Lyn Mikel Brown’s Powered By Girl is a book about how adults can help girls organize for social and political change. It’s also a book about us.
As part of the girl-fueled, intergenerational organization SPARK, we both worked with Brown, and we both talked to her as she wrote her incredible and important book. Celeste was 19, a “girl activist,” and Melissa was 24, ostensibly an adult. It’s been a few years since we opened our hearts and souls to Brown: at the time, we were in the middle of a big campaign, noses to the grindstone, always going, going, going.
Now the book is out and our lives are completely different, so we wanted to reflect: What do we know now that we didn’t know then? How did our experiences at SPARK, and with each other, shape who we are and what we do today? At 23 and 27, what do we still have to learn—and to teach?
First and foremost, intergenerational activism gave us new ideas about what it meant to be a leader—and taught us how to see ourselves as leaders and authorities on our own experiences.
Before joining SPARK, Celeste never doubted adults. “I used to think that being in charge meant you had all the answers and were basically perfect,” she says. “I just automatically assumed that authority figures knew more than me.” But after being part of SPARK’s decision-making processes, where girls and adults worked together to decide on everything from campaigns to trainings to new team members, Celeste realized that being a leader “doesn’t mean you’re this superhuman person who knows everything—it’s more of a process to find answers.”
A lot of times Dana, the ED, and I would talk, and we would say ‘I don’t know what the best move is here.’ Then we’d bring it to the girls and we’d be real about what we did and didn’t know. We’d say, ‘here’s what we’re thinking but what do you think, and you really need to tell us because we don’t know what’s best!’ It was very a vulnerable position to be in, but also felt great because it let girls step up and take charge.
Celeste says that looking back, this kind of openness is still influencing her:
I got comfortable speaking up in SPARK because it felt like we were on equal footing—I didn’t have all the answers, but neither did the adults. Nowadays, my job puts me in situations where I’m often collaborating with people twice my age, and I feel better when I remember what I saw in SPARK: that everyone’s just human, and sometimes we’re all confused. I also work with teens a lot, and I try to be honest with them when I’m at a loss—it’s hard to admit sometimes! But I want them to see that authority figures are fallible.
It influences Melissa, too:
In my new job, I’m the youngest person by about 20 years, which could be very scary—my coworkers have so much more experience than me, and they often know more about our very niche issue. But I’m always asking questions, and I’m always encouraging my colleagues to look at things from different angles and to tie our work back to things like race and class. One of the biggest reasons I feel comfortable doing that is because SPARK girls did it to me. I don’t doubt myself like, ‘who am I to say this?’ I just say it, because I know thinking about those things will make our work stronger. I owe that confidence to SPARK.
Working with a group of girls that are diverse in age, race, sexuality, class, geographic location (and more) means that not everyone is going to agree on everything all the time, and that sometimes people will get hurt. SPARK girls and adults tried to tackle these tensions head on, and sometimes it was awkward and even painful. But now that we’ve done it, we’re better equipped to do it in other spaces. Intergenerational activism taught us to hold others accountable—and showed us how to hold ourselves accountable, too.
The whole team started having a lot of difficult and important conversations after several girls approached SPARK leadership about a member’s racist remarks. “At the time, talking to Melissa and other SPARK adults about that stuff was super uncomfortable and cringe-inducing,” says Celeste, “because how do you tell people about problems in their organization without insulting their work?”
Melissa remembers that as a turning point, too:
It was really hard, because I had to deal first with the knowledge that all of these things had been going on under my nose that I had no idea about, and that I really should have seen. And then the girls who were most affected had to be the ones to come to me and tell me that I was messing up. Which I was! I handled so much from that time poorly but I was so grateful that the girls were willing to do the work to hold me accountable as long as I was doing it, too. It felt like maybe they were rightfully suspicious of me, but we still trusted each other enough to work through it and move forward.”
“Now,” says Celeste, “I’m generally less self-conscious about bringing up these things. I learned a lot about how to have difficult conversations with other authority figures in my life. I learned that accountability is actually possible—though honestly, I was also lucky to be in a space that wanted to be better, and where people were going to listen and try. But these days, little can come up in these conversations that fazes me.”
Being a part of SPARK changed the way that both of us thought about terms like “intersectionality.” There’s a huge amount of discussion right now about why it’s important to be intersectional in your politics and your activism, but very little information about how to actually do it—and that’s probably because everyone’s still trying to figure it out. But the best way to do it is to just do it. Being able to jump into activism as girls and young women shows us the differences between staking out an identity and practicing your feminist philosophy for real.
“I don’t have a lot of patience for people who talk but don’t do,” says Melissa. “It sounds bad maybe when I say it that way, but it’s the truth. People will talk a big game about being intersectional but they make it sound like it’s so easy, like you just say you’re intersectional and the work is done. In reality, it’s hard. It’s really, really hard, for everyone involved, and people just wearing it like a label like ‘oh yeah I’m an intersectional feminist’ really raises a red flag for me.”
“My general approach when people talk about intersectionality is like, ‘prove it to me,’” agrees Celeste. “Being intersectional is always going to be a work in progress because there’s so much to unpack. Just when you’re grappling with gender, an issue of race or class or sexuality will probably come up. There’s always going to be more work to do, so show me you know that. Show me that you’re aware of your limitations, and that you’re at least trying to address them.” In short: don’t just say you’re something. Do it.
It’s been two years since Celeste stopped working with SPARK, and a year since Melissa did—and the truth is that we’re both still processing the experience. “SPARK caught me at such a weird teen/adult time,” says Celeste. “It’s influenced some really fundamental things about who I am, and who I’m becoming as a person and an adult and a thinker. I can’t fully put it into words.”
The same is true for Melissa. “When people ask me what I did at SPARK, or what it was like, I get kind of like, dreamy-eyed and lost in space trying to sort it all out,” she says. “I feel the influence of the SPARK girls and my adult colleagues in basically everything I do, even if I can’t name exactly what it is.”
“SPARK was such a big part of my life when I was barely figuring out my life in the first place,” Celeste adds, “so all these things really shaped how I approach the world, in a way that goes beyond just work or collaboration or social justice.”
“I see girls that I’ve known since they were 13 or 14 or 15 going off to or graduating from college,” Melissa says, “and I’m just blown away by what they’re doing, and what they’re going to keep doing for the rest of their lives. And it’s like, ‘was that my influence? Did I help her learn how to do that?’ And even if I didn’t, I’m still so proud of them all anyway! It’s an incredible feeling.”
Being “girl activists” set both of us forward on a path toward living our values and leading in activism around the issues we cared about. It helped us find a network, find a voice and even find ourselves. That’s the true impact of a movement powered by girl—and it’s why feminism’s movement leaders and most passionate activists should be excited to get their hands on Brown’s book and better support the girls continuing their fights.
Melissa Campbell was a founding member of the SPARKteam. She thinks about SPARKcamp every day.
Celeste Montaño spent three years as a girl activist in SPARK, where she spearheaded a campaign to highlight women and people of color in history. Celeste’s most recent project has been figuring out adulthood.