Women’s History Month 2012: Jessica Flaherty

I wrote in earlier blog posts about my transition from Trinidad to Boston and how difficult that was for me. I wrote about how I was starved for meaningful social interaction, reaffirmation of my identities, new friends and how I picked up smoking. I wrote briefly about the crazy things I’d done during my high school years. What I haven’t really touched on yet are the people that helped make those years successful. The people that have helped me shaped me into the person I am today.

When I joined BAGLY I knew it would change me at my very core. The organization took me, a crazy and unrefined teenager, taught me valuable life skills, and then set me out into the world to fully develop into a force to be reckoned with. I do not write this just to write it, it is true as true as can be for me.

Within the first hour of my first meeting at BAGLY, I met Jessica Flaherty.

Jessica seemed to take a serious interest in who I was, what I was bringing to the group, and what potential I had to develop into a leader. Maybe it was because she was an alumna, or someone who cared about the mission of BAGLY, but Jessica wanted to know the answer to two questions: Who I was? What was I bringing?

To be sure, she didn’t come up to me during the first meeting and say “hey, who are you? what are you bringing?” I probably wouldn’t have had any kind of acceptable answer. She watched and waited. Patiently. After a few months of my being a part of the youth group it was youth board ‘election’ time. My peers told me that it wasn’t anything I should be worried about. They didn’t think that there would be any reason for me to apply for anything…after all, I had just joined a few months ago. I didn’t think anything of it.

Gunner (far left), Jessica (center) and Trevor (far right), three of my influential mentors.(Image courtesy Facebook.com)

Jessica had other thoughts in mind.

Jessica approached me during that ‘election’ season and asked me if I thought about running for any positions. Of course I hadn’t. She saw potential in me and suggested that I run for a meeting facilitator position. I did in fact run for the position (if only to be in a position of power) but didn’t use an ability-based campaign…I used my charisma.

Being a meeting facilitator was no easy task. You had to generate meeting topics for your peers that were meaningful enough to engage folks for at least an hour every week. I don’t know if I could do it today but back then? I was able to generate enough juicy topics to keep my people coming back for more. Eventually, the room I hosted my meetings in couldn’t hold the amount of people that wanted to participate (it was a small room.) For me, Jessica’s point was made; I was a leader.

Jessica taught me what it meant to be sex-positive, feminist, pro-woman, and aware of queer politics. You try.

The next year I had the opportunity to visit California for the first time as a member of the BAGLY delegation to the Creating Change conference produced by the Task Force in Oakland. I remember my constant state of awe – not at the city of Oakland, its people, or even the time change…for the first time, I was surrounded by people who truly believed in youth as a resource – a force to be reckoned with. When I left that conference I had a newfound vigor for Youth Leadership Development. Because of Jessica I had the opportunity to lead a workshop at the following Creating Change in St. Louis and I knew for sure that I had an advocate.

Jessica is one of the few people that I’ve met (seriously, less that 20 in my life) that truly believes in the power of young people. She would talk to me about my development, the development of my peers, and the advancement of the organization. And boy was she smart! It seemed that no sooner had I learned about a change agent she had known about them for least a life time before. She taught me about what are now some of my favorite movies and documentaries:

She had me locked in.

Then college happened.

Jessica [with THE stare]Throughout my college years I thought incessantly about BAGLY. How would I get back? Would the investment in Youth Leadership Development be the same? The short answer? Yes! I had the opportunity to work on the Queer Activist College – a program designed to maximize the potential of BAGLY youth – to advance its offerings. At that point, I had not been nearly as challenged.

Jessica has a gift for youth development. Being an alumna of the organization she has a unique sense of what the membership is experiencing, where they’re coming from, what fights they’re going through every single day. Unfortunately, those things haven’t changed. Jessica continues to be a listening ear, a lighthouse during the darkest hours and a safe harbor.

I could never say “thank you” to Jessica enough.

About one month ago I was asked by BAGLY’s Director of Development to talk about my experience in the organization and I said this;

Even though I have not been to a BAGLY meeting in 6 years I think about my experience constantly. BAGLY unlocked confidence in me, my experience helped to create a passionate person hell-bent on achieving social justice for all. I could never put a price on my BAGLY experience because I could not be where I am today without the multitudinous lessons learned in that powerful space.

When I completed my last project at BAGLY, Jessica told me that I would always have place in the organization. I have not stopped thinking about that.

Jessica has inspired my current line of work and my thoughts on youth development – that if you believe in the power of youth, they will come through and surpass your expectations. She continues to pour herself into the work with no expectations of what its result will be. She purely devotes her effort to the development of each and every young person that walks through those doors.

Jessica continues to lead the charge of developing youth that come into the organization. I have no doubt that she is influencing and shaping countless lives in a thankless position – and that’s okay.

The only thanks she needs? Knowing that there are more capable and committed leaders in the world.

