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Reflections on Red Ribbon Week

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

When my daughter came home from kindergarten talking about Red Ribbon Week, I was delighted. I proudly showed her my collection of red ribbons, proud that a consciousness-raising symbol signifying AIDS awareness had made its way into public school classrooms. No, she explained, this Red Ribbon Week was different. She had never heard of AIDS. This Red Ribbon Week was about drugs. “But,” she said, “We don’t really learn about them. We just get told “DON’T DO DRUGS!”

When she showed me her Red Ribbon Week handouts, I was bemused by the big red X’s over coloring-book line drawings of wine bottles and beer cans, syringes, pill bottles, and cigarettes. I was mildly amused at her ferocious response to my very occasional glass of wine with dinner in the post-Red Ribbon Week weeks. My own parents were tee-totalers, so I hold on to my increasingly rare social drinking as a form of no-longer-precocious resistance to authority. But as a drug policy historian, I began tugging at the thread of the Red Ribbon.

Red Ribbon Week is an 8-day celebration of drug awareness occurring in most U. S. school districts from October 20 to 28. Student activities vary from district to district. Dedicated to the memory of slain U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena, Red Ribbon Week focuses on the negative consequences of drug use … starting in kindergarten and going up through high school. The launch of Red Ribbon Week is attributed to Henry Lozano, Camarena’s buddy at their high school in Calexico, California. Lozano was a 1974 graduate of a faith-based treatment program called Teen Challenge, started back in the late 1950s by a Pennsylvania preacher, David Wilkerson, as a Christian outreach to troubled teens.

Teen Challenge is a religiously-oriented therapeutic community. Along with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, Wilkerson wrote the influential book, The Cross and the Switchblade (1962), about the first five years of his urban ministry in New York City. That year Wilkerson started a religious/vocational school on a Pennsylvania farm and the Teen Challenge Institute of Missions on an estate in Rhinebeck, New York, where “junkies get help from country lawns, the Bible, and baptism.” T. C. was profiled by author James A. Mills and photographer Bill Eppridge in the March 1965 issue of Life Magazine.

Wilkerson took his ministry not only to “young hoodlums and their ‘debs’ and ‘dolls’, often mixing Scripture and the jargon of the junkie in the same sentence,” but began to reach out to middle-class ‘goodniks’ (as opposed to ‘beatniks’). His goal was to prevent bored youth from turning to alcohol, drugs, and homosexuality by reaching people on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. In 1960 his mother, Ann Wilkerson, helped start coffee-house ministries “The Catacomb Chapel” and “The Lost Coin.” These activities were intended to create a “spiritual awakening involving millions of youth,” according to the Kingston Daily Freeman of Kingston, New York.

Working on urban and rural fronts, Teen Challenge expanded to the West Coast, where Henry Lozano graduated from a T. C. program in 1974. After Camarena’s 1985 death, Lozano was inspired to work with a teacher at his alma mater and the wife of Congressman Duncan Hunter of the 45th Congressional District. In 1985 members of the ‘Camarena Clubs’ signed an abstinence pledge that read as follows:

“We, the undersigned students of Calexico High School pledge; in the honor of Enrique Camarena, and all others risking their lives, to stop the flow of drugs, to say no to drugs, to encourage my friends to say no to drugs, to provide support to others who use drugs to help them learn to say no to drugs, to become educated on the dangers of drugs, and provide this information to my community.”

In spring 1985 the Camarena Club presented their pledge to First Lady Nancy Reagan at a national conference. Her ‘Just Say No’ campaign was underway, built on the base of an antidrug parents’ movement gathering steam since the late 1970s. In 1986, Californians for a Drug-Free Youth, with Lozano on their board, celebrated the first statewide Red Ribbon Week. Two years later President Reagan and the First Lady served as honorary chairpersons of the first national Red Ribbon Week, declared as such by an act of Congress in 1988.

Fast forward to 2011. Lozano is at the helm of the LA County Teen Challenge and Urban Ministries Initiatives. Following in Wilkerson’s footsteps, he founds a Teen Challenge Ministry Institute in southern California. David Wilkerson dies in a motor vehicle accident. And the DEA estimates that 80 million Americans participated in Red Ribbon Week.

Well-intentioned American youth, parents, police, teachers, and principals will say ‘yes’ to Red Ribbon Week this year. One parent who says no does little to dislodge the social forces that stage Red Ribbon Week in my daughter’s public elementary school. I am tempted to Just Say No. I am tempted to argue that the legacy of Red Ribbon Week is to spread the gospel of non-reality-based drug prevention and abstinence education. I am tempted to argue that Red Ribbon Week forecloses reality-based messages about moderation, responsible use, and harm reduction as alternatives to abstinence. I am tempted to question whether a faith-based ministry that categorized homosexuality along with drugs and alcohol as ‘teen challenges’ in the 1950s and ‘60s is an adequate or appropriate basis for responding to today’s challenges. But scholarship and common sense are weak tools in the face of the potent combination of Church and State that brings Red Ribbon Week home to us all – whether we like it or not.

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