13-year-old Leilani in a middle school video raising support for the Campus Safety and Accountability Act.
On the last day of school before spring break at Manhattan Country School, the 7th and 8th graders were busy at work. But instead of plugging away at their regular math and English assignments, the students were brainstorming ways to fight rape on college campuses.
Each year, the seventh and eighth graders at this sliding-scale tuition school in NYC, where I’m a Spanish teacher, vote on a topic for their class to take on with activism. This year, a group of 38 students decided to tackle sexual violence. At first, activism program coordinator Nassim Zerriffi was a little concerned about the choice. “Navigating conversations about sexual violence with 12-14 year olds sounded like a minefield,” he told me. “What would the parents say? What if it brings up trauma? How would the boys act? Are they ready?” He wanted to empower the students to take on the issue—but not if it would mean traumatizing some kids with abuse in their past or who are still in the world of crushes and first kisses.
However, the results have been impressive. Instead of snickering about sex, the students have been very mature and serious in their work, says Zerriffi. “We have discussed objectification in media as a root cause of sexual violence and analyzed representations of masculinity and femininity and rape culture in music, advertising and film,” said Zerriffi.
In March, as a class, the students went to see the film The Hunting Ground, the new documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. After watching The Hunting Ground, 13-year-old student Willa told me that the film hit her personally, “I don’t think it makes me scared to go to college but it makes me want to do something about it.”
The film got the student activists thinking about whether they could do a project focusing on policy around campus sexual assault. They did some research and decided to put their energy behind passing the Campus Safety and Accountability Act (CASA), which will reform how universities respond to sexual assault cases and provide funds for survivors and training for staff. To support the act, The teens came up with a postcard campaign titled Object/Defy: Objectification is Dehumanization. The campaign on Postcard.com works like this: people take pictures of themselves holding a sign decrying sexual assault on campus. The photos will be mailed as postcards to the offices of New York’s senators.
Check out their video:
As they brainstormed the campaign, the students gathered in groups to tackle different topics including street harassment, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, sexual assault, and rape—and the lack of legal protections and accountability around the issue. “These schools are not being held accountable,” said Cal, who is 12. “They are blaming the victim. I think every school should teach about healthy relationships, and it’s something we could all learn from.”
As many statistics as I may read about street harassment, it is still difficult to hear my own students’ daily experiences with harassment. “As a teenager, when I’m walking down the street, adults are either afraid of me because they think I am bad, or dangerous to them,” 13-year-old Ajani told me. “But, as a girl, I’ve been catcalled since I was ten years old. I think it just happens.”
On that last day before spring break, the activism class was buzzing with ideas. In one corner, a group was brainstorming ways to teach 5th and 6th graders about gender discrimination and healthy relationships. Four teens sat around a computer analyzing lyrics from popular songs. “We are going to target songs that objectify women,” said Sophia, 13. “We’ve been thinking of making a lyric video where we play the song, and then stop it, and ask: How would you react if someone said that to you?” Meanwhile, Willa from 8th grade played the group a song called “Not Your Way” by Misterwives. “It’s one of my favorite bands,” she said. “The lyrics are more feminist. You just have to read them.”
Meanwhile, groups of students sat working on the postcard campaign. Encouraged by their teachers, the students practiced what to say before they cold-called several nonprofits and asked them to support the campaign.
In between serious moments, the young activists went back to being kids, throwing paper balls at each other and making goofy jokes. But when the conversation turned to CASA, the teens got serious.
“I know that one in five women will experience some kind of sexual assault in college. So either me or someone I know will experience sexual assault. I want to know that the problem will be dealt with,” said student Asha. Thirteen-year-old Lilian added, “I think that it would make a huge impact on the whole country if this bill passes. It would impact all colleges, not just one of them. And we don’t know where we are going to college yet.”
Carolina Drake teaches Spanish to kids in NYC and writes non-fiction essays. She contributes to AlJazeera, Jezebel, Hyperallergic and ANIMAL NY. She tweets @CarolinaADrake.