Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Eight Reasons to Empower Girls in Schools

By Lyn Mikel Brown — October 11, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

If ever there was a time to unpack the complexities of gender and power with K-12 students—girls in particular—this is it. In the past few months, public attention in the United States has moved seamlessly from sexist commentary in the Olympic Games, to a major news-channel executive’s resignation over sexual-harassment allegations, to a presidential campaign that offers up daily helpings of misogyny. Clearly, the way educators prepare girls to be leaders isn’t enough if those girls land a seat at a table with the likes of former Fox News CEO and chairman Roger Ailes. They need more from us than cheerleading and talk of grit. They need encouragement to think critically about the world around them, the opportunities available to them, and the struggles and exclusion they may face.

As a professor of education who has worked for decades to empower girls of all ages, I co-founded three “girl fueled” activist organizations: Hardy Girls Healthy Women, based in Waterville, Maine, and the online sites SPARK Movement and Powered By Girl. This work has left me no doubt that K-12 girls benefit enormously from opportunities to make their environments more just and caring places.

Eight Reasons to Empower Girls in Schools: Educators should embrace the educational value of youth activism, especially for female students, urges Colby College’s Lyn Mikel Brown.

I work with elementary school girls who map their schools for safe and unsafe spaces; middle school girls who protest dress codes; and high school girls who advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms. Schools benefit in many ways from visible student engagement, but whether or not such activism yields tangible results, simply participating has a powerful and positive impact on students. Here are eight reasons why educators should help engage girls in activism:

1. Activism moves girls from passive consumers to active citizens. Media and marketers sell girls a pop-culture version of power in which their primary project is to fix themselves. Inherent in activism is the challenge to look beneath the surface of outside messages and no longer accept them at face value. Girls who question the justifications of media and policies laced with sexism, racism, and homophobia are psychologically healthier.

2. Activism invites girls to voice their thoughts and feelings. Plugging girls into prefabricated civic-engagement programs and encouraging them to succeed on someone else’s terms fails to give them what they need most: practice developing and voicing their own solutions to problems, trusting their own perspectives, and experiencing what it means to stay true to themselves even as they risk dissent.

Participating in girl-led activism helps to create a school climate where gender diversity is visible and valued."

3. Activism makes schools safer for all girls. Participating in girl-led activism helps to create a school climate where gender diversity is visible and valued. When more girls challenge qualities traditionally associated with girlhood (such as compliance) with assertiveness and agency, they make schools safer for all girls to do the same. When more girls publicly say what they think, it opens up space for others—especially for those who, because of race and social class, are more likely to be discounted or disciplined for outspokenness or resistance.

4. Activism affirms the power of diversity. Effective change requires a coalition of people from different backgrounds, experiences, and skills who share passion for a common cause. Girls engaged in activist work see how differences in social class, race and ethnicity, disability, and gender expression alter their individual experiences with sexism. They come to recognize how, together, they can create more effective and inclusive solutions.

5. Activism helps girls negotiate a “culture of power.” To advocate for change successfully, girls must think about how their school system operates and who has the power to make change. When girls are aware of existing networks of power, it enables them to communicate effectively and makes space for their opinions in school and beyond.

6. Activism invites belonging and creates trusting relationships. Engaging in activism gives girls a sense of community and brings them together for a shared cause. This can help dissolve what is often a culture of distrust between girls, as well as subsequent bullying. Activism decreases girls’ feelings of alienation by offering them connections that help counter all the justified reasons they can feel numb, angry, alienated, and powerless.

7. Activism is an important form of supplementary education. Activist work can offer students on the margins educational opportunities that are often readily available to more-privileged students. Students can identify a problem they care about and study it deeply, brainstorm solutions, and engage in student-led discussions and exploration of solutions.

8. Activism is the most effective form of leadership training. Through activist work, girls learn to lead by actually leading and fully participating in what matters from the ground up. There are opportunities to think critically, speak up, and take risks—all leadership skills. They aren’t learning skills to take advantage of some future possibility, but rather practicing leadership in the present tense.

Supporting student activism is not easy work. It disrupts assumptions of how students—especially girl students—should behave. It asks adults to see youths as experts on their own experience and to recognize the value of student-generated solutions.

But the best way to start integrating youth activism into classrooms is the simplest: an honest conversation about what students experience as unfair in school or society and open conversations about possible solutions. Above all, our job as educators is to help our students see and remove obstacles to their freedom. We must encourage them to play an active role in shaping their education and their future.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2016 edition of Education Week as A Field Guide to Girl Empowerment

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Stronger Together: Integrating Social and Emotional Supports in an Equity-Based MTSS
Decades of research have shown that when schools implement evidence-based social and emotional supports and programming, academic achievement increases. The impact of these supports – particularly for students of color, students from low-income communities, English
Content provided by Illuminate Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Students Embrace a Wide Range of Gender Identities. Most School Data Systems Don't
Districts like Philadelphia aren't waiting for the federal government to make their student information systems more inclusive.
9 min read
Illustration showing 4 individuals next to their pronouns (he/him, they/them, and she/her)
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Equity & Diversity Teachers Are Divided on Teaching LGBTQ Topics
Educators say a dearth of curriculum, lack of training, and fear of getting it wrong can cause hesitation to teach about LGBTQ topics.
7 min read
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP
Equity & Diversity 'You're Not Going To Teach About Race. You're Going To Go Ahead and Keep Your Job.'
Educators in Oklahoma say a new law restricting classroom conversations about race and racism is causing widespread confusion and fear.
6 min read
Regan Killackey, AP English Language & AP Research teacher at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Okla., in his classroom on Nov. 15, 2021
Regan Killackey, AP English Language & AP Research teacher at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Okla., in his classroom.
Brett Deering for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Opinion The Hidden Toll of Vaccine Mandates on Students of Color: What to Know
If we don’t take care, vaccine mandates could threaten a return to Jim Crow era schooling.
Tyrone C. Howard
4 min read
Illustration of broken umbrella only stopping some of the rain
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty