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