Think young people are not interested in feminist activism? Think again.
High school students in my Fierce and Fabulous: Feminist Women, Writers, Artists, and Activists class spent the better part of the fall trimester learning about and supporting efforts to end sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of girls and women both here in NYC and globally.
In class, students watched the film “Very Young Girls,” made by GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) whose mission “is to empower young women, ages 12-21, who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking, to exit the commercial sex industry and develop to their full potential. GEMS is committed to ending commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking of children by changing individual lives, transforming public perception, and revolutionizing the systems and policies that impact sexually exploited youth.”
As part of the unit, outreach workers from GEMS visited the class and further explored the personal implications and horrors of domestic trafficking. Students then collaborated to present a school-wide assembly, which took place on Tuesday, November 17, 2009, to rally their high school peers to support GEMS.
The assembly included clips from “Very Young Girls,” statistics on commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), speakers from GEMS, and the students’ personal response to the issue and the film. My students and I were so moved to see that within 24 hours of the assembly, an outpouring of clothing donations, including items for children and babies, came in through the school doors from students, faculty, and our principal.
I was also particularly moved when members of the Community Service Roundtable, our school’s philanthropy club that funds children’s groups in New York City, were so inspired by their peers’ presentation, that they unanimously decided to support GEMS as part of their fundraising efforts this year. Their genuine interest in supporting GEMS made me believe in the power of peer education on issues of social justice.
To continue the conversation about sex trafficking, Taina Bien-Aime, executive director from Equality Now, visited the class to talk about the issue on a global level. A later visit from Mia Herndon, executive director of the Third Wave Foundation, further exposed students to social change through feminist philanthropy and grantmaking.
Students also visited the exhibit Journey, an art installation that explores one woman’s “journey into hell” when she was trafficked to the UK. British actor Emma Thompson curated the exhibit. As we moved through the interactive exhibit, my students and I found ourselves feeling and even smelling the terror of trafficking.
At the end of the trimester, students visited the GEMS office to deliver their donations and to participate in GEMS’ weeklong observance of World AIDS Day in December. Students played educational games such as AIDS “Jeopardy” with GEMS girls. Although the course has now ended, the students and the larger school remain energized and inspired to foster a long-standing partnership with GEMS.
As a feminist educator, I am extremely proud of my students and school for taking the issue of commercial sexual exploitation of children so seriously and for moving forward with a deep commitment to social justice for young women and girls.