In the weeks leading up to International Women’s Day, several senior girls approached Assistant Head of Upper School Amanda Alonzo and Equity & Social Justice Coordinator Alegria Barclay about the possibility of somehow supporting or engaging in the International Women’s Day Strike called for March 8.
Collectively, the group decided that finding some way to stay true to the purpose of the strike, while also acknowledging that most female-identified students would probably not be staying home, would be the goal.
After a series of conversations, faculty and students settled on having a walkout so that the day was disrupted and that the absence of women would be felt. From there, the senior girls had specific requests about what they wanted to gain from their affinity space, as well as what they hoped the male-identified students would gain from their group discussion.
In general, the goals of the day were to:
- amplify and explore the experiences of female-identified students
- better understand the impact of sexism on all genders
- begin to think about how we can support each other in addressing gender inequality moving forward
Alegria’s goals were to support the student organizers in their efforts and to conceive of ways to best empower all of our female-identified students. Alegria said, “I also felt strongly that the male-identified students needed a space to engage critically with the idea that sexism does not only impact women and is damaging for all of us. Finally, I wanted to create space for all to feel emotionally invested, heard, and inspired to create change.”
The following are accounts of the morning from both affinity groups:
Female Affinity Group
At 9:30 am this Wednesday, Nueva Upper School women — students, teachers, administrators, and staff — all dropped what they were doing and gathered in the Café for an uplifting discussion on women’s empowerment. Simultaneously, male students congregated to listen to stories of sexism and injustice that had been experienced by their female peers.
First, female faculty shared moving stories of times they encountered sexism and misogyny and emerged stronger, and often “victorious,” as upper school history teacher Ali McLafferty stated it. From computer science teacher Jen Selby’s story of being denied the right to work on the manual labor of set-building in high school, which struggle eventually led to her being designated stage manager, to Ali’s tale of taking a military history class with a cohort of all men, teachers shared ways in which they had advocated for themselves and helped educate others about the issues women faced having their voices be heard and being able to take on roles and careers they wanted.
Alegria Barclay, the social justice coordinator, then called for volunteers to roleplay situations in which they could find themselves needing to be assertive or engage in a difficult situation — such as when someone uses an offensive term, perhaps without realizing it, or when they notice a problematic behavior in a friend. After each roleplay, students offered myriad ideas and inspiration for techniques to help have hard conversations and educate others.
“You can, and maybe should, always start by asking ‘Did you realize that was hurtful or could be misinterpreted?’” suggested an 11th grader.
“Telling someone that what they did makes you feel unsafe or unheard can really change their minds,” noted a 12th grader, “even if it feels difficult to be brave enough to say so, their reaction is often one of reflecting, asking themselves if that’s really who they want to be or how they want to behave.”
The female-identified students and staff ended the morning with an affirmation of each other’s intelligence, capability, and ferocity that left students feeling powerful and determined.
After returning to classes, students emerged to find the stairwell papered with male students’ responses to the stories of sexism their female classmates had experienced. As female students walked down the stairwell, they could see phrases their male classmates had wanted to express to them: “You are heard and understood and supported.” “There are so many issues and I feel powerless to solve them all. I want to help but I don’t know how. What should I do?” “Innocent bystanders are not innocent. I’ll never be a bystander again.” “I stand in solidarity with you.” “It was very powerful to listen to your stories. It is not okay for any of this to happen. Every day I am learning more about how extremely problematic sexism is, even here. I want you to know if I see something I will speak out.” Many female students were greatly moved and impressed by the sentiments and the tone of determination and support their male classmates use. Some students found stickers with which people walking down the stairwell could visually show that they particularly appreciated certain responses. Many deep conversations happened on and around the stairwell at lunch, conversations about speaking up and the right ways to intervene in situations and to encourage positive spaces.
The afternoon culminated with a call-and-response activity in which students of all genders came together to validate one another, stand in solidarity, and begin to identify the pragmatic and daily solutions we can affect as a community as well as larger-scale projects towards which we can work. Students sat in a circle, and every person present was silent as others spoke and fully focused on hearing others.
“There was an incredible level of respect, listening, and support shown today,” said Lee Holtzman, upper school faculty. “This is the beginning of an even more vibrant, aware, and supportive school culture than we already have.”
Male Affinity Group
Upper school teachers Allen Frost and Brian Cropper welcomed the assembled group of Nueva’s male-identifying students with an explanation of why they had gathered and why the female-identifying students had walked out of class at 9:20.
The teachers said that Nueva’s female-identified students wanted to let their classmates know that sexism happens here at Nueva and in the Bay Area. It was the female students’ hope that their male classmates could recognize that the toxic forms of sexism found around the world and their own experiences confronting sexism are interconnected.
The session began with a small-group discussion of the ways in which societal sexism affects men and boys. The students then shared out their experiences in two categories: the world at large and daily life at Nueva.
The male students observed that in our society:
- “Men are not allowed to hold hands or show outward affection unless they are gay.”
- “Boys are expected to wear masculine clothing and carry themselves in a masculine way.”
- “We are expected to be exempt from emotions.”
Here at Nueva, the students noted that:
- “Boys are expected to take dominant role in projects and initiate class discussions.”
- “We are expected to be confident.”
- “I am in a science class that is just seven guys.”
- A teacher said that, “Sometime girls seem more willing to ask for help than guys.”
- “We are expected to be aware of the issues facing women, which, before attending Nueva and having these types of conversations, we might not be.”
Allen and Brian explained that the purpose of this initial activity was of course to validate the students’ feelings while also acknowledging that issues of sexism for women can be much more drastic, and that the consequences of sexism against women reverberate far and wide into our society.
Next, Allen and Brian read powerful statements created by several of our female students about experiences they have had at school and in their lives. Students were invited to read their female classmates’ statements out loud to the group. The reality of the stories and experiences shared were powerful and arresting. Immediately afterwards, the boys sat in unbroken silence reflecting on the experiences their classmates described for them.
When the assembled group was ready, they had the following reactions to share:
- “I have never been scared for my own safety. Having someone assume I like science or going to the I-Lab is dwarfed by these experiences.”
- “I did not realize that many of the things I hear about harassment of women happens to our classmates at such a young age.”
- “Hearing this puts a new perspective on the smaller things that happen — the language that we use, the jokes we make. In the context of these striking and real stories, it makes me realize that we we have to pay more attention to our words and actions.”
- “I am thinking about how we will have to carry this awareness to our college experience, as we are exposed to fraternities and the high rates of assaults and harassment that are reported on college campuses.”
Before head back to class, the students used Post-it notes to create messages of solidarity for their classmates. The handwritten notes were then typed up and turned into a powerful display in the main stairwell.
Here is a slideshow from the morning:
March 10, 2017