In my Gender and Power seminar, I have made it a priority to not only teach students about the history of gender in modern history, but to create a class that pushes students to apply their knowledge to the present. Rarely do my students read or hear something just for its own sake. Instead, our studies of the past serve as a first step to develop an informed awareness of the contemporary world through the lens of gender.
For example, reading the stories of Victorian women carefully navigating the dangers of London streets can (and do) provide telling insights into today’s gendered urban spaces. My history seminar also asks students to go one step further and create a real-world project that both builds on our earlier studies and provides a platform for student activism.
This past year, my incredible class of students surpassed all my expectations and designed a powerful and pioneering project that combined student engagement in research with action in order to meet a community need—the problem of street harassment of young girls at Ellis and beyond. As the students learned, more than half of all young girls in Pittsburgh experienced street harassment outside of school within the last year. Street harassment (a common form of sexual harassment) not only takes an alarming emotional and psychological tolls on girls and women, but it also ultimately limits their freedom and mobility in public spaces.
Ellis students decided to take action against street harassment and fight back—with chalk. After surveying their peers about their own experiences, our class chalked the quotes of their actual catcalls in a nearby public space where Ellis girls frequent. As they developed their project, the students worked in partnership with Professor Britney Brinkman at Point Park University, an expert in the psychology of gender and social justice. Together we carefully studied the problem, met with other researchers, and even took a tour of downtown Pittsburgh to see how the city takes into account or ignores the safety of women. The resulting student chalking campaign was a triumph. It helped spread awareness of the problem and worked to show others that it is not acceptable to speak to young women in this way. As their teacher, I could not have been more proud of how they created a well-researched, historically informed, and effective project to address this important issue.
But I am delighted to add that their project did not end there! This year’s Gender and Power class has been asked to expand the project and serve as leaders and participants in a citywide campaign to combat street harassment. Our current class will work with Point Park University and high school students to gather more stories about their experiences and chalk quotes for a “Let’s Chalk About It” day in April. Public reaction to the chalkings will be captured as well. Our students will also develop prototypes for a “Mapping Street Harassment” interview project that will identify unsafe locations downtown, inform a marketing campaign, offer data to the Mayor’s Office, and train business owners and bus drivers in bystander intervention techniques.
The historical and real fact is that our girls have to live in cities designed by and for men. The lack of streetlights that help them feel safe, the limited access to public spaces, and the prevalence of street harassment are just some of the indicators. The Ellis students in Gender and Power deeply understand this reality. I can hardly wait until we begin this year’s project in a few weeks. Our girls are stepping up and taking action to raise awareness of the issue of street harassment, to create safer spaces for their peers, and, in the process, ultimately create a more gender-equal society.