Groups for Eighth-Grade Girls: An Opportunity for Consciousness Raising

Seeing new headlines, almost daily, featuring a powerful man, who has been accused of sexual assault, has reinforced my belief in the importance of providing women – especially young women – with a safe space to discuss issues of women’s rights.  While the recent #MeToo campaign has provided women with a common phrase for advocacy, it was originally founded nearly a decade ago by Tarana Burke, a Senior Director at Girls for Gender Equity, in response to a lack of support for teenagers who were victims of sexual violence.  Although it was not until age nineteen – in my first Women’s Studies class at Duke – that I truly had my “Aha!” moment, providing the eighth-graders at Durham School of the Arts (DSA) and now at Brogden Middle School (BMS) with an opportunity to learn to both recognize and combat issues of gender inequity with confidence, will help contribute to this watershed moment for women’s rights.  As Sheryl Sandberg stated, “When women work together we accomplish amazing things.”

During the third meeting at DSA, after sharing our “highs” and lows” of the week, we delved into a discussion of a collage of magazine images we had previously crafted.  Although the girls began by commenting on their admiration for favorite celebrities, as the mentors prodded, topics such as body image, self-esteem, and effortless perfection began to surface, leading to a deeper conversation about problematic assumptions regarding female identity.  At the end of the meeting, the girls were beginning to recognize and question nuances in the treatment between themselves and their male peers. For example, one of the girls recalled her grandmother telling her to “clean herself up” while her brothers were allowed to wear their sweatpants to the Thanksgiving table.  Indeed, it was equally rewarding to not only create a space for these young women to convene, but also to provide validation for their frustrations.

While the eighth-graders at both DSA and BMS provided similar responses in their application questions to join (everyone was admitted) regarding their female role models, interests in possible discussion topics, and career aspirations, I have already observed some differences in the dynamics of the two groups. De-briefing the progress we had made at DSA thus far, the mentors and I recognized that in order to have a richer conversation, more of the girls needed to contribute. Although we wondered if a group of young men would be equally diffident, I was surprised by the outspoken nature of the girls during the initiatory meeting earlier this week at BMS.  Indeed, while we had difficulty getting the girls at DSA to suggest possible names for their group, the girls at BMS immediately began to volunteer a plethora of names.  From my perception of the “highs and lows” ice-breaking activity, I noticed that although the girls in both groups are involved in a variety of extra-curricular activities, ranging from orchestra to cheerleading, many of the girls at BMS stated academic performance as a “low” while friendship anxiety seemed to be more of a “low” for the girls at DSA.  As the year progresses, I am looking forward to noting the similarities and differences between the interactions that occur in the two groups and tailoring the activities and discussions accordingly.  Moreover, I am excited to see what directions these young women choose for their groups to take and to provide guidance and support along the way.