Senior Spotlight: Emi Gacaj

Emi speaks about her experience in the Spanish Debate League at the Governor’s Mansion in 2019.

Emi’s work with the body org is breaking the stigma on essential health topics for teens. 


Emi Gacaj, senior at Southwest High School, is a long-time Spanish debater and advocate for youth wellness in the Twin Cities. Last spring, she presented her topic on “Sexual Re-Education” at the Minnesota Alliance for Youth Educational Leadership Summit, where she explained her work as a peer-to-peer educator on sexual health topics for teens. She founded the body org, which provides health and wellness resources through a peer-to-peer education model. 


Read on to learn more about Emi’s experiences in bringing resources and info on tough topics to teens. 

How does your experience in debate tie to the leadership work you’re doing? 


“This is my sixth year as a Spanish debater. Spanish debate is my thing- it’s my jam. I love it! It really, really has not only has it helped my understanding and comprehension of Spanish, but it’s also helped my speaking. Debate makes you more confident in any situation.”


How did you become interested in sexual and reproductive health?


“I have always been interested and involved in sexual reproductive health. When I was little, I would just get my hands on whatever books I could find and, somehow I stumbled onto pregnancy books. I founded the body org, I work as a full spectrum birth doula, and I’m super involved in the sexual health and reproductive health community in Minneapolis. I got into the birth work community and began really studying and understanding the practice my sophomore year. This was also the time the body org happened.”

Tell us more about the body org and your role. 


“Our mission is providing youth wellness supplies, support, and services, by teens and for teens. My title is founder, but founder is kind of, like, a weird word for me because we’re a group of people working together, to better access to sexual wellness whether through products, education, and connecting people to resources and support. The only piece that makes me really a founder is that I’m doing a lot of the organization, getting us connected to things and keeping the pieces moving. It’s great group of people working together and I’m lucky to be a part of it. I apply for grants and do a lot of the shipping and distribution of products. I really want other team members to have the time and the space to do creative things.


I’m also a member of the Minneapolis Teen Health Council, which works with the school based clinics to connect with youth in different communities, especially in the Minneapolis schools. We do peer education and outreach, and I’ve worked with Planned Parenthood in a similar role. I’m also currently an intern with ShiftMN which is with LGBTQ+ and community health podcasts.”

What obstacles have you faced in setting up your organization, and how have you overcome them? 


“Truthfully, it’s hard to organize a group of 25+ youth. People have busy schedules and lives, and we’re living in the middle of a pandemic. It’s really hard to get everyone in a collective space, on the same page, and get everyone listening. The way we’ve overcome this is just our collective passion. I want to make this happen. We’ve rallied people together using different tools like Google Classroom to get people working on the same projects at the same time. It’s a work in progress. 


I’m also working on the idea that, ‘I’m not your boss, I’m not here to be your boss, I don’t want to be your boss. I’m your peer and I want to be.’ I don’t want people to feel like I’m their teacher or I’m requiring things from them. I want people to do organizing work in a safe and comforting space.”


How do you communicate with teens who might feel uncomfortable with the subject matter? 


“The first thing is setting an example. A lot of the body org members are very open about sexuality, sexual wellness, and sexual health topics, even on their personal pages.


Let’s break the stigma. These are not topics that are embarrassing. It’s a part of every single one of our lives. We all have bodies. We may have different needs for our bodies, and it’s totally okay to ask for help or to get your needs met. 


Another thing we do a lot (and I think it’s a very Gen Z thing) is using a lot of hearts and emojis and lower case letters. We feel like it shows that we’re teens too. We try to introduce ourselves in the chat like ‘Hey, you’re speaking to Emi.’ We try to make people feel safe and supported when we’re communicating.


Peer education is at the core of what we do. Whatever people need we’re here to be a voice for them and be a place where they can come and speak to about menstrual products, sexual health items, gender affirming clothing and kits, or even fentanyl testing strips.The idea that it’s teens doing this for other teens is really important and vital. There are resources out there, but they’re created by adults. That can be scary when these are such intimate topics. We do a lot of work into making sure that we’re getting information out there. Social media is one big part of that, but being at events, giving out flyers, and stuff like that is really important, too.”


What is your advice to other students who would be interested in starting their own organization?


“Find your niche. There’s so much to work on in this world. Find your own little place where you can make change that is different from what anyone else is doing. Always, of course, know your people. Know your community. Get involved. A huge part of getting the body org to happen was getting to know the school based clinics and knowing all the different groups that are working on sexual health in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the U.S- from there, you can move forward and make stuff happen.”


What have you learned from the experience? 


“Youth are really inspiring, and can do so much. It’s my honor to be able to facilitate this and be a part of this group, and see people’s ideas and creativity come out when they’re given a space to do so. That’s probably the biggest and most impactful thing I’ve learned.”


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