Last week, as part of the Hey, Shorty! Virtual Book Tour, we reviewed this excellent guide for community organizing, activism and awareness against school and street sexual harassment, created to document the work of Girls for Gender Equity, a grass root organization that seeks to empower teen women of color in New York.
Today, authors Joanne N. Smith, Mandy Van Deven and Meghan Huppuch have graciously answered our questions about the book, the work they do and how to better help teens and young people.
Can you give us a brief introduction of who you are and why you got involved in GGE and eventually in producing this book?
Joanne: I’m the founder and executive director of Girls for Gender Equity, an intergenerational, grassroots, nonprofit organization located in Brooklyn, NY that is committed to the physical, psychological, social, and economic development of girls and women. I started the organization in the fall of 2001 to be a catalyst for community-based change.
Mandy: My being hired by Joanne in the fall of 2003 was a moment of begrudging serendipity that completely changed my life. I came on as a part-time community organizer just a few weeks after moving to New York from Georgia, and although I had no desire at the time to work in schools or with youth, I knew the job would be challenging, that I liked my new boss, and that I supported the organization’s mission. A year and a half later, I was the Director of Community Organizing and started Sisters in Strength, the teen women’s community organizing group that launched GGE’s anti-sexual harassment work. Then three years after that I had just left my position as Associate Director of GGE to move to India when I get a call from Joanne and Meghan asking me to co-write Hey, Shorty! Now I’m helping them with strategic communications, so you can see I just can’t seem to stay away!
Meghan: I came to GGE in January 2008 to complete an internship for my undergraduate work at New York University and became the Director of Community Organizing after I graduated that spring. At that time I helped form the Coalition for Gender Equity in Schools, which is a group of organizations, educators, parents and youth who come together to combat sexual harassment in schools. After our first meeting in October 2008, we were approached by Feminist Press to create a guidebook about the work we were doing, and over the last two years we’ve worked with them to figure out what was relevant about the participatory action research conducted by Sisters in Strength and the community organizing we’ve done. It was a really difficult process because ten years of work is a lot to sift through. In the end we were able to create something that is more than a guide for supporting individuals; it also speaks to doing work in communities and can be adopted by folks anywhere.
Now, this book is very specific to your experiences working in New York, and more specifically, with teen women of color. As I said in my review, I believe the book is an excellent toolkit for any American urban youth oriented community initiative. Do you have any tips for people who might consider starting a similar initiative some place else?
Joanne: Hey, Shorty! provides a framework and tools to show people what can happen when you offer girls support and nurture their strengths so that they can be active change agents within their communities. This framework works well for GGE and our sexual harassment campaign, but can be used with a lot of other not-for-profits and community groups interested in including youth in social change movements. Violence against women and girls isn’t just a black thing or an urban thing; this is something that occurs everywhere, nationally and internationally, in all communities across all socio-economic classes. So, it was very important to us as an organization to not only tell our story but to offer a tool to our allies so that we can see this work replicated. Hopefully in being honest about our challenges and mistakes, others won’t have to stumble in the ways we had to. I also want to stress that we see our work as *collective* work. Don’t look at Hey, Shorty! as though it is THE answer, because it’s not. This is ONE model among many and we hope this is an opportunity to build with other organizations doing anti-violence work.
Meghan: We talk a lot at GGE about how the definition of sexual harassment is up to the individuals who are experiencing unwanted sexual advances, that they are the ones who get to name the behaviors and say, “This is what sexual harassment is for me. I feel unsafe. I feel uncomfortable. And I want you to stop.” It’s also up to them to decide what they feel most safe doing about it. Our solution for this issue is not to say that there should be more police or more school safety agents, but that the individuals who are experiencing this need to be given the support to define sexual harassment for themselves and choose what the best course of action is to re-instill their sense of safety.
Something you definitely think you could have done better in the beginning?
Mandy: It’s really important to broaden the traditional idea of sexual harassment being a so-called women’s issue. Men and boys are affected by this issue, not just because they are seen as perpetrators but also because they are victims. Gay, bisexual, and transgender men are frequently verbally and physically abused by their classmates, and sometimes teachers and school staff as well. Straight boys are also subjected to various forms of sexual humiliation by their peers. 71% of GGE’s survey respondents who were male-identified said they’d been sexually harassed at school. So, it’s really important to look at sexual harassment in different contexts and understand that this issue is more complex than simply being called a name. It’s about how sexual harassment is related to things like mental heath, educational opportunity, race, class, sexuality, religion, and nationality. Because the context will determine the strategies that make the most sense to address it. What works for suburbia might not work for rural schools, so we need to think beyond a one-size-fits-al model.
