Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: Hey, Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets

I’ve been hearing a lot about this publishing of this book and am superexcited (yes all one word) to have the opportunity to review this text. I have joined several other folks who are a part of the Hey, Shorty! Virtual Book Tour. You may visit this link to see the other Tour stop spaces that are supporting this project and find out how you are able to support it too! Many amazing reviews are posted (and I tried not to read them before I wrote mine), but you may read from a variety of different perspectives.

The Hey, Shorty! text has the following information about the contents:

is a narrative account of ten years of community organizing led by young women at Girls for Gender Equity to end gender-based violence against girls, women, and LGBTQ folks. Hey, Shorty! is a tool that can be used by both young people and adults to spark conversations about street harassment, sexual harassment in schools, and strategies that can be used to increase safety in public spaces.

This is not just a guide that shares the trajectory of Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), (which is a 501 (c )3 not for profit organization and thus your donation is tax deductible, and if you cannot donate monetarily you may donate your time as well) it is also a collective text and narrative that provides various voices and testimonies from GGE staff, youth, and parents as to why the work to end gender-based violence is imperative and must continue.

When I received the text in the mail I was surprised by the size. Less than 200 pages, I could argue it fits comfortably in your back pocket (but it fit well into my handbag also). I thought about how the size may make it accessible to various communities, something that folks may carry with them wherever they go, and reference it as needed. I also wondered if this was intentional, would youth carry this around as well?

Part of my surprise at the books size was my assumptions about the book before I even investigated more. I had seen the cover and the description of the book and assumed it would be well over 200 pages and almost like a textbook. Perhaps this is my hope, my own values and ideas about what texts about violence, especially sexual harassment about youth of Color living in NYC would represent. I think there are also a lot of assumptions I make about the term “guide” when used to describe books. I assume a guide will have many layers, a specific layout, (unsolicited?) advice, scenarios and problem solving approaches. Yes, Hey, Shorty! does have many of these components, but not in the “traditional” way I imagined. It was good to be challenged in this way for me, to expand what it means to create and have a “guide” that can be more inclusive, shift in ways that are useful, and reach people that are the focus of the text. I believe this is what Hey, Shorty! has accomplished.

The authors of the book include GGE staff and youth. Author credits go to the executive director of GGE; Joanne Smith, Mandy Van Deven, former associate director of GGE; and Meghan Huppuch the current director of community organizing at GGE (who began her work at GGE as an intern), and the youth participants of Sisters in Strength, which includes interns. As I read the book I thought about how dope it could be to have a chapter by youth who were a part of Sisters In Strength. For many people publishing and authorship credit is important. We live in a society where people want to write books, have them published, and (most likely) have them read. How awesome would it have been if we lived in a society that made it possible for books to list ALL the authors, all the young women whose voices are shared, as authors without having to identify them as a “group”? That each young woman had authorship and thus could be found by doing a search on major bookstore search engines, is something I hope we can come to in the future!

Other assumptions I had before reading the text was that the image on the front of tho book of dangling feet of young girls meant the text would focus on younger girls (ages 8-12). Many times when I see similar images that accompany a piece of media/text they send specific and very intentional messages and sometimes they are not as inclusive as they could be, thus misleading the viewer/reader. With this image on the cover, the focus is on discussing sexual harassment and the origins of GGE, which began with young girls in the 8-12 group and then included young teenage women.

The book contains 12 “chapters” that provide the evolution and need for creating and sustaining Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) which segues into the work youth members of Sisters In Strength, a part of GGE, crafted, evaluated, implemented and produced on sexual harassment in their community. The main focus is utilizing Title IX in NYC public schools and holding those schools and the NYC Department of Education accountable and responsible for enforcing it. Title IX, which has often been discussed but only partially to emphasize the focus on sports, is more complex than many of us may believe. The full entire part of Title IX includes ending sexual harassment (the wikipedia entry for Title IX doesn't even MENTION sexual harassment! and if I knew enough about technology and contributing to wikipedia I'd change that ish myself, but I don't so hopefully some of you readers will!). As the National Women's Law Center describes Title IX:

Many people have never heard of Title IX. Most people who know about Title IX think it applies only to sports, but athletics is only one of 10 key areas addressed by the law. These areas are: Access to Higher Education, Career Education, Education for Pregnant and Parenting Students, Employment, Learning Environment, Math and Science, Sexual Harassment, Standardized Testing and Technology.

