Reading Hey Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Public Schools and on the Streets is like drinking vitamin water for activists. An immersion in how-to community organizing, movement building, and feminist activism against sexual harassment, this book is the one we’ve all been waiting for. Written in easy-to-read language and clearly outlined, bullet point action steps, co-authors Meghan Huppuch, Joanne N. Smith, and Mandy Van Deven make the case for feminist activism in schools in ways that will make our non-initiated colleagues understand that we need to act now.
As hard as it is for some educators and administrators to admit, all schools are sexual and sexualized spaces. More specifically, when it comes to sexual harassment, all schools are spaces of power and submission, authority and silence.
Pervasive and destructive, sexual harassment is considered to be a “typical part” of school life by two-thirds of the 1,189 New York City public school students surveyed by Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), a Brooklyn-based girls advocacy and movement building group dedicated to gender justice.
Their three pivotal findings should press those of us who are educators and school leaders to respond: 1) in-school sexual harassment occurs in many ways, to many people, and in many locations; 2) sexual harassment is a “normal” part of young people’s school experience, and 3) students want and need more education about sexual harassment.
One of the most disturbing findings asserts that sexual harassment is part of “what it mean[s] to be at school,” implying that “students find sexual harassment routine and acceptable.”
Of course, it’s not acceptable. As the authors point out, members of school communities, from principals, to other administrators, to staff, to the students themselves, perpetuate sexual harassment to the point where it is so normalized that many victimized students do not report it, nor do they even know that they have a federal law, specifically Title IX, to support them.
GGE reminds us that those who are often the targets of sexual harassment, in particular, women, girls, and LGBTQ youth, are “taught to put up with violent and destructive treatment because they have ‘no choice,’” leading to fear of coming to school, depression, poor decision-making with their bodies, and even attempts at suicide.
In response to these findings, Hey Shorty offers excellent strategies for students, educators, and adult allies to stop sexual harassment. One strategy for teachers caught my attention, namely, that educators should have “anti-discrimination rules for their classroom and incorporate anti-oppression lessons into their teaching.”
I could not agree more. I believe the first thing we need to do to make that happen is make sure that teachers themselves receive anti-racism, anti-classism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, and anti-transphobia training as part of their professional development.
In order to reach the point that all teachers incorporate these kinds of lessons into their curricula, faculty members need to do the work of unpacking their own oppression and the oppression they have done unto others not just in school but outside of school as well. Even those of us who are committed to this work need to practice anti-oppression work with our colleagues—even when it gets frustrating and exhausting—so that we can create a healed and healing community of adult allies for our students. Only then will we be able to reach GGE’s vision for becoming the fully realized social justice educators—not just content teachers—our students deserve.
What makes reading Hey Shorty exciting is that GGE’s work is based in feminist theory, especially intersectionality and women of color feminism. The authors make these theories completely accessible to the audience they are trying to reach, namely: educators, administrators, and students.
For instance, without ever using the word, their explanation of intersectionality—or Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory that asserts that systems of inequality along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. overlap—makes urgent that we need to apply this theory in our leadership of schools:
Sexual harassment affects our lives in profound ways because it grows out of larger forms of individual and institutional oppression that we experience as young people, women, people of color, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community. Achieving social justice is not just about race or class or gender or ability or nationality or religion. It’s about all of these things at once, because, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said, ‘No one is free when others are oppressed.’”
I can imagine my colleagues reading this book. I can imagine my students reading this book. I can imagine teaching this book. I can imagine it on summer reading lists for years to come. I can imagine schools inviting Huppuch, Smith, and Van Deven to come speak at assemblies, delivering their most pressing message: “The world can no longer ignore that gender-based violence is a health, education, and economic-development issue that negatively affects our entire society.”
From Smith’s inspiring founder’s story to Van Deven’s search for Title IX coordinators in New York City’s public schools to Huppuch’s initiation into GGE’s fierce advocacy culture to the poetry and testimonies of Sisters in Strength interns, Hey Shorty reads like the activist version of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls. After reading their book, we can rest assured that no one’s walking off with all of GGE’s stuff. Each woman and girl’s story of community organizing and movement building bolsters the next, revealing the visioning and action steps for gender justice in schools that we desperately need.