Today, the Harpies are participating in a virtual book tour for Hey Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Public Schools and On The Streets (New York: Feminist Press, 2010), authored by staff and youth interns from the organization Girls for Gender Equality, based in Brooklyn, New York. Part One of the tour (this post) is a review of the book. Part Two, posted this afternoon, will be an interview with two of the book’s authors Mandy Van Deven and Meghan Huppuch.
Imagine you are a girlchild or adolescent woman or gender non-conforming youth who has to spend the majority of your day, five days a week, in a space where you are supposed to be learning and training for independent adulthood, under the guidance of caring and nurturing people with more life experience than you … and instead, those spaces feel like battle zones. Fellow students, teachers, administrators, and security guards givr you unwanted sexual attention through voice and touch, and the people in power you go to for help often blame you rather than the harasser for causing trouble. Sometimes they tell you they’ll deal with the problem, but then nothing ever happens.
You and your friends decide this is just the way the world works, and you’ll have to put up with the attention as best you can, or deal with it on your own through violence. Over time, the harassment becomes so embedded in normal life that it starts to feel routine, and you stop noticing it … at least on the surface. Although the anticipation of harassment, and the shame of it, continues to effect your interactions with everyone around you, your ability to concentrate on your creative and academic projects, and to shape the decisions you make about what activities you participate in and how you move through the world.
Then imagine that a group of people came along, adults and peers, who helped you imagine a different world: a world where sexual harassment wasn’t just accepted as a fact of life, wasn’t normalized and dismissed as less important than other forms of bullying or violence. And then imagine that group invited you to help do something to make that world into reality.
Hey Shorty! is the story of a group of adults and young women who did just that. In a collage of narrative chapters, research data, workshop resources, and personal testimony, the organizers of Girls for Gender Equality and the youth who have participated in GGE’s Sisters in Strength internship program. The early chapters of the book document the birth of Girls for Gender Equality as an after-school program to promote physical activity and educational opportunities for girls ages seven to twelve. When the organization began to offer gender workshops for elementary and middle school children they discovered that one of the most popular (and most contentious) topics was sexual harassment. Sisters in Strength, a youth organizing program for high school age girls, was established in the mid-2000s and, through input directly from the young women involved, has come to focus directly on combating sexual harassment on the street and in public schools. The title of this book, Hey Shorty! comes from a documentary that a cohort of Sisters in Strength interns produced about the street harassment they and their friends experienced.
One of the most impressive aspects (I think) of the work Sisters in Strength has done, and one of the things that makes Hey Shorty! of value as more than a case study of youth organizing — not an inconsiderable contribution! — is the research that Sisters in Strength has done on the prevalence and normalization of sexual harassment in NYC public schools, and the lack of enforcement by school officials of existing policies against such bullying. While the NYC Department of Education has yet to act on their recommendations, GGE and Sisters in Strength have compiled a massive amount of data on the experience of youth of harassment and the structural apathy they face in having the problem addressed. This has led to a normalization of the experience of harassment, which in turn increases the reluctance of youth to speak up about the issue (if harassment is “just the way it is” then why speak up in hope for change?). Hopefully, the study data shared in this book, and the Sisters in Strength model for documenting issues of concern within youth populations, will have relevance beyond New York City’s schools.
Join me later in the day (the post will be going live at 1pm) for a Q&A with two GGE staffers, Mandy Van Deven and Meghan Huppuch, who talk about their experience working to combat sexual harassment, the importance of youth-centered organizing, and how not to let the slow pace of social change get you down!