On Saturday, May 20th, the newly formed N.O.W. chapter of Ann Arbor Skyline High School held the "The Future Is Female" conference. Maybe the chapter should be called WOW! Students spoke with eloquence about issues facing women, young and old, international and local. They screened a film they made that declares and claims their feminism. Members of the state organization, teachers, families, and friends were on hand to applaud their depth of thinking and their courage to speak out. Representative Debbie Dingell brought her view from Washington D.C., while Youseff Rabhi and Donna Lasinski spoke from the state level perspective. Some of the young N.O.W. members' teachers were invited to speak. Kristal Jaaskelainen, Chair of the Skyline English Content Area and Co-Teacher of the Communication Media & Public Policy (CMPP) Magnet Program spoke with Patricia Jenkins, the founder and Lead Teacher of CMPP. They have kindly contributed their comments to this blog. I am certain that you will appreciate Kristal's J's musings, from which the title of this blog entry evolves, even as Pat Jenkins ponders the Stories Missing from History.
FEMINISM, PRIVILEGE AND EMPATHY by Kristal Jaaskelainen
Dan Juntilla made me a feminist. Mr. Juntilla was in charge of the Little League program for Calumet and Keweenaw - located at the most northern point in the state of Michigan. Like my older sister, I grew up playing baseball. She was the only girl that played in her age group and I was one of three. I remember being so proud watching her play. One game, the starting pitcher, Josh, was underperforming and she replaced him. He walked off the field angry and teary-eyed, emotions stemming from both his poor performance and the fact that he was being replaced by a girl, I believe.
So, when the year arrived that I was trying out for Little League, I expected to be placed on a team and spend yet another summer playing ball with the boys. As I said, there were two other young girls that played in my age group - one was my cousin, Amy, and the other was my best friend, Kirsti. All of us had grown up playing, and while none of us were the best, neither were any of us the absolute worst. All of us were skilled and confident enough to continue and contribute at this next level of baseball. However, Dan Juntilla didn’t agree.
When try-outs finished, only three people didn’t make a team. As you might have already guessed, it was all three of us girls. Instead, Dan Juntilla said that he was creating a softball league and we were to play that instead. I was irate! I didn’t want to play softball; I wanted to play baseball. I knew I could compete. I knew I could hold my own. I knew that the only reason I didn’t make a team was because Dan Juntilla felt that girls shouldn’t play.
That moment was formative for me. I say this experience made me a feminist because it was my first experience with inequality. This experience opened up a world to which I had previously been completely ignorant; the world of privilege.
I had been taught to treat people like you want to be treated. I grew up respecting my elders. I grew up in an all-white, rural small town, daughter of the Judge. We were rich by Yooper standards. I was smart and school came easily to me. I was athletic because my father and I shot hoops and played catch. My father, by the way, has 4 sisters, a wife, 2 daughters and 3 grand-daughters. I believe he encouraged me to play sports because he didn’t have any boys around. Except for hockey - girls weren’t allowed to play hockey yet up there, even by my father’s standards. But back to my point, I was born really, really lucky. I am blessed with many privileges. Getting cut from Little League was the first time I was on the other side of privilege. The experience taught me what it meant for something to be “unfair”.
Without such an experience, I could have lived blissfully ignorant. But thankfully, I have not.
I am in fact grateful that this happened. I am now able to understand that being white gives me unearned privileges in our society. I can wrap my brain around the injustices felt by students with disabilities even though I am able-bodied. I can conceptualize the significant and problematic inequity in opportunity that comes along with being poor. I have learned to question the attainability of The American Dream and challenge the too-simple notion that anyone can just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” - What if you don’t even have boots?
I believe that feminism has taught me empathy and I seek to teach that to all of my students. It is much more difficult to truly empathize if you have never experienced something. Too often, I have seen people think they are empathizing, but really they were condescending.
For example, I used to volunteer at Boysville - a juvenile detention center. I led improv theater workshops with some of the boys and each season ended in a performance for the entire population. One performance happened around Christmastime, and a local charity brought in gifts for all of the young men. While the act itself was kind and generous, the reaction to it showed me something much different. Some of the boys declined gifts and visibly resented accepting something from complete strangers. Some of the boys weren’t Christian and didn’t celebrate Christmas. In spite of this, the volunteers kept insisting that everyone (including me) take a gift. I, like many of those boys, felt it a very uncomfortable interaction. For some, accepting the gifts was like willfully entering into a power dynamic that made them less than. I wasn’t even part of the target population yet I was expected to accept a gift. It felt patronizing and demeaning - certainly not the intent but still the outcome.
