gail that he wanted to eat chocolate ice cream for this birthday and to send me a generous check for the Religious Institute.  His note to me, that I will forever cherish, said, "We've eaten the ice cream and here is the check."  I cried when I received it; now that card will be his final gift.  We spoke by phone for the last time in early December for a long time:  about our work, about our now grown children, about how excited he was for my daughter's engagement, about his upcoming trip to Ecuador, about our need to make a plan to see each other more in 2013.  I promised I would fly to Washington next time he was there.  We as we did in almost every conversation marveled about the work we are both so privileged to do in the world, and like every conversation we had, said, "I love you" before we hung up.

The world has lost an amazing man.  Gail, Kathryn, and Cameron, have lost their beloved husband and father. 

I read these words this morning by Abraham Joshua Heschel:  "I did not ask for success.  I asked for wonder."  That was Doug.  May you rest in peace, dear friend.  I will hold you in my heart for ever. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Women's Leadership, Reproductive Justice, and Marriage Equality Make The World Better

I am appalled to learn the National Review ran an article blaming the Newtown tragedy on women's leadership of the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Mike Huckabee blamed it on abortion.  Westboro Baptist Church blamed it on Connnecticut's legalization of marriage equality.

A deranged young man with an assault weapon caused the Newtown massacre.  Sexual justice had nothing to do with it.

I live and serve a church 15 miles from Newtown, CT.  My heart breaks for the families there, for the teachers, for the children lost, and for the survivors.  This past weekend, at three different church services, I read the names of those murdered.  My heart broke every time I read, "age six" after the name of the victim.  Although all of my congregants were spared directly losing a relative, none of us were untouched.  

I've spent the last thirty five years advancing sexual rights, first as a sexuality educator and now as a religious leader.  I am convinced, as I know you are, that full inclusion of women and LGBTQ people makes the world more just.  Liberty and justice for all is not a slogan; it's an aspiration.

The Religious Institute works every day to assure sexual rights in faith communities and society.  Please join us.  Take a stand against gun violence and for comprehensive mental health services.  Take a stand for women and LGBT people.  Go to to support our justice-seeking leadership today. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hug Your Children Tightly...and Talk

Another heart stopping school shooting.

This time at an elementary school not far from where I live, work, and worship.  The senseless violence is closer than ever, even in a bucolic Connecticut town.

I've already been asked about how or if to talk to children about it.  I remember too well the day I picked up 6 year old Greg from school on September 11, 2001.  He already knew that something was wrong.  There were teachers and parents crying in the halls.

A lot of parents then wanted to avoid talking to their children about it.  They hoped that their children might not have heard. 

They'll hear about this too.  Even the kindergartners and first graders need to hear from you, their parent or trusted adult, that you are there for them.  They need to know that this type of tragedy is very very rare and that schools are safe.  They need to know that there are procedures to keep children safe in schools and that's why there are things like fire drills and hall monitors and crossing guards.  They need to know that you too feel sad hearing about children who were hurt and killed and that this type of violence should never ever happen.  They need to know your values about guns.  They need to know about all of the adults who came to help: the teachers, the police, and the concerned towns people.

They may need a chance to write or draw or play act their feelings.  You might want to light a memory candle at dinner or look for a community candle light vigil or religious service. Remember to tell your children how much you love them and that you want them to talk with you about their feelings. 

With older children, start by asking what they know.  Listen to their feelings.  Share your feelings and values.  Think about what you can do together, like writing your elected representative about gun control or reaching out through your congregation to families in Newtown.

And pray.  Pray for the families that will never be the same.  Pray for the families that were observers.  Pray for the children who survive.  Pray for the souls of all the victims, including those that caused the violence.  Pray for mental health services for those who need them and laws to ban handguns and assault weapons.  Pray for an end to senseless violence.