After much planning and rehearsing, half of the students in my Fierce and Fabulous: Feminist Women Writers, Artists, and Activists class and I finally got up on stage at TEDxYouth Day held at the Hewitt School in New York. The theme of this year’s TEDxYouth was “Be the Change,” and all talks were live-streamed globally. During our 16 minute talk, each of my students and I spoke about how we came to our feminist voice.
For two students, seniors Taylor Brando and Ian Tsang, their feminism emerges from watching the women in their families overcome challenges.
Brando said during her talk: “I came into my feminist voice by witnessing day in and day out the hardships the women in my family faced. They would constantly be put down or quieted, for no reason other than they were women. Most women in my family would try to get their voices heard, but nothing truly came of it. The biggest exception, however, is my mother. She always has been and always will be my main supporter. She is the one that showed me that women don’t need to be weak and defenseless. My mother is the whole reason I started working on feminism. Because of her, I want to help other women learn that they can be independent and speak their own minds. I want all women to be like my mother: independent and not afraid.”
For Ian, it was about watching his mother overcome sexism in the workplace. His message to the audience was: “You don’t have to be female to be a feminist. All of us have to fight against sexism and misogyny.”
For junior Olivia Tjernberg, she came to her voice by fighting against the sexualization of girls and women in the media through blogging. For senior Claire Hart, she found hers by reading Virginia Woolf. After spending most of her life reading male novelists, Hart was convinced that women couldn’t write with the same intellectual rigor as men. But the moment she read A Room of One’s Own, she suddenly realized that a woman could certainly run “intellectual circles” around male writers and that eventually she could do the same thing too in her own writing.
Junior Steven Susaña’s talk focused on self-determination for one’s body whether it be for reproductive reasons, an abortion, or sexual pleasure. Finally, for junior Grace Tobin, sharing her story about street harassment at a recent New York City Council hearing was critical for realizing that her personal experience could make lasting change for women and girls experiencing harassment everyday in our city’s streets and subways. Inspired by Emily May’s work at Hollaback, Tobin was able to leverage her story not only at the council hearing but also for media coverage on CBS and the New York Post. Tobin’s blog post about her experience testifying was so powerful that it was linked to street harassment expert and scholar Holly Kearl’s blog.
Among other young feminists who spoke at TEDxYouth was Fiona Lowenstein, who is a junior at the Calhoun School, an alumna of the Girls Leadership Institute, a blogger for girls expert Rachel Simmons’s website, and a longtime intern for Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney. Her inspiring talk about how young people should get involved in politics was especially timely given how many issues today are affecting young people on everything from reproductive rights to school bullying. I met Lowenstein last year at a panel she was on when a book she was featured in titled She’s Out There: 35 Essays by Young Women Who Aspire to Lead the Nation was published.
Lowenstein recently wrote a blog post featuring Debra Spar, the president of Barnard College, in which she talked with Spar about single sex education as well as Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies.
An important part of my message during my TEDxYouth talk was sharing how important it is to engage young people in learning about intersectional feminism in order to use it as a lens to understand not only their own experiences but also pressing issues that surround them everyday. I want students to know that understanding the connection between race, class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity will allow them to examine everything from the economy, to education, to the environment. I want them to know that by using this lens, we can find solutions for collective action and lasting change.
As Audre Lorde writes, the “transformation of silence into language and action” should be at the core of how we make that lasting change. It is my hope that I have been able to teach young people how to identify their own silences and transform them into the narratives and ultimately the action we need to fight against injustice. My students won’t all become activists, but they will certainly become actors for change in whatever way fits their truth and their vision. Sharing our stories at TEDxYouth brought us just one step closer to realizing those visions.
For student reflections on their experience at TEDxYouth, read their blog posts at F to the Third Power, our feminist class blog.