BRIEF HISTORY OF A HISTORIC YOUTH-LED CAMPAIGN

One year before the United Nations approved the resolution to establish the International Day of the Girl Child, nearly 100 young activists with School Girls Unite launched the successful national campaign to mobilize U.S. support for this annual girls’ rights day. Similar to International Women’s Day, the U.N. set October 11 as the day each year “to help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.”

This grassroots effort led by School Girls Unite, the international program of the Youth Activism Project, really got traction when four co-founders were back from college over the summer. They worked as paid interns and took the reins of the campaign. They interviewed and hired our talented social media coordinator. They strategized and coached the younger School Girls, presented workshops at schools, explored collaboration with numerous nonprofits, and led a critical conference call with the White House.

During the summer, the round-the-clock commitment of these hardworking interns made all the difference in gaining momentum. Their strategic sense and innovative thinking were irreplaceable. When we describe this as a youth-driven campaign, girls have to be in the driver’s seat. Adults stay in the backseat and minimize time behind the steering wheel. Our nimble nonprofit, with this engine of interns and passionate younger School Girls Unite members, accomplished extraordinary results in a matter of months.

One high school club produced videos explaining the rationale for a girls’ rights day. More than 50 girls participated in an online contest to design the logo that many still consider too powerful. Hours were devoted to strengthening every sentence in a letter to the White House Council on Women and Girls. Middle school girls held a summit with the County Council Chair to learn the process of getting local and state Day of the Girl proclamations. Requests asking organizations to support the Day resulted in over 75 endorsements. “Negative Media Images” and “Child Marriage: Tragic Tradition,” became the model framework for nearly a dozen other action-oriented issues briefs, all written by young activists, that are posted on the website: www.dayofthegirl.org

This movement for gender equality has progressed beyond School Girls Unite. The original leaders have established the Day of the Girl-U.S. Action Team by including girls from many backgrounds and persuasions across the country to help drive this effort. “We’re on the precipice of something big,” predicts Anika Manzoor, 22, who’s been a human rights advocate and founding member of School Girls Unite since age 12.  Day of the Girl-U.S. Actions Coordinator Eliana Stanislawski, 17, emphasizes that it’s not enough to just learn about the problem: “There has to be value in that knowledge that incites action.”

Even with dozens of festering inequities and not one single mega-issue, Joanne Conelley, who has been an architect of this campaign from the beginning, says “We want girls to take ownership and make this Day ours.” The new tagline, Day of the Girl-US…A 100% Youth-Led Movement, should trigger a massive applause, especially from adults whose mantra is “to empower young people.” Instead, some girl-serving organizations have expressed deep concerns about this explicit independent move. As a member of the graying generation, I believe this approach of real youth-led mobilization is exactly what is needed. Elders who stress the need “to pass the torch” need to walk the talk.

Ten years from now, our prediction is thousands upon thousands of girls will create a sensation and cause a ruckus on October 11, 2023. It will be the norm for girls to speak about their dreams and demand gender equality.

 

Art Activism Propels New Juvenile Detention Policies

The cover of “Caged Birds Sing contains bold brown brush strokes that could represent bars.  This compelling 18-page booklet published by the Maryland ACLU, written entirely by girls at a juvenile justice facility near Baltimore, explodes with their artwork. The gifted adult ally, a brilliant young attorney, writes in the preface: “I cannot stress enough how completely this report is that of the girls themselves…I simply typed up their comments and strung them together, making minor changes or additions for tone, clarity and consistency only when necessary.”

One painting accompanies the commentary: “The Waxter building feels like a cage–not a place to help girls learn to do better.” Their heart-wrenching poems pack real punch:

Rescue Me (by T.)
Take me away from this world
full of hatred.
Give me the oxygen to breathe
before I don’t make it.
Rescue my heart before the
beating stops.
Wipe away every single tear
before it drops.
Give me the confidence I need
to feel good about myself.
Help me even when I say I don’t need help.
Tell me all the things I do best,
Before it’s too late and I live
my life full of regrets.

Unlike most reports that use graphs, quotes or photographs to break up the dense content, every page of “Caged Birds Sing” makes a splash with artwork and concludes with 41 specific recommendations.  The Baltimore Sun newspaper and other media paid attention which increased pressure on state juvenile justice authorities who adopted three significant proposals:

  • Create an evening reporting center for girls in Baltimore City, as an alternative to detention.
  • Hire more staff and make sure that the staff you have get good training/know the rules, and treat us respectfully.
  • Give girls the same types of opportunities you give boys, like hands-on experiences and different types of job training programs

This document demonstrates how “youth voice” and art activism, when combined with media advocacy and direct action with policymakers, can make a lasting impact.

Essential Stats @ YouthFacts.org

It’s a fact that many organizations use statistics to make the case for their existence. This practice of cherry-picking data helps paint pictures that many young people are druggies, alcoholics, sex maniacs, super predators, etc. and fail to consider data about adult pathological behaviors.

Here’s one example:

A nationwide survey of police agencies found only 25 documented cases of rape, physical violence, abduction, or other harms to youth inflicted by people they met online in 2005, a year in which child maltreatment authorities substantiated more than 250,000 cases of physical and sexual violence against youths within families, nearly all inflicted by parents. (“Trends in Arrests of Online Predators” by Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor and Kimberly Mitchell, The Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham NH, 2007).

A free portal, YouthFACTS.org, “seeks to debunk the barrage of modern mistruths about youth, restore a climate of fairness and integrity when discussing youth issues, advance verifiable and evidence-based information to better inform youth policy, enhance the integration of youth into democratic and multi-cultural citizenship, and build a culture that values and trusts its young people.”

In addition to relying on this website, I believe anyone working on issues involving young people should read articles and books by Mike Males, the principal investigator for YouthFACTS.org and senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.  He is the author of five books on American youth including Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities (Praeger, 2010), Framing Youth: Ten Myths about the Next Generation(Common Courage Press,1999) and The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents (Common Courage Press, 1996).

The other brain behind YouthFACTS.org is Dr. Anthony Bernier, Associate Professor and a critical youth studies scholar at California’s San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science. He gives this warning:

“So many interests and media across the political spectrum manufacture such grossly inaccurate things about youth then recycle each other’s worst inaccuracies that we can promise a site that is both non-ideological and offensive to ideologues. And, unlike entrenched interests, we’ll respond seriously to challenges and corrections.”

So lob tough questions to Males & Bernier and equally important, make sure young people absorb and analyze data from many sources, including this site.