I’ve never exactly considered myself a feminist, per sé – I mean, I’m all for equal pay for equal work, and I cherish the opportunity I’ve been given to receive a quality education regardless of my preferred gender pronoun, but a bra-burning man hater? Not quite my thing. And yet, a recent visit to our Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship by Pippi Kessler, Program Director for Ma’yan, engaged me with a feminist perspective that I had yet to consider. Ma’yan “provides feminist, social justice, and leadership training to teen girls and teaches vital skills to parents and educators,” and their statement of vision and values includes the monumental task of “striv[ing] to make our community and the wider world a better place for girls and women [and] envision[ing] a society where young people of all gender identities are supported and taken seriously by adults.”
Along those lines, we began our session with an activity designed to enhance our awareness of “male” privilege. I say male with a bit of hesitation, because as we quickly realized, the array of privileges being described could often only be attributed to heterosexual, cisgender males. Nevertheless, as we read the various statements aloud, I noticed, quite uncomfortably, how gendered the language was, how much I identified with many of the statements, how frustrated I felt as a woman. Of course I was discouraged by the continued disparities between men and women that span both personal and professional life, but what angered me more was not the inequalities themselves, but rather, the underlying attitudes in our society that continue to perpetuate these pervasive inconsistencies. As the conversation continued, we discussed various methods of change, from enacting large-scale procedures and policies, to modifying our lived behaviors, values, and beliefs. I began to realize that though expansive gender equality legislation is essential, for maximum effect it is crucial to engage in honest, thoughtful dialogue at a personal level.
Which led us to the next part of the program. After a passionate discussion about our initial understandings of gender inequality, Pippi screened for us raw footage of one of Ma’yan’s latest projects – in their programming specifically geared towards teenage girls, the current topic of conversation revolves around sexism in the media. The unrealistic, and often unhealthy, expectations of young women in American society largely stem from the vast media culture in which the majority of Americans revel. Young girls, now more than ever, face an increasingly-sexualized prepubescent existence; crop tops and miniskirts fill the racks of “tween” clothing stores, Miley Cyrus’ and Katy Perry’s “sexcapades” provide the soundtrack for their lives, and beauty regimens and fad diets are increasingly marketed exclusively for, and directly to, teenage girls. And yet, when asked about how this affects their own beliefs and values, the teens honestly and thoughtfully linked their self-esteem and mental health with the barrage of media aimed at promoting an impossible standard by which young women strive tirelessly to achieve. Furthermore, the participants in this film were not solely Jewish, and though Ma’yan is a Jewish organization, creating a space in which both Jewish and non-Jewish girls are able to engage with these difficult issues provides a key link between feminism as both a Jewish value, based on our sacred texts and fundamental practices, as well as an American value of equality of opportunity for all.
Issues of gender are often discussed on our campus (the bold, beautiful Barnard women and their equally bold and beautiful Columbia counterparts make sure of it), but never had I experienced the conversation in quite this way. Our cohort’s conversation with Pippi was indicative of the intention of the Fellowship program – contemplating larger issues in American society through a distinctly Jewish lens, and understanding how this enlightened perspective allows us to go forth with a renewed sense of purpose in our social justice work. My own work with AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps is another example of this interplay in action. AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps “strengthens the Jewish community’s fight against the causes and effects of poverty in the United States by engaging participants in service and community-building that inspire them to become lifelong leaders for social change, whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish values.“ In addition to the Service Corps program, AVODAH has created a new Fellowship for Jewish early career professionals working to alleviate poverty in the United States, where participants are given mentorship, training, community, and networking opportunities to enhance their work and encourage leadership in Jewish social justice. (Plug for both programs – check them out here! http://www.avodah.net/apply/ and http://www.avodah.net/fellowship/) Both of these programs provide unique experiences for young Jews committed to social justice to learn both from each other and the populations with which they work, and facilitate a deeper understanding of how Judaism can, and should, play a role in their social justice efforts.
I walked away from our meeting with Pippi unbelievably inspired. Our Fellowship cohort has had discussions about “What’s Jewish about Social Justice” and how our work is influenced and informed by Jewish values, but seeing how those conversations are put into action by Ma’yan, AVODAH, and other similar organizations has given me a renewed sense of purpose in my own social justice journey. I know these incredibly meaningful conversations will continue to enrich our Fellowship experience.
To learn more about sexism in the media – and the ways women and girls are constructing counter-narratives – check out PBS’s Makers project, where you can watch groundbreaking media educator Jean Kilbourgh, whose work inspired Ma’yan’s teen filmmakers. For work happening close to home, The Barnard Center for Research on Women puts on symposia and events to link feminist research and practice and the Women’s Media Center makes women visible and powerful in the media.
To take action yourself, join feminist artist Suzanne Lacy on the streets of Brooklyn this weekend as part of a large-scale performance art and community organizing event: http://creativetime.org/suzannelacy/.