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  • Nicole Eitzen

Interview with Sam Verdugo, Day One Educator

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Recently–in anticipation of EVC’s upcoming Docs & Dialogue event on teen relationships and dating cultures– EVC had the opportunity to interview Day One educator, Sam Verdugo.

Sam Verdugo (she/they) is a Community Educator at Day One. They work with schools and community organizations throughout NYC facilitating educational workshops that provide students with the foundational skills and tools to build healthy and safe relationships.

Sam is Ecuadorian with a Bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in Sociology and Public Health, where she focused her research on the school-to-prison pipeline, transformative justice, and Indigenous futurism and liberation. She has an extensive background in advocacy, facilitation, and creating curricula. Most recently, she worked with community organizers and birthwork activists Eri Guajardo Johnson and Montse Olmos to develop virtual offerings for QTBIPOC folks such as journaling circles and mentorship circles on body autonomy, nurturing your creative fire, and Indigenous cosmovision. Sam is a published writer, spiritual herbalist, and loves to dance to cumbia with friends. They are a believer in the power of resting and Indigenous joy as a form of resistance, self-preservation, and thriving.

You can read their full interview with EVC below.

EVC: Please introduce yourself, including your current work and your interest in youth mental health.

SV: I’m Sam Verdugo and I currently work as a community educator at Day One where I teach young people how to form healthy, safe relationships and prevent dating violence. Dating can be such a complex journey for a lot of young people, as they’re experiencing romance for the first time. From dealing with peer pressure to puberty to developing their identity–adding dating into the mix can certainly take a toll on a teen's mental health. As an educator, I’m passionate about giving teens the tools they need to help them thrive in their relationships as they transition into adulthood.

EVC: The 2000 youth-produced film, “The Rules of Dating” addresses youth views on dating, including the societal rules that shape them. How do gender norms inform dating cultures?

SV: Gender roles and the gender binary have been ingrained in our society since colonization. From a young age, children are often socialized to conform to certain gender expectations, including how they should dress, speak, and approach dating. Young folks who identify as men have been expected to take on the role of pursuer, while femmes are often encouraged to be passive and wait for men to make the first move. These gender norms can limit young people’s autonomy in dating, which can perpetuate harmful behaviors such as lack of respect, trying to control their partner, and sexual violence. For cisgender folks as well as for those who identify as LGBTQ+, there could be expectations to be overly sexual, communicate in a very docile or aggressive way, and quickly progress the relationship. Because gender norms don’t make space for the nuances or complexities of each individual that enters a romantic relationship, teens may be pressured or coerced by their partners to conform to fatphobic beauty standards, to closely perform their respective gender roles, or to have sex even if they don’t want to in order to please their partners. All of this can lead to unhealthy and abusive relationships as well as emotional, physical, and mental distress.

EVC: When it comes to teen dating, what makes for toxic and healthy relationships?

SV: Toxic behaviors in romantic relationships should be recognized and addressed early on. These may include gaslighting, extreme jealousy, frequent outbursts of anger, lack of respect for a partners’ boundaries, or attempts to isolate a partner from their friends and family. While jealousy is a natural feeling that comes up for most people, mass media has normalized possessiveness and excessive jealousy as signs that our partner loves us deeply. However, we must note that how jealousy is communicated to our partners matters. Setting up healthy boundaries around feelings of jealousy is a completely different experience from threatening and yelling at your partner because they feel jealous. Excessive threatening, yelling, belittling, or any type of verbal and physical abuse against partners due to jealousy is a sign of an unhealthy or abusive relationship, not a sign of love. Love shouldn’t be abusive or extremely unhealthy. It’s crucial to remember that our partners were and still are their own independent individuals with hobbies, friends, family, responsibilities, and dreams and that they must continue to invest in this whether they’re in romantic relationships or not. Relationships are meant to be interdependent not codependent. If teens are experiencing these toxic behaviors, I encourage them to seek support from trusted adults, such as parents, teachers, or counselors.

A healthy teen relationship should be mutually fulfilling and contribute to their overall well-being and happiness. It consists of critically examining and questioning gender roles and understanding that everyone, regardless of sex or gender, should have the agency to express themselves authentically in relationships. Creating a safe space for partners to be authentically themselves by using loving and affirming language is crucial. Promoting healthy relationship skills such as conflict resolution, active listening, expressing vulnerability without fear of judgments or retaliation, and emotional intelligence will help strengthen trust in a relationship. In addition, using and respecting your partner’s pronouns, encouraging open communication, enthusiastic consent and boundaries will help a relationship last. In a healthy relationship, both or all partners support each other's goals and aspirations, have healthy boundaries, and engage in activities that bring them joy and fulfillment.

EVC: Since the film’s release in 2000 and the rise of online dating, what has or hasn’t changed about youth dating cultures?

SV: Since the year 2000, I have witnessed significant changes in dating culture, particularly with the rise of online dating apps. Online dating has provided a new way for young people to meet and connect with potential partners, offering a broader pool of options and opportunities for romantic connections. It has also provided a platform for individuals to express their identity and preferences more openly. On the other hand, challenges such as navigating through ghosting, dealing with online harassment or catfishing, and managing expectations have emerged as well. However, while the accessibility and convenience of online dating have changed how youth approach dating, some aspects of dating culture have remained consistent. The need for fun, trust, and respect continue to be what teens are looking for in relationships. With the rise of the internet, there is a higher expectation for young teens to conform to unrealistic beauty standards, often at times leading teens to use physical attractiveness or relying on a “passionate spark”as the only measure for a healthy relationship rather than how they’re being treated.

EVC: What are some common challenges teenagers face when dating? What advice would you give a young person about to enter their first romantic relationship?

SV: Common challenges teens face when dating include navigating complex emotions with little to no guidance, peer pressure, having to conform to societal norms, communication issues, and struggling with establishing healthy boundaries. Additionally, issues related to consent, safe sex, and understanding what a healthy relationship looks like can be daunting for young people.

My advice to a young person about to enter their first romantic relationship would be to prioritize open and honest communication, establish healthy boundaries, and have mutual respect and consent. It's important to remember that it's okay to say no to your partner. Building trust and maintaining healthy communication require frequently checking in with your partner's thoughts and emotions. I’d also suggest young people practice safe sex, become aware of the warning signs of an unhealthy or abusive relationship, know how to deal with romantic rejection, and that they seek guidance from trusted adults. Lastly, be yourself instead of trying to become the person you think your crush or partner will like. Not only does this come off as inauthentic but it’s also robbing you of the experience of exploring and developing your own passions, identity, and needs in romantic relationships. Focus on whether you like the person and your compatibility with them instead of trying to act and look differently in order to please or be with them. Lastly, I recommend all teens take a gentle and assertive approach when asking someone out, particularly for young girls and femmes. Do this without being concerned about being seen as “too desperate” or “too masculine.” Try to avoid labeling qualities like assertiveness and confidence as “masculine” and active listening as “feminine” because every individual regardless of sex and gender will need these qualities in order to sustain and thrive in relationships.

Interested in hearing more from Sam Verdugo?

Join EVC on April 27th from 6-7:30 PM ET at Docs & Dialogue, a virtual film screening and community dialogue on teen relationships and dating cultures. EVC’s young people will be screening the 2000 youth-produced documentary “The Rules of Dating”. This film comedically explores the gender norms and unwritten societal rules that New York City youth use to navigate romance.

Docs & Dialogue will be hosted by EVC alum Hailey DelValle, with featured guests Sam Verdugo and Zomely Grullon, a Senior ERAPP Educator at Day One.


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