They’re called Sisters in Strength (SIS) and the seven teenagers—ages 17 to 19—sitting around the conference table are eager to talk.
Natasha, a senior at Midwood High School, gets the ball rolling: “It’s upsetting when you have a 35-year-old saggy guy staring at you or asking for your number. It makes you feel like less than a real person, like they see you as their entertainment.”
Andrenkia, 19, chimes in: “If you wear leggings and a shirt guys think that you’re showing off your butt or legs and they harass you. But if it makes you feel beautiful, and you feel good about what you’re wearing, that’s all you’re thinking about. You’re not thinking about harassment when you get dressed in the morning. You’re thinking, ‘This looks cute on me.’”
One after another the girls share their experiences. Alicia recalls a man grabbing her backside when she was 16. Others report comments they’ve heard when walking down the street, from the ubiquitous “Yo, mami” to “12 and over, bend her over” and “after 12, she’s lunch.”
The fury in the room is palpable as incidents are called out, but this is neither a bitch session nor a consciousness-raising group. Although SIS—a highly competitive paid internship program for up to 10 girls a year—serves both functions, the organization is a program of Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), a nearly 10-year-old Brooklyn-based intergenerational group that empowers girls and young women to fight for social and gender justice.
According to the group’s website, “GGE acts as a catalyst for change to improve gender and race relations and socioeconomic conditions for our most vulnerable youth and communities of color.” Although this is an admittedly tall order, GGE has already made strides on both the micro and macro levels. They’ve not only created resources to help teens and youth advocates fight sexual harassment—the most recent, a book called Hey, Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets, was published by the Feminist Press in April—they’ve also pushed the Department of Education to take sexual harassment seriously.
Among other efforts, the GGE runs the Urban Leaders Academy (ULA) at Middle School 61 in Crown Heights. The program, free after-school mentoring and programming funded by the Office of Children and Family Services, offers social and emotional learning to 60 boys and girls a year. SIS interns assist adult teachers at ULA, educating participants not only in standard academic and athletic subjects, but also in the rudiments of conflict resolution, organizing against harassment, and community service. Next year, the ULA model will be replicated in three Canarsie middle schools.
Each SIS participant works at MS 61 once or twice a week, and while the girls boast about their involvement with the kids, it is their work on sexual harassment that gets their dander up. To a one, they can recite chapter-and-verse of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972: “No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefit of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” According to the regulation, each of NYC’s 1,400 schools is mandated to have a Title IX coordinator; a person to take complaints, investigate allegations, and punish offenders. But that’s not what happens.
As the lead organization in the 20-member Coalition for Gender Equity in Schools, back in January SIS interns made cold calls to identify the responsible person in more than 200 elementary, junior, and senior high school programs. “We simply asked the person who answered the phone, “Do you have a Title IX coordinator?” SIS member Danielle begins. “Some didn’t know what that was. Some cussed us out, and some hung up on us,” she says.
Enraged by the reaction their calls elicited, GGE organizer Meghan Huppuch contacted colleagues at the Department of Education (DOE) and scheduled a meeting to discuss the problem. They met on February 23.
SIS came to DOE armed with facts on the magnitude of the problem. In their arsenal were responses from 1,189 students—male, female, and transgender—to queries about whether, when, where, and how they’d experienced harassment. The responses came from 90 schools in four boroughs, all of them collected, analyzed, and compiled by a SIS cohort several years earlier. Among the key findings: “Sexual harassment was rampant and therefore completely normalized.” Comments from SLAM books—journals that allow students to write about their experiences anonymously—captured individual stories about everything from suggestive gesturing to rape. These were also presented to the DOE.
The SIS interns say that the DOE’s response was disappointing and heads nod as Natasha describes the confab: “We met with two people from the Office of School and Youth Development, the staff responsible for developing the school discipline code and for making sure training on Title IX happens,” she begins. “They didn’t seem familiar with the Title IX coordinator’s responsibilities. They talked around the problem and seemed more concerned with what they were doing right than with what still needed to be done.”
A second meeting with DOE took place in late April. This time SIS activists were accompanied by teachers and parents from the Coalition for Gender Equity in Schools. Their demands were once again straightforward: First, coalition members want each school’s website to include the name of the Title IX coordinator. Secondly, they want students to have input in selecting the coordinator so that they’re comfortable confiding in him or her. They also want the DOE to train school personnel in how to identify and intervene when sexual harassment happens.
As they describe their tussles with the DOE, the girls become audibly impassioned. Voices get louder as one participant after another begins to question why laws and regulations are passed only to languish unenforced. They wonder aloud: Could it be that the law is simply one tool among many? What role should community mobilization play in enforcing rules about sexual propriety and in stopping harassment? Lastly, should they allow themselves to get excited about the passage of the Dignity for All Students Act, or DASA, in New York State? Although DASA is not scheduled to take effect until 2012, it will purportedly offer “protections from bullying and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.” Still, SIS members acknowledge that the law will be the third regulation to require schools to appoint a staff member to receive complaints and follow through.
Passions continue to flare as the girls decry the bureaucratic battering they’ve encountered. At the same time, they need no prompting to crow about SIS and what they’ve learned since arriving at GGE last August.
“This is a safe space,” Danielle begins.
“You can say what you feel without being attacked,” Terrin adds.
“I learned that I didn’t have to pretend that I didn’t hear the comments of men and boys,” says Fahmida. “I learned to say, ‘Listen, I don’t like what you’re doing to me.’”
Each SIS member is paired with a student pursuing a Master of Social Work degree and receives one-on-one support and counseling throughout the academic year. “We use a holistic model,” says Erin Baer, an MSW candidate from Fordham University. “Self-care is a first priority and we help with everything from personal issues to writing a resume to filling out college applications and financial aid forms.”
“SIS validates the fact that young women and women of color should be able to take up space to talk about sexual harassment and what it leads to,” says GGE founder Joanne N. Smith. “The more disempowered you feel, the more likely you are to keep quiet about abuse. If you later drop out of school, you’re more likely to get pregnant if you’re a girl or go to prison if you’re a boy. If you can talk about things that have happened, it impacts the layers of gender-based violence. Learning to speak up—to say STOP—lends itself to getting out of bad relationships and teaches you to follow your gut. It gives you the confidence not to go to that party or get into that car.”
As for the DOE, Smith urges the chancellor as well as classroom teachers to take counsel from GGE’s findings. “Feeling powerless contributes to young people making unhealthy choices about their bodies, dropping out of school, or attempting suicide,” she says.
Let’s hope Chancellor Walcott is paying attention.
Girls for Gender Equity is located at 30 Third Avenue, #104, Brooklyn, NY 11217. PH: 917.647.3157, www.ggenyc.org.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader