Recently I was asked to consult on a new leadership program for high school girls, funded by a wealthy businesswoman. The program was designed to help girls discover their “inner compass,” learn to take personal responsibility for their actions, develop networking skills and social media manners, and enter the world with “grit” and “a personal brand.” The businesswoman’s story, experiences, and successes would anchor a series of daylong training sessions and other successful women would model key concepts and offer information to the girls.
I encouraged the program director to rethink this plan—to drop the focus on fixing girls and create a leadership program that actually gives girls a chance to lead. What if women encouraged the girls to talk about social injustice? What if they worked with girls to identify and research a problem, share knowledge, and develop solutions together? I asked her to consider the long term impact of intergenerational partnerships, and not just on the girls. After a series of emails, we agreed to part ways.
This book has been an opportunity to listen to experienced girl and women activists reflect on intergenerational partnerships and the conditions that stifle or support girls’ social change work. Mostly I wanted to know from girls how adults can best scaffold their activism. I heard an earful about what works and what doesn’t.
It doesn’t work to prescribe rules, ask girls to work on their manners, or lean in to what we know are flawed systems and expect they will care or things will change. We cannot offer an implied social contract in which girls are promised success if they renounce what they know from experience, assimilate to our views, agree to be Mini Mes.
If we want girls to engage in the world around them, we need to invite their passion, creativity and curiosity to the table. We need to offer our resources, connections, and support, open up possibilities, help them see the world as if it could be otherwise. We need to invite girls to think critically, challenge oppressive conditions, and risk dissent—that is, to be willful. And we need to offer the kind of trusting relationships that ensure they can so without fear of our judgment and punishment, without feeling like some kind of traitor.
It comes down to this. If we want girls who can bring their entire selves to solving social problems, who throw themselves fully against injustice and move boldly into the world to change the world, we need to step into relationships in ways that open up space for imagination. This means using our privilege as adults to clear a path not to create more obstacles.
Listening to the girls and women in this book, I’m reminded of how much I love doing this work. Intergenerational feminist activism is a radical, boundary-crossing interruption of the way things usually go. It’s also wildly inventive, hopeful, and vitally necessary if we are to create the world we want and if we are to sustain that world over time.