A few months ago, I made a trip to the store to grab a few items in the middle of the day. The store was full people. A strange man around 30 years old approached me as if he knew me. “Nice to see you!” he said.
I was very confused, but decided to be polite. He offered his hand to shake, and I took it. Seconds later, he was leaning in to kiss me.
“What are you doing?!” I said, pushing him off. He stuttered and eventually walked away. I stood there trying to figure out what had just happened.
I’ve been catcalled, cursed out, disrespected, objectified, whistled at like a dog and even followed home. But this moment was at once the most saddening and the most empowering because it was the first time I actively resisted an inappropriate advance.
While the majority of Black women I know experience sexual harassment, and too many experience sexual assault, we often don’t acknowledge sexual harassment and violence for the problems they are. When we don’t step back and question these behaviors that diminish our sense of self worth and power, we accept them in our daily lives.
Even though we understand that such behavior is unacceptable, we often face numerous obstacles in speaking out about the harassment we face. Learning how to step forward and speak up requires asking questions. That’s where peer-to-peer education — lessons led by students for other students — becomes important. No one can empathize with the problems Black girls face more than Black girls, so naturally we are the ones best positioned to find solutions for our own problems.
I attended King/Drew High School in South Central Los Angeles, which has a predominantly African American and Latino student body. In my experience, one of the best ways to spark conversation around gender equity was to recruit my classmates to become peer educators. I ran an organization called Women’s Day, which is exclusive to King/Drew, facilitating peer-to-peer sessions on issues like how women are treated differently workforce and how they are perceived in the media. We created an original curriculum and dedicated an entire school day to educate and empower the young women, especially women of color, in our school.
In order to teach these topics, my classmates volunteered to become experts, which mostly meant beginning to question the systems behind inequity and injustice. Why, for example, are Black girls on television always shown doing something boisterous, offensive or extremely sexualized (the stereotypical Black girl)? When we look at the media, we realize that women in general are rarely behind the scenes as producers, directors and writers, let alone Black women and other women of color. In becoming peer educators, we dig deeper to figure out why things are the way they are, so that we can work toward change.
Peer-taught lessons also work well because they avoid common, alienating dynamics in conversations about feminism and gender where men feel criticized and powerless to help, and women feel judged or shamed. When the conversation is started, both men and women begin to acknowledge and empathize with each other’s experiences, and see how double standards and objectification hurt all genders, not only women.
Even though there were strong policies in place at King/Drew, sexual harassment was still a problem, because policies don’t always translate into action. I’ve found that in working with administrators to implement or enforce policy, it’s important to approach them with clear vision and organization, ready to share examples and recommend the best response.
I’ve also found that approaching community organizations is a great way to build education around these issues. Organizations can share their expertise on topics like sexual health and healthy relationships, and usually all it takes is simply reaching out; a lot of times these organizations are already willing and able to help. In fact, that’s how I met the women behind the Step Forward campaign, which has sparked incredible dialogue at King/Drew around sexual harassment. I didn’t realize how impactful reaching out to community leaders would be until I did it.
Digging deeper into questions of injustice has instilled a passion in me. Initiating these discussions and lobbying for change no longer feels like work; I have chatted with strangers about sexual harassment while waiting at the bus stop because peer education has given me the tools to ask the hard questions and demand change in my everyday life. I know that even when I feel powerless and weak and as if the world is just happening around me, I always have the power to make change. As a Black woman entering American society, I realize that my voice is the most powerful weapon I have.
Kennedy Moore is a student at UCLA and a social activist.