True empathy requires understanding and knowledge. Positions of privilege, by nature, prevent one from whole-heartedly knowing what it is like. So instead, we must listen and learn. I am an English teacher because literature and writing are venues through which we can do so. While I will never know what it is like to be black in America, I can read The Souls of Black Folk, Race Matters, The Color Purple and Still I Rise in order to learn. Although I was born in America, I can read Americanah, The House on Mango Street, The Woman Warrior and When I Was Puerto Rican in order to become conscious. As a teacher, I can validate the diverse perspectives in my classroom through purposeful literary choices, and encourage critical thought and compassion. I encourage us all to be thoughtful, engaged readers of diverse perspectives.
Feminism is the lens that taught me to see inequality. Because of feminism, I am now able to see and seek other lenses, as well as recognize and conceptualize the intersectionality of each. Feminism taught me to become aware of areas where I am privileged and as an extension empathize instead of patronize or condescend. Whether your lens is race, class, ability or gender, we must challenge the ignorance of privilege and instead spread compassion and empathy.
Literature is just one way to learn and challenge. My amazing colleague Ms. Pat Jenkins is going to discuss the Stories Missing from History.
STORIES MISSING FROM HISTORY by Pat Jenkins
The importance of the story in developing empathy is something I’d like to talk about, too, with focus on feminism and the future of social studies or civic education. I am a social studies teacher. Let me put on my teacher hat for a moment.
History – HIS STORY – Not HER story or THEIR story but HIS tory.
You see the problem.
It’s an age old one…
Did you know the word “history” comes from the Greek word historia meaning ‘finding out, narrative, history.’ The word Historia evolved from an earlier Greek word HISTOR meaning ‘learned, wise man,’ History (or the study of the stories of smart men) is only one facet of social studies education.
Did you know the first official definition of social studies called it "subject matter related to the organization and development of human society and to MAN as a member of social groups.”
The premise behind social studies is an admirable one – teach students about different places, different times – to make them aware of cultural differences and aware of their place in the structure of a larger society. The problem – the lessons or stories are, even today, told through the lens of the dominant patriarchal majority.
Like Kristal, I can remember the moment when I realized there were major gaps in the stories I learned in school.
The daughter of an educator (my mom was an elementary school teacher) and a spy (my dad work in intelligence for the National Security Agency or NSA), I grew up in middle class Washington DC during the 1960s.
I am the product of a stellar education: I attended a public middle school in suburban Washington and a private all girl’s college prep high school.
Freshman year. Dartmouth College. I enrolled in a course called the History of Black of America 1700 to 1860. We read John Hope Franklin’s History of Black America from Slavery to Freedom. It was the first time I learned from an academic institution that slaves weren’t docile, obedient weaklings. Other readings delved into the rich history and culture of Africa before slavery. To satisfy my thirst to hear more stories, I took the History of Latin America and courses in Women’s Studies.
Unlike the history we learn from the majority perspective, the stories of women, African Americans and other minorities don't start with the Civil Rights Movement or the Feminist Movement.
A side note – in my experience, women and those who gender identify as females tend naturally to be more empathetic and compassionate, more open to understanding the view of the other side, more willing to engage in compromise. Qualities we desperately need in our political discussion today.
WHAT CAN YOU DO in terms of creating a better future for feminism and social studies?
Ask for more courses like Community High Schools’ Alternative Perspectives on US History. The foundational text - Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
Get involved. Like Ashi and Brooke and other members of the planning team having the courage, imagination and energy to get a NOW chapter and plan this conference.
Support the Communications Media & Public Policy magnet program. It is the magnet for students who want to change the world. (Acknowledge Students currently or soon to be enrolled in the CMPP magnet -- please stand.) On behalf of myself and Ms J, thank you for stepping up and helping to change our world.
Finally, support the building of a National Women’s History Museum. It took 30 years from its first introduction in Congress to the opening of the National Museum of African American and Culture. 15 years for the Holocaust Museum. Support the building of the National Women’s History Museum – a permanent home for HER story!