Guest Post: From Little Red to Big Red: Becoming a Feminist in High School, Creating Change in College

Jenilssa Holguin

After being at LREI for four years, speaking about diversity and feminism became second nature to me. The classes that I took–such as Fierce and Fabulous: Feminist Women Writers, Artists, and Activists; Queer Identities: LGBT Literature and Film; and Memoir Writing–paired with the student diversity conferences that I attended, as well as the series of speakers that we were lucky to have at my school, all made issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality prevalent in my mind. During my years at Little Red, one of my teachers, Ileana Jiménez, helped me find myself, develop my feminist identity, and be proud of who I am. I learned to do diversity work in my everyday life.

When I got accepted to Cornell University I was ecstatic. It was my first choice, and I was going to be the first in my family to go to college. I thought,“It’s a huge school, so I am sure that I can find people who share my views on diversity, since Cornell is pretty diverse.” Boy, was I wrong! During my first weeks there, I noticed how racially segregated my field of hospitality management was as well as the University as a whole. I was taken by surprise when I saw that two clubs that I was interested in were completely segregated. One was all white, and the other was made up of all students of color. Naturally, I joined both, not only because I was interested in both clubs but also because I wanted to get at the root of the problem.

When I told members of the club with only students of color that I was applying for a position in the other club I was told, “People that are in this club either don’t get positions in that other club or they don’t like the other club.” Guess what? I was one of the few freshmen who secured leadership positions with both clubs and I loved the experience. I can trace my success directly to the LGBT literature and feminism classes that I took in high school because they prepared me to challenge society and the status quo. I observed that the segregation between the clubs was limiting many fellow students’ potential to become leaders and I had to do something so that all kinds of students could feel comfortable joining both clubs.

Jenilssa Holguin and Ileana Jiménez (Feminist Teacher), at Cornell.

During my second semester at Cornell, I took an Introduction to Feminist and Gender Studies class, thinking that I would find the people I was yearning to speak to and share my views with. When I joined this class, I discovered that my classmates were not yet ready to take the initiative that I wanted to take in college. We discussed texts that I had already read my junior year in high school in Ileana’s feminism class. In their attempt to analyze the texts, my classmates simply skimmed the surface and didn’t analyze the readings critically. They did not “squeeze all of the juice” from the texts as I had learned to do and had been doing for years with Ileana. Their observations were superficial and they did not analyze the overall problems and challenges that society’s strict gender roles create. I noticed that my thinking was deeper and more personal than that of others.

As a result, I was determined to find a feminist community at Cornell. I joined the cast of The Vagina Monologues, which is co-sponsored by Cornell’s Women’s Resource Center, searching for my people once again! The women in the cast were strong and independent-minded individuals. But during rehearsal, it was all about memorizing lines, and the bonding that I thought would occur didn’t. Once again, I didn’t find the group that I was looking for.

I did find a connection in a place that I was not expecting. I helped organize a speaker panel on discrimination in hospitality establishments, where we discussed the changes that need to happen in the industry. I was surprised and impressed that one of my classmates was able to invite Khadijah Farmer, who was thrown out of the women’s bathroom at the Caliente Cab Restaurant Company in New York in 2007 for her masculine appearance. For many of the hospitality students, this was the first time that they heard about this case. I knew all about the case as the restaurant happened to blocks be away from my high school and we had spent time discussing this incident in my LGBT literature and feminism classes. As a result, I was able to ask direct questions that further developed our conversation and understanding of the changes that need to happen both in the hospitality industry and in the world in general. The point of the panel was to discuss changes that my generation of hospitality leaders needs to make, and my questions helped students to think broadly about the changes that need to happen in our larger society.

The feminism and LGBT classes that I took at LREI prepared me to challenge the aspects of society that limit me as a woman of color. I learned that not all places are as open as Little Red, and that sometimes it is hard to be the only one somewhere that wants to discuss and challenge society. But the classes I took in high school have prepared to challenge what’s wrong even if others around me don’t feel inclined to do so.

I am going to use the toolbox that I was provided with at Little Red to mold and shape Big Red into what I want it to be for me. Cornell is too big to provide me with the intimate and inclusive environment that I had at LREI. What I must do is initiate discussions with the people around me to create a strong, diverse environment, and then perhaps certain aspects of Big Red can be similar to my high school. When I need to talk about these issues with someone who truly understands, I know that I can turn to Ileana for advice and motivation to keep fighting the good fight because her motivation to do the work that she does has made me become the fierce and fabulous woman I am today.

Jenilssa Holguin is entering her sophomore year at Cornell University. Follow her tweets here. Her guest post is a part of an ongoing series on the impact of teaching and learning feminism in high school.

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: From Little Red to Big Red: Becoming a Feminist in High School, Creating Change in College

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Jenilssa!

    It makes me glow to know that there are young feminists like yourself who are asking the right questions and leading by example when systems need to be shaken up. Your panel on discrimination in the hospitality industry is an excellent example of how you can apply your education from Little Red to the “real world.” I work in the employment and training field and I know first hand that employers are quick to dismiss important topics like discrimination because of their bottom lines. They need people like yourself to point out the importance.

    It also makes me glow to know that there are schools and teachers out there (like Little Red and Ileana) who are providing such great education. Where can I sign up to take high school over again?!

    I also had a similar experience to you during my undergrad years when I attended some Women’s Studies courses. All Women’s Studies students (and students from several other humanities classes) were required to attend a forum on the intersection between race, gender, class, and sexuality. One of the moderators asked for a show of hands from anyone who considered themselves to be a feminist. I proudly raised my hand, then took a look around the room. Out of 200 students (many who I had worked with on the Vagina Monologues, Take Back the Night, etc), no one else had their hand up! This turned into a discussion about why people don’t identify as feminist (they’re all man haters, ugly, with hairy legs, they’re lesbians, etc.).

    Ten years later, this still gets to me. And I think it illustrates your point–there’s a big difference between those who sign up and participate in a course/workshop/event on gender, race, sexuality, class, etc. versus those who internalize the message, fight for what’s right, and lead by example.

    Thanks again for doing all of those things :)

  2. Pingback: Teaching to Transgress in High Schools : Ms Magazine Blog

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