As I began reading the introduction by Joanne Smith, I realized quickly that we grew up in the same community in Maryland (I don’t know if she considers it the south, but after living in NYC, I sure do!). Her experiences growing up in a primarily Haitian-American space is one that I am very familiar with as I grew up in the same one in Silver Spring. I wonder if we have met as teenagers…. As I continued to read and learn about a young woman Joanne was working with, Lilly. There was something about Joanne sharing this story that made me uncomfortable. I’m not sure what all the parts that led to my discomfort come from and I’m still sitting with that discomfort to find its origins. However, I think the first thing that led to my discomfort is the thin line I often struggle with, of sharing stories. What stories am I privileged/allowed to share? When are other people’s stories ones that I can share, is that ever all right? When can I tell when other’s stories intersect with my own, impact my own, and thus become a part of my personal story?

Then there was the feeling I had, which I recall first having when I read Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa. There is a part when Anzaldua writes about first hearing the term “nosotras” with an “a” which feminizes the term. She shares how she had only heard of the term with an “o” which masculinizes or always imagines a man is present. She writes that the first time she heard “nosotras” was hearing two Latinas from the Caribbean speak to one another (one from Puerto Rico and another from Cuba). I remember feeling included. Learning about Latina Feminist Thought almost 10 years ago, meant a focus primarily from Mexican and Chicana perspectives. I didn’t see myself or think I had a place. Then I read Anzaldúa’s rememory and how it impacted her and began to see a space for myself.

I found this same feeling reading Joanne’s connection to Lilly, which triggered her desire to “challenge the limited opportunities and outlets for girls living in urban communities” (p. 12). I thought to myself, here is an experience, a story about Latinas (we do not know Lilly or her mother’s ethnic background) that has inspired important work. I’m still working through some other parts of this, but think it’s important to share this for the review.

Moving through the next chapter written by Many Van Deven, who shares her experiences working within schools, creating curriculums, and implementing those curriculums that focus on sexual harassment in NYC public schools located in Brooklyn. As Van Deven shares her challenges of finding solid curriculums to share with the students of Color, I thought about the dearth of curriculums that still remain today centering them, especially those that can be considered “comprehensive sexuality education.” I think may of us could agree discussions on sexual harassment are important for such curriculums (and more), and that we remain without curriculums that are useful, can reach many youth, and that are effective and engaging. Usual readers of my work know my stance on "comprehensive sexuality education" that has no conversation on race, class, ethnicity, disability, citizenship and immigration status as well as experiences on how to interact with law enforcement is NOT comprehensive; especially for youth of Color and queer youth! I take the same position with discussions of sexual harassment.

I appreciated the focus of GGE utilizing a Frierean philosophy that “one must work with not for the oppressed” (p. 39), the discussion of the youth-led and created award-winning documentary Hey, Shorty! (for which the book is named). The documentary focuses on street harassment primarily in communities of Color. Below is the trailer.

In addition, I appreciated a frank and honest discussion about searching to find research methodologies and approaches that can be best utilized to include and be guided by the community. The author’s discussion of Participatory Action Research (PAR), how they were exposed to the idea, learned about the methodology, and built connections with folks who were familiar with this approach to train young women involved in Sisters In Strength speaks to GGEs transparency. I think it is a great discussion about how you do not need to have experiences in higher education to be inspired by such research, that such research does not have to be exclusively done by people who are only from particular backgrounds or training. This is something that I find useful for myself and that I think can be useful and inspiring for folks who seek to do similar work.

