A How-To on Youth Activism

If you want to read about some truly inspiring young feminists, pick up Hey, Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets, a collaboratively written book by Joanne Smith, Mandy Van Deven and Meghan Huppuch of Girls for Gender Equity (GGE).

GGE is a Brooklyn-based “coalition-building and youth development organization” that “acts as a catalyst for change to improve gender and race relations and socioeconomic conditions for our most vulnerable youth and communities of color.”

In September 2001, GGE began meeting with local girls in the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA, where they played sports in the gymnasium. But shortly after they started meeting, a local 8-year-old girl was brutally raped. After hearing the girls blame the victim, GGE’s founder Joanne Smith formed gender respect groups that met between practices, where girls talked about gender stereotypes and discrimination. Out of these groups, sexual harassment emerged as a major issue in their lives, so GGE then created the Sisters in Strength program–a paid, yearlong youth organizing internship (funded by the Open Society Foundation) for teen girls of color to work against sexual harassment.

The teens’ first project was to educate the community about street harassment. After watching Maggie Hadleigh-West’s documentary War Zone, the girls created their own documentary, Hey … Shorty! which they screened as part of a Street Harassment Summit that they hosted in their community. They invited other community organizations to the Summit to facilitate workshops on how to combat sexual harassment. The film later won the Best Youth Documentary Award at the Roxbury Film Festival in Boston.

Another Sisters in Strength project was the World Against Sexual Harassment Campaign, in which young women collected information about sexual harassment in schools by conducting a survey, focus groups, slam books (notebooks passed around in school, which contain written prompts for student to anonymously respond to) and a blog. Their major finding was that sexual harassment, while pervasive, is normalized in New York City schools. Students rarely complain and adults usually ignore it, but it has a significantly negative effect on the community. And students want more education about it.

The girls presented their findings at the annual Gender Equity Festival, GGE’s annual summer event, and used them to mobilize people in the community to organize against sexual harassment, forming a Coalition for Gender Equity in Schools with more than 20 community organizations from New York to support GGE’s work to end sexual harassment. The girls even testified about their findings before the New York City Department of Education.

This book is full of great ideas for youth organizing and coalition work. What’s most impressive is how GGE encouraged girls to articulate their issues and goals, and then worked with them to learn the skills they needed to achieve their goals.

The result? A whole new generation of smart, knowledgeable, articulate and empowered young women. Women who will change the world.


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.