Something you consider an absolute must while starting a new similar project?
Mandy: It’s a well worn social work mantra, but you really have to meet people where they’re at… especially young people. Credit for the success of Sisters in Strength does not belong to me, Meghan, or Joanne; it belongs to the more than fifty young women of color who have been a part of shaping the program over the past six years. On the first day of the program, I didn’t come in with an agenda or a curriculum. I came in with a blank notebook and a question: what do you want from a weekly program that is just for girls? Then I listened and did what the young women asked me to do. So, I urge other adults to do the same. Let the youth lead because they are the experts in their own experience and they will tell you what they need if you’re just willing to listen.
As I was reading the book, I got increasingly frustrated at the attitudes displayed by school staff and some of the teachers. Now, I am sure this problem is not unique to the schools you worked with, and I would imagine it to be pervasive.
Mandy: I think we sometimes forget that teachers are flawed human beings and a product of the ills of our society just like anyone else. Having worked alongside them for many years, I know that most of them truly do have the students’ well being in the front of their minds, but they’re bound by bureaucratic failures and the fear of putting their job in jeopardy. Many teachers are simply not equipped to deal with certain issues, like sexual harassment, and they’re worried that the administration won’t have their back because they’ve received little to no training on Title IX or harassment policies and grievance procedures, and they’re not trained counselors either. That said, although this is a systemic issue, there is a level of personal accountability and teachers can prioritize students’ safety by doing things like establishing classroom codes of conduct that use the language of their own Department of Education’s anti-sexual harassment policy and bringing in community experts to speak to students about discrimination.
How do you think that parents could influence a change in this attitude (of victim blaming, of refusal to intervene, etc.)? Is there anything parents of children who are victims of sexual harassment and/ or bullying can do to get the schools to pay attention and address the issue?
Joanne: One thing we want to come from this is to begin a dialogue in schools that looks at education comprehensively. We wanted the book to be a starting place for folks to talk about their experiences and be real with where they’re coming from, which makes it possible to work with them to move to a better place. Sexual harassment is so normalized in and out of schools that it’s seen as just another obstacle girls and LGBTQ youth are required to deal with, but if we start to look at how this problem is learned from the time we are children then we start to see this as a problem we can actually do something about. In the communities we work with, parents don’t always have the luxury of working jobs that allow them to be active in their child’s school or come to the school during the day to file a complaint with a principal. But they can encourage their children not to tolerate inappropriate behavior, blamelessly believe them if they say they’ve been harassed, and ask community members for help.
The Internet makes it possible for isolated teens and young people to access information. Some of them take to blogs or social media to find like minded companionship and friendships. But also, young people are smart in finding resources and reading material, so, with that in mind, are there any specific books or website recommendations you might have for those teens who might be experiencing harassment and would like to read on the subject or learn about coping strategies? I am thinking of teens in areas where there are no support groups or do not necessarily have the possibility of reaching out.
Meghan: Unfortunately, we created Hey, Shorty! because there really aren’t a lot of accessible resources for young people on this issue, even on the internet, which is pretty incredible. And sometimes the internet is used as a platform for harassment, so it is important for people to be aware of this and proceed with caution. We certainly recommend the online resources of our allies and the organizations we work with in the Coalition for Gender Equity in Schools, as well as the Office of Civil Rights, StopStreetHarassment.com, and Beyond Beats and Rhymes by Byron Hurt. But really, there is no substitute for in-person support from friends and trusted adults. Once you open up about these issues, you tend to find that you’re not the only one struggling with them.
And last, but not least, GGE is a non profit organization which, I am sure, depends on volunteer efforts, donations and activist advocacy. Is there anything readers can do to support your work?
Mandy: I’m glad you asked because we’ve got a lot in the works to promote the book. We’re currently fundraising for Hey, Shorty! on the Road, a nationwide book tour to lead discussions about street harassment, sexual harassment in schools, and strategies for increasing the safety of girls, women, and LGBTQ individuals. Folks who donate get to choose from several rewards for different levels of support. Although we’d love people to buy the book, we’re also asking library card holders to request their public or university library purchase a copy of Hey, Shorty! so that folks with fewer financial means can read it — or buy a copy yourself and donate it!
As for supporting GGE, there is always a need for New Yorkers to share their time and talents by volunteering. We have long- and short-term opportunities, from photographing an event to designing a flyer to teaching classes or tutoring in our Urban Leaders Academy after-school program. Anyone who wants to stay informed about our work, events, and opportunities should follow us on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.
On behalf of Tiger Beatdown and our readers, I would like to thank Joanne, Mandy and Meghan for their incredible work and for their availability and support to answer our questions and make this interview possible.