This research was a part of a larger project Sisters In Strength produced, asking youth at NYC public schools (in all 5 boroughs) about their experiences with sexual harassment. At the same time, the research is a part of the text (as with many) where some identities and experiences are generalized at times. Sharing the struggle Sisters In Strength and staff experienced in defining how often sexual harassment occurred in NYC public schools, which they decided is something that happens so often it is normalized (and often not defined as sexual harassment), is a candid discussion of challenges and decision-making as a collective. There are parts of the data that I hope will be expanded, such as having a more inclusively based on gender (currently the research gathered information from folks who self-selected to take the survey in various forms, but also fall within a gender binary, with one testimony from a young trans person). Race and ethnicity seemed to be combined, i.e. How are multi-ethnic and racial students counted? What about Afr@Latin@s, how are they categorized and counted?

Their findings definitely speak to how modernization and technology have expanded the sexual harassment many people are experiencing and give support to folks who are pushing Sexting laws forward. This is something I discovered the 60 students (aged 16-19) I taught this semester have NO idea about. Many of them had never heard of Sexting laws and how they can have an impact on them. They also have not ever heard of Net Neutrality, but that’s a different issue (sort of…).

Another thing I (re)discovered from reading their research was the over-sexualization of LGB and queer youth. The data they gathered showed that “it seems the students did not define the harassment of LGBTQ students in the same way” (p. 123). This made my heart sink. I think many of us in this society already over-sexualize people who identify as anything beyond heterosexual (“straight”) (hopefully readers know that the over-sexualization of heterosexual people based on various differences does occur!). As a result we see our youth showing how we have socialized them to do the exact same thing. The assumption that youth who identify as LGB, Queer, or even transgender (which is NOT a sexual orientation) are constantly sexual, acting out sexually, or active is something I know exists, and if you don’t think this is true, take a look at how any mainstream media coverage discusses our communities.

There are 3 findings from the research: 1. In school sexual harassment occurs in many ways, to many people, and in many locations; 2: sexual harassment is a “normal” part of young people’s school experience; 3: youth want and need more education about sexual harassment. During the discussion of the third finding, it was shared that “[w]hen we asked students to write about their potions for responding to sexual harassment, over a third of the responses involved physical violence. Youth wrote that they would ‘beat up,’ ‘punch,’ or ‘kill’ the person who harassed them” (p. 128). I thought immediately about how violence for many people is a form of power, and for people who don’t have a lot of power to begin with, violence may be the only form they have. I think about how this type of power is something many people, especially young women claim as a form of liberation. I do not deny this for anyone, and I think it is very much a reality as I’ve shared in the past, specifically for Latinas. I believe this data supports this idea and speaks to the ways our society limits (even sets our youth up) for only finding power in violence, even if that violence saves our lives and is where we find forms of freedom.

I would have loved to have read a larger discussion on misogyny and how it impacts everyone and the experience of sexual harassment. I am thankful for the appendix that offers definitions of sexual harassment, ways to combat it, myths and a quiz about sexual harassment. I am also appreciative of the three Community Organizing Rules shared throughout the text which include:

Community Organizing Rules

  • Rule #1: If what you need already exists, don’t waste time reinventing the wheel (p. 33)
  • Rule #2: Make friends with people who hold true power. Principals may give you permission but security guards, custodians, and secretaries give you information and access when it is most crucial (p. 43).
  • Rule #3: Self-care is just as important as social change (p. 72).

If you are a young person, work with youth, in the school system, or are in a community this is a text that can be useful and provide a framework that can be molded to fit and reach various people in multiple spaces. Hey, Shorty! Is published by Feminist Press and you may purchase it at your favorite local and/or independent bookstore here. Learn more about how you can help donate and support the Hey, Shorty! On The Road here.

Many thanks to Mandy Van Deven for reaching out to me and providing me with a copy of the text and communicating with me to provide this review.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this thorough and thoughtful review, Bianca! You have brought up so many of the struggles we encountered, both in the work and writing this book. We hope Hey, Shorty! provides a better starting place for others out there doing youth-led, anti-violence work than the place we started ten years ago. Social change is oh-so-slow-moving -- but it is moving and that's a small victory in itself. :-)