 

Women’s History Month 2012: Margaret Sanger

The war over women’s bodies is fiercely raging. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Here are some recent excerpts from mainstream media sources;

Foster Friess, a prominent backer of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, raised eyebrows Thursday when he offered up his own idea for a possible contraceptive method: “This contraceptive thing, my gosh, it’s so… inexpensive. Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives.” Friess’s implication is that if women hold aspirin between their legs, they won’t open them. “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly,” he told MSNBC‘s Andrea Mitchell. (CBSNews.com)

Obviously, he’s right. Let’s give every woman some aspirin! Here’s another;

“What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps. (interruption) The johns? We would be the johns? No! We’re not the johns. (interruption) Yeah, that’s right. Pimp’s not the right word. Okay, so she’s not a slut. She’s “round heeled.” I take it back.” (Rush Limbaugh‘s Radio Show)

Get my point?

For some reason we (yes I said we) have found it fit to place women’s bodies in the crosshairs of political debate. At some point we decided that it would be appropriate to question a woman’s right to control her own body. So with this war on women, their bodies, and their reproductive rights in full swing, I thought it apropos to bring it back to where it started.

I’m devoting this post to a certified badass who raised her voice when women weren’t ‘supposed’ to, a trailblazer who took matters into her own hand.

Margaret Sanger.

Margaret Sanger Deutsch: Margaret Sanger (* 1879)

Margaret Sanger opened the first Family Planning clinic in the United States in 1916. The first. This was probably the single event that started this war on women. Not long after she opened the clinic, she was arrested, and later convicted of providing contraception. I wasn’t there but I don’t think she ever denied it. But wait, there’s more…

The judge in Sanger’s case offered her a lighter sentence (why didn’t he think she could do her time?) if she promised (like a good girl) to never break the law again. She delivered a proverbial ‘up yours,’ boldly stating that if they didn’t change the law then they should expect to see her again. She served her full sentence.

She wasn’t done…in fact, she was just getting started.

Five years after her first attempt at providing dangerous contraband (that’s sarcastic) she founded the American Birth Control League with the foundational belief that children should be consciously planned for by the mother and that children should have loving environments. Plain and simple. She was still pretty worried about how she could get contraceptives to women without breaking the law. Sanger did some research and found a loophole that allowed her to create the Clinical Research Bureau, an organization run by physicians with the sole purpose of administering birth control.

BOOYAH!

English: 1917 photo of Margaret Sanger.

Sanger leading the charge. (Image via Wikipedia)

Over time these efforts began to lose steam. Sanger didn’t give up. She took steps to force the U.S. government to make a decision on birth control. As a result of judicial victories the American Medical Association decided that they thought that contraception was a-ok.

Look, don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe in everything that Margaret Sanger did (just read about her views on race, eugenics, etc.) but much like my post about Michelle Rhee, I believe that she forced an issue that was important to women everywhere. It’s with her fervor that I fight for everything I believe in.

Don’t give up the fight for your body. Margaret’s watching you!

Women’s History Month 2012: Krista Corwin/Skirt Vonna-Gut

When I received my acceptance letter to City Year, I thought about it in a very narcissistic sense. was committing a year of service, I had to find housing, was moving away from my friends and family. I couldn’t care less about the people with whom I would embark on this year of service.

The story of how I first learned of Krista‘s existence is probably only funny (or pertinent) to me but I’ll tell it anyway. Upon your acceptance into City Year, you’re invited to join the ‘Beloved Online Community,’ (BOC) an attempt at an internal social network designed for newly accepted Corps Members. Because I was one of the first applicants accepted to my cohort and a (still) rabid early adopter of new online technology I was a hyper-user. I would log on at least 3-5 times a day to see who else had joined, if they’d posted an interesting bio about themselves, and most importantly, if I could find them on Facebook. The first person I remember seeing on the BOC was Krista and although I can’t produce an exact representation of her bio, I know that it contained the buzzwords feminist, awesome and activist. My buzzwords.

When I looked on Facebook for Krista I saw these pictures:

Winner.

If Krista were telling this story she would talk about how she too found me on the BOC and sent me a message about the potential for us being roommates and my subsequent non-response. I hold fast that I never received this message or (probably what really happened was that) I got her message and fell unconscious due to her pure awesomeness. But I digress…

A couple of months after we’d finally settled on being roommates (add Daniel and Jesse) she decided that she wanted to take a trip to New York City for the first time. In her mind, NYC was a mere stone’s throw away from Boston (not true!) and that it would be simple for me to get there for a weekend. [As an aside, I'll confess that I've never met someone in person that I've only met on the internet.] I braved the four-hour MegaBus ride to the city to complete the Trio of Trauma – a nickname Krista quickly put to the group made up of me, her and her sister Ali.

We hit it off and I had what was quite possibly my favorite experience in NYC. Ever. It wasn’t that we saw anything I hadn’t experienced before, or did anything brand new. It was purely the company. With Krista there was this unbridled sense of adventure. No one knew what was going to happen next. I don’t even think she did. This was the first lesson Krista ever taught me.

Be unpredictable.

