Teaching Feminism in High School: Moving from Theory to Action

The following post was originally published at On the Issues

The students in my feminism class read Rachel Lloyd's memoir, Girls Like Us, about the commercial sexual exploitation of children. (Photo, Steve Neiman, used with permission).

During a recent Twitter chat on #sheparty hosted by the Women’s Media Center, I tweeted: “How many feminists know edu hashtags and vice versa?”

The point I wanted to get across is that many feminists today don’t know much about today’s education conversation and, in turn, educators don’t know much about what’s going on in feminist discourse, whether it’s academic or activist.

My job as a feminist high school teacher is to close the women’s and gender studies gap for young people. To stop bullying, stop raping, stop perpetuating racism and sexism, and instead start making social change, I believe in bringing a gender, racial, and economic justice lens to education at all levels. Feminism does this work.

For me, connecting schools with feminist theory and action is personal. When I was in elementary school on Long Island in the early ‘80s, I was called “Afro” and “nigger.” Recess was not fun; to the contrary, it was a time to be bullied by my peers, who surrounded me while I was on the swings and in the sandbox. I always wonder how different my life might have been if my white teachers and white peers knew something about racism or if the rich history of Puerto Ricans and African-Americans had been taught to us as children. The goal would not have been color-blindness, but safety and inclusion, respect and responsibility for each other.

Now that I am a teacher, I believe that the power of feminist theory and action is exactly what young people need to create understandings across differences, learn how to lead healthy lives and to make social change.  Continue reading

GEMS “This is to Mother You” Video: Powerful Starting Point for Teaching About Sex Trafficking Issues

If you could do just one thing to stop human trafficking what would you do?

I would do what I always do: teach.

The release of the  “This is to Mother You” video by GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day (January 11, 2010) is a powerful starting point for bringing the conversation back to our students. The video is part of their powerful Girls Are Not For Sale campaign.

“This is to Mother You” was an original single by Sinead O’Connor and was re-recorded by O’Connor, Mary J. Blige, and Martha B in the summer of 2009 especially for GEMS’s fundraising efforts to stop commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Seeing the photo of members of my feminism class–all of whom are high school juniors and seniors–holding signs in the video reading “I am a survivor” and “You will survive” emphasizes the message about where we as feminist educators can and need to do the work of awareness about sex trafficking: in our very own classrooms.

The video above as well as the film Very Young Girls can easily connect to middle/high school units and courses focusing on human rights, media literacy, gender and women’s studies, health, and the history and literature of slavery.

For those in need of a text, I suggest using GEMS founder and executive director Rachel Lloyd’s Op-Ed “Corporate Sponsored Pimping Plays Role in US Human Trafficking.” Lloyd’s excellent piece can be taught in everything from a literature or media class to a math, economics, or government course to classes on music and music production. Lloyd brilliantly analyzes how corporate dollars not only reward pimp culture but ultimately contribute to the blind acceptance of the degradation of women and girls both on our local streets and on our local screens. Lloyd states:

“It would be easy to point to hip-hop culture as the primary culprit of this tidal wave of acceptance towards pimps. Hip-hop clearly needs to take responsibility for its ongoing misogynistic images and lyrics, but rappers could not have achieved what has become a mass acceptance of pimp culture alone. The tipping point came in 2003, when 50 Cent released his platinum selling song P.I.M.P. Several months later, Reebok rewarded him with a 50 million dollar sneaker deal. A few years later, Vitamin Water did the same. Why wouldn’t they? ‘Fiddy’ proved unequivocally that no one was objecting to his blatant degradation of women and girls when P.I.M.P went platinum three times and reached the Top 10 in 18 countries.”

Too often we say that don’t have the resources to address contemporary issues within our discipline.  Conducting a close reading of this passage alone with our students points to the multiple fields in which we teach:  economics, history, literature, media, music, politics, women’s studies, and much more.

No matter how we address sex trafficking in our classrooms, the upshot is to teach our students to take action.  Content alone is not enough.

The Council of Daughters, which is also a part of GEMS, sent a letter today to its members with President Obama’s proclamation of January 2010 as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. They included five things we can do to stop human trafficking:

1. Host a viewing party for Very Young Girls this month.

2. Inspire 11 friends to buy “This is to Mother You” to fund services for young victims of sex trafficking in America.

3. Watch our new video “We Are Millions” made with photo contributions from daughters and other supporters across America.  Share with 3 friends.

4. Buy a Girls Are Not for Sale T-Shirt and or donate $11 today.

5. Read Rachel Lloyd’s powerful front page Op-Ed “Corporate Sponsored Pimping Plays Role in US Human Trafficking” published today on TheGrio.com.

But doing just one thing on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day or even National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month is also not enough.

Everyday must lead to the abolition of modern slavery. Start with yourself, start with your students, start with your school. Just one thing everyday.

Year in Review: My Feminism Class Supports GEMS in Fight to End Sex Trafficking 2009

Bags upon bags of clothing and baby item donations for GEMS.

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.

This HIV/AIDS poster was created by a GEMS girl; it won first place in a contest.

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.