“I am, I was, and I will always be a catalyst for change,” said Professor Anita Hill, paraphrasing Shirley Chisholm last week at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Hill was honored as Woman of the Decade along with nine other “Justice Warriors” at Girls for Gender Equity’s (GGE) 10th anniversary celebration. In 1991, the world came to know Anita Hill as a catalyst for change when she stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee with allegations that (soon-to-be) Justice Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her during his tenure as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Beyond the controversy of those hearings, what has withstood the test of time and touched women so deeply has been Hill’s dignity, elegance and intelligence in the face of unrelenting public scrutiny and pressure. It’s no surprise that Girls for Gender Equity, a youth-development organization committed to “remov[ing] barriers and creat[ing] opportunities for girls and women to live self-determined lives” would recognize Hill with this honor.
The crowd of GGE volunteers, supporters, staff, and community members were treated to a conversation between Professor Hill and three youth organizers – all bright, women of color in their teens – that centered around the newly-erected Barclays Center, home to the Brooklyn Nets later this year. I was blown away to hear these young women articulate their concerns about the impact the stadium will have on the culture, safety, power of local residents, particularly women and girls. Here in NYC, we’ve been privy to a lot of discussion about the Barclays Center but this was the first time I heard about it in a women’s empowerment framework. Professor Hill weighed in and shared the girls’ concerns that there will indeed be a major cultural shift once the stadium’s doors open and implored GGE to form coalitions with other concerned and active groups so that their collective voice could be heard.
Hearing from those young women was a highlight but it was only a snapshot of the good work that’s happening at GGE. Whether empowering female athletes, educating young men on masculinity or tackling street harassment, GGE is making good on its mission to “achieve safety and equality in the social, political, educational, athletic, economic, health, and media worlds of the smaller and larger communities in which girls and women live and work.” Joanne Smith, executive director, was justifiably proud of how GGE has grown to address the needs of the community as young people are faced with new challenges and are in need of support to become advocates for one another.
One of my personal highlights of the evening was speaking to an animated and outspoken young lady by the name of Angel who is off to Howard University this fall. Angel is a GGE Sisters in Strength community organizing intern working as a trained peer mentor to middle school students. I asked Angel if she this so socially and politically aware before getting involved with GGE. “I did not come into this organization with these ideas,” she said. “When I first got into GGE, I didn’t realize these other girls felt like this because I don’t go through the catcalls every day.” Angel, who’s 17 but could pass for 13, stood before me petite, sans makeup, hair pulled back into a low ponytail, and dressed in a bowtie and slacks reminiscent of Janelle Monae. She said that she gets harassed in the street too but the comments are different, directed toward what people perceive as her sexual orientation, not how her butt looks in a sundress. Still, she said, no matter which form the harassment takes, “it made me feel like we should do something because [they] are my sisters. God forbid anything happen on the street to one of them, all of us are out.”
Professor Hill was pitch-perfect in her closing remarks, saying, “We don’t always intend to be a catalyst for change but now that we have the voice that we have, we know that we can do more than just achieve on our own. We can engage with other young women and we can talk about the issues that matter to us. And just that act alone is empowering and can cause change in people’s lives.” This is what Angel does when she dances with the girls at Middle School 61. This is what Anita Hill does as a scholar, author, and cultural icon. This is what GGE has been doing for the past decade and will continue to do, I hope, for many years to come.