Vanessa Geffrard, who has degrees in community health and public health, opened her Edmondson Village rowhouse for women to have courageous conversations after she noticed reluctance among friends from her inner circle and professional life to speak openly about sex.
“I realized that a lot of us did not have the sex ed growing up thus we turned into adults who still don’t know anything,” Geffrard said. “I didn’t really see too many safe spaces for Black women and women of color to have open conversations in a fun manner and in a way that doesn’t revolve around a clinician.”
In 2013, Geffrard developedVagEsteem, a sexual health education brand, which provides free and paid trainings. Her workshop series and podcast are aimed at creating a platform for women to learn from each other and have a supportive forum to discuss their bodies, love and relationships.
Geffrard said she has hosted in-person training across the East Coast, partnering with Baltimore City Schools, the Girl Scouts and American University.
The combination of being raised by Haitian immigrant parents and attending Catholic School didn’t “set the stage for having conversations around sex and sexuality openly,” but Geffrard said she has been an educator for as long as she can remember.
“I started off being an educator at four years old when I was trying to get my dad to stop smoking cigarettes. So this is in my blood,” she said.
Geffrard earned a bachelor’s degree in community health from University of Maryland, College Park and holds a master’s degree in public health from Morgan State University.
Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, an obstetrician-gynecologist, has organized sessions for children and teens led by Geffrard. McDonald-Mosley said Geffrard’s energy is infectious and the humor and willingness to be silly makes the tone of her workshops unique and unforgettable.
“It’s a great way to break the ice when you’re talking about vulnerable subjects like sex and sexual health and education,” said McDonald-Mosley, who worked at Planned Parenthood of Maryland where Geffrard is vice president of education and outreach.
“That’s a huge impact and certainly needed, especially in Baltimore, where we have very high rates of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV,” McDonald-Mosley said. “We need more Vanessas out there doing this great work, engaging communities.”
Baltimore ranked first in the nation with the highest sexually transmitted disease rates out of 100 U.S. metropolitan areas, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2018 by InnerBody Research. According to its analysis, the Baltimore region had 2,004 reported STD cases per 100,000 residents.
McDonald-Mosley’s two children attended Geffrard’s sexual health education sessions for middle and high school students this summer. Reaching 25 families, the two virtual sessions centered on body confidence, online safety, healthy relationships, consent, and boundaries.
“I noticed over my time working in the field that sex ed teachers were not honoring the whole student, they were not answering students questions, [and] they were not calling students by their name,” Geffrard said. “They were not creating safe class environments, especially with topics that are so taboo and so complicated, like sex education.”
During the pandemic, VagEsteem has provided education and training to more than 700 adults, students and parents, covering topics such as sexually transmitted infection prevention, contraceptive methods, teen pregnancy, abortion stigma, and LGBTQ inclusion, Geffrard said. She even did more than 100 drop-offs in the Baltimore area, delivering free condoms, pregnancy tests and morning after emergency contraception pills, to the community.
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Last month, she also led a training session for sex educators and reproductive health practitioners to help dismantle ingrained biases. The course is intended to dig deeper, to question public health data, and how health inequities are assigned to race.
“What are these coded words that come up in our field, like high risk or cultural competence, urban and underrepresented,” she said. “How are we going to be culturally competent when we don’t even view the people that we might be working with as people who have expertise in their lives and are able to teach us things when we step into their communities and schools?”
Geffrard also has produced three podcasts since March. She said there aren’t enough podcasts on this topic with a Black voice and she makes it a rule to have Black, Indigenous and people of color as guests on her show.
“It’s still a very whitewashed field,” Geffrard said. “Living in Baltimore or working in Baltimore and doing workshops in Baltimore and being a Black woman myself, it’s really important that we see each other.”
This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor, Sundra Hominik at email@example.com.
Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities.