How Do Teens Make Sense of Sexual Harassment?

By Sarah Miller

Kesa Kivel

Educator, activist and artist Kesa Kivel wants to give girls ways to navigate gender issues by “owning” their beauty and power, understanding cultural influences, and seeing themselves as agents of change in our society.

One of Kesa’s most well-known projects is the Girl House Art Project. For ten months beginning in September 2005, Kesa developed and led the Girl House Art Project at the YWCA Santa Monica / Westside in Santa Monica, California

Talking with Kesa reminded me of my own middle school sexual harassment experience. A popular boy offered me a badminton racquet, placing it between his legs. When I accepted the racquet, knowing giggles ensued. “What’s so funny?” I innocently asked. A whisper of the shame I felt then still reverberates. Unfortunately, doesn’t almost every woman have a similar story?

The Girl House project was inspired by “Womanhouse,” an art installation created by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in 1972. Middle school girls learned about media literacy, women’s history, and the gender wage gap. The Girl House Project concluded with a public exhibition in June of 2006. Participants created art pieces describing the effects of sexual harassment. The works were displayed in a playhouse on the YMCA campus.

Five years later, the curriculum and subsequent film, which debuted at the 2008 UC Davis Feminist “Film Festival,” are still relevant. The Girl House curriculum and film has been used in Women’s Studies programs in colleges such as the University of Massachusetts, Boston and The University of Wisconsin System to highlight girls’ activism. But let’s get back to the girls.

Kesa strongly believes that, “Art makes difficult issues more palatable. A splash of color makes a difference.” She feels that art makes the learning experience more engaging and interesting  and can provide a medium for girls to protest unfair conditions and practices.

Kesa’s latest project “Underground Railroad: Ama’s Journey to Freedom” focuses on race, resistance and resilience. A group of thirty-four middle school girls participated in a reenactment of a fictional girl’s abduction from Africa, her transit through the Middle Passage, enslavement on a plantation and finally her brave escape through the Underground Railroad.

Kesa has found that African American girls become uncomfortable during conversations about slavery because they are most often portrayed as victims. She counteracts these traditional narratives by emphasizing strength and courageous resistance, pride and transcendence.

While waiting their turns to experience the reenactment, the girls created art as a way of bridging their personal experiences with Ama’s. The art themes included equality, fairness, and justice.

Are middle school girls too young to be exposed to these stories? When I was a first-year teacher I tried to encourage my diverse class of 5th graders to make a personal connection to a passage from Warriors Don’t Cry, a memoir by Melba Pattillo Beals. I later felt guilty for suggesting to my students that some of them were subject to discrimination.

Kesa believes that as long as the teacher comes from an open-minded and authentic place, creates engaging projects and emphasizes the victories as well as the hardships of those oppressed, it’s OK to broach such sensitive topics with kids.

Kesa understands that no single project is enough to battle inequities and is currently collaborating with several community organizations to develop a multi-year, student-led culture of respect at John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica, CA.

On April 7th she was honored for her volunteer work with middle school girls with a 2011 YWCA Focus Award as part of the Santa Monica YWCA’s 85th anniversary celebration.

Her speech reframed “victim” as “hero,” and paid tribute to the courageousness that’s in us all. For more information about Kesa Kivel, a long-time supporter of the Women’s Foundation of California, and her projects, to see the Girl House film, or download free curriculum materials, please visit http://www.kesakivel.com/index.html.

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