BY LAURA RUOCCO
If New Jersey superindendent of school Charles T. Epps Jr.’s recent comments are any indication, school aged girls can’t always currently rely on their school officials to have their back. That’s why the work that Girls for Gender Equity is doing is so important. Girls for Gender Equity is a Brooklyn-based grassroots organization committed to improving the physical, psychological, social and economic development of girls and women. Organization members Joanne N. Smith, Mandy Van Deven, and Meghan Huppuch recently authored the book Hey, Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets, which chronicles the past 10 years of GGE’s existence.
Hey, Shorty! is a quick read, but packs in tons of inspiring stories and useful info for folks in the anti-street harassment movement, students, school faculty, parents, and people of any age who care about the safety and empowerment of young girls. The book details the early days of GGE, which Joanne founded as an after school program using sports and physical education as a means to empower young girls of color. Through her first afternoons with the girls, as well as in response to incidences of sexual assault in the neighborhood, Joanne quickly started the difficult task of working with the girls to open up conversations on gender stereotypes and unlearn some of the oppressive notions the girls had already learned at their young age about what it means to be a girl in a sexist society.
In response to community asserted need for education and support around sexual harassment in schools, GGE organized Sisters In Strength. Sisters in Strength is a group of youth organizers who work to educate their peers and the larger community on sexual harassment and advocate for the enforcement of sexual harassment policies in New York City schools. They have spent years doing extensive research throughout the NYC school system to get specific numbers on the who, what, where, and how of sexual harassment in schools. Their surveys showed that sexual harassment is rampant in schools, and that kids need (and want!) more education support from peers and teachers in order to recognize and report it.
I recently attended a book launch for Hey Shorty! at Bluestockings in New York City, where a full house gathered to celebrate the past 10 years of GGE’s hard work. Sisters In Strength interns past and present read quotes from the book, and answered questions from the audience. The girls were confident and articulate in a way that made me wish I had been involved in feminist organizing when I was in high school. What they are asking for is simple and clear, yet after years of doing research and raising awareness, the Department of Education has yet to meet SIS’ demand for a Title IX point person in every school, whose name and service they provide is clearly visible to students. Title IX states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…” Yet without clear implementation of this law, girls are denied the benefits of education and subjected to discrimination every day in schools rife with sexual harassment. SIS organizers talked about the disappointment they felt after a lackluster response from the DOE during their last visit, but is already scheduled to meet with officials again and vows to use their “anger as motivation” to continue working with the DOE towards safer schools, not just for themselves, but for the next generation of girls as well.
When an audience member asked how we could best support their work, Sisters in Strength emphasized the importance of raising awareness about sexual harassment. “You hear this phrase so many times, but live oblivious to it”, said one girl in describing how GGE helped her realize that the unwanted sexualized attention she and her peers received (i.e: booty tag, where boys chase girls to grab their butts during recess) was something they didn’t have to take.
So support their hard work by checking out Hey Shorty! and help Girls For Gender Equity create a world where gender equality is the norm!