Wait, who’s the enemy here?

If you agree with Superintendent Charles T. Epps Jr. of Jersey City, New Jersey (though if that’s the case, we’re not entirely sure how you found us), it’s girls.  While addressing a group of Jersey City pastors recently to discuss public school safety, he stated, “Our worst enemy is the young ladies.  The young girls are bad. I don’t know what they’re drinking today, but they’re bad.”

I’m sorry, what?  To listen to his words, you’d think he had some kind of alien encounter with a possessed girl-monster, eyes red and flashing.  But before we go all Exorcist on Mr. Epps, perhaps we should give him a chance to elaborate.

But, no… he actually refused to elaborate, letting his sweeping, ambiguous statement hang in the air, letting the idea that girls are the enemy and that girls are inherently bad permeate impressionable minds everywhere.

Though it feels a little bit unworthy of our time, let’s hypothesize for a moment about where he was coming from that this kind of word vomit spewed onto unsuspecting citizens.  Perhaps he disapproves of the way girls dress and behave in school.  Perhaps he has observed that girls are sexualized too young, shaped into participants in a media culture that seeks to confuse “girl power” with narrow versions and coveted ideals of “sexiness” and “beauty.”  Or perhaps it was that he notices fighting among girls, what media these days calls “bullying” and back-stabbing in competition for popularity or the attention of boys.  Or perhaps he wasn’t talking about the girls who (on the surface) seem to fit these stereotypes, but rather the girls who don’t.  The girls who identify as queer or have the boldness to embody their own unique developing characters, thereby breaking out of the molds our culture would impose.

In the interest in filling up air space with positive messages about girls and not this poison, we’d like to present some fabulous examples of girls making positive, loud, amazing change in their communities — because girls are not any kind of enemy.

Take, for example, the annual Day of Hope spearheaded by one of our junior high girls’ groups,designed to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of violence in girls’ lives and to express solidarity for the girls who were experiencing it right in their very schools.  The girls created a public awareness campaign in their community about the impact of violence on girls’ lives and engaged another area school to host the day, as well.

And, a personal favorite of ours, when one group of teen girls got fed up with their magazines promoting one type of barely dressed body peddling a product that didn’t even appear in the advertisement, they decided to created their own alternative.  The ‘zine, called OMG, No Naked People, contained media critiques, poems, art, and book reviews and circulated throughout four school systems.  Talk about taking back the media!

These social action projects are what make our story.  Girls aren’t the enemy, aren’t “bad”, aren’t the problem.  They’re the solution.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is a culture of contradictory messages that, on the one hand tells girls that sexualization and girl-fighting is normal and “aspirational” and on the other hand vilifies them for mirroring the very images with which they are bombarded daily.  If a flower were wilting, you wouldn’t blame the flower, would you?  No, you would realize that the soil is the problem, the environment in which the flower lives is problematic, lacking nutrients.  Calling girls the enemy is the problem.  Mr. Epps’ statements?  Are the problem.

If you’re an adult who works with young people in some capacity, you are in the fortunate position of being able to offer them refuge from their often toxic, confusing landscape.  You can create safe spaces for girls to unpack the media stereotypes and social expectations that confine them, and help girls see one another as allies rather than adversaries.  You can support girls in “hardiness zones,” encourage girls to remain true to their own voices and become healthy women.  You can be a muse who inspires girls to do their best work.  Are you dying to know how yet?

We can’t wait to kick off our first ever Summer Institute, Navigating Girlhood. We’ll share what we’ve learned in 11 years working with girls and we’ll talk to you about the unique needs of the girls with whom you work so that you can develop an action plan.

Immediately applicable theories and research-based methods of Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown, Carol Gilligan, Janie Ward, and others will be the foundation for this three-day event.  But its highlight?  Unquestionably the inter-generational dialogue and practice with girls themselves.  That’s right: we’re asking the girls to teach us about their own needs, their own worlds, and their own wellness.  At this training, you’ll learn to navigate girlhood with girls as your guide.  Because really—who better to do it?

We promise that once you see these girls in action, no adjective will be further from your mind than “bad.”  You’ll be inspired by the incredible energy of these girls and the allied relationships they form to get things done.  They’re way more than words — they’re poetry in action, and we’re pretty sure that Mr. Epps could learn a thing or two from them about communication.  Perhaps we should extend him an invitation?