I had only really ever been predictable. I thought I knew what the equation was to having a good time; drinking, superficial conversation and maybe some dancing. The end. That weekend we stayed in a hostel (my first time), chatted up Belgian strangers (where did I find my five-year old French?) and got kicked out of a club (never again.) Krista doesn’t know this but she made moving to California infinitely more comforting for me. I knew that I would have a fun roommate. Months later, she became my partner.

Throughout our relationship Krista has faced significant professional challenges. It was through these times that she taught me a second lesson.

Be better.

Krista never stops striving to become a better person. She seeks critical feedback and thrives on it – constantly refining herself into this professional force to be reckoned with. Whenever we talk about her day job(s) or hobbies she’s seemingly always focused on how to improve herself. After practices or her Roller Derby bouts she talks solely about what she can improve on for next time. How can she improve on her mistakes from today to be a better player tomorrow? What’s most impressive about this lesson she’s taught me; she doesn’t stop at herself – she teaches me more than she will ever know and I wouldn’t be half the professional I am without her as my partner.

Think I’m just blowing steam about constantly improving? Over the course of the past year Krista has stopped at nothing to become a better player. Her dedication (and charisma) earned her a blog post as her team’s skater of the month. Check out the post!

Skirt Vonnagut

Lesson #3?

Never settle.

I was raised to never create conflict. Period. If someone offered you something, take it. You’re lucky if anyone offered you anything at all. I have gone through life with that mantra, no questions asked. That was until I met Krista. She has challenged me to reconsider my self-worth – to myself, to my employer and as a contributor to humanity. Before her, I always thought of myself as lucky to share my thoughts and ability with the world, never did I think that it was actually useful to anyone. Krista has taught me that we are all invaluable to the world. Without people like us, the world would probably be a boring place.

Lesson #4 shakes my very foundation and shapes my worldview.

(Re)Consider women.

This is probably the most complicated and convoluted lesson I’ve learned from Krista. I’ll try to explain.   I am a graduate from a well-ranked, private, liberal arts college. What’s more? I was the first male, Women’s Studies major. With the assumed responsibility of carrying the Feminist torch high and always I thought I’d had my Feminism down to a ‘T’. I was wrong. In the 2 1/2 years of our relationship Krista has taught me that the traditional representations of women are inherently flawed and her examples have been many. It is because of her that I write about this month’s women solely as that, women. Powerful, professional, change affecting women. Not as mothers, wives, or homemakers. I’m not saying that mothers, wives, or homemakers lack importance or power but that the traditional narrative is that these are the only kind of women. Wrong.

At the sake of being cliché and cutesy, I am lucky to have the opportunity to learn from Krista every day. Her commitment to the cause, her tenacity, her resiliency, her unapologetic honesty…need I continue? Head over to her blog to get the slightest taste of the kind of person she is. Wow.

Thank you, Krista for teaching me new lessons constantly. For keeping me on my toes and constantly questioning ‘reality.’  Thank you for refusing to settle. Thank you for showing me that women aren’t just mothers and wives.

Most importantly, thank you for making me a better person.

Where can you find Krista? That’s difficult to nail down. You can probably find her changing the world as a feminist-activist with the ACLU, advising students how to take control of the world at her day job, or (the most fun) kicking ASS at roller derby bouts. Think you can keep up? It’s a wild ride!

Derby girls be cray

Women’s History Month 2012: Michelle Rhee

I never thought I would work in education. Ever.

Throughout high school and college I had some of the most positive educators in my life but I didn’t give the idea much thought. I was way too enthralled by the realm of Public Health, more importantly, sexual health. In my eyes, there was no cause that was more pressing, none that deserved my time and energy, none that inspired me. That was until I found City Year.

Michelle Rhee

Michelle Rhee (Image via Wikipedia)

Over the course of the past three years I’ve found myself in the thick of heated debates about the educational landscape – charter vs. traditional, union vs. independent…the list goes on. Although I was incredibly passionate about the issues, I didn’t know of many reformers who were doing good work. Yet. Slowly but surely I started to hear and learn about the work of Geoffrey Canada from the Harlem Children Zone, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg from the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), and Michelle Rhee.

Rhee struck me because of the radical work she was doing as Chancellor in Washington, D.C., one of our country’s worst-performing states in terms of education. She came onto the scene as a freshly graduated Teach For America alumna with only one agenda item – fixing a broken system. Her tenure in the school system was divisive. She forced people to talk about many issues affecting education in ways many had historically strayed from. She closed under-performing schools, fired ineffective teachers, reformed Professional Development for teachers, incorporated parents in the fight for their children’s lives, need I go on?

Is Rhee perfect? Probably not. And that’s okay. The education reform movement doesn’t need ‘perfect,’ it needs people who are willing to say and do the difficult things, people who are willing to take risks, people who have student achievement at the forefront of their minds. Are her practices accepted by everyone? No. Again, that’s okay. At the very least she’s showing those watching that there isn’t only one way to affect education reform, that’s a great place to start.

Since leaving her role as Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, Rhee didn’t stop working to reform education in the U.S. She founded Students First. This “grassroots movement is designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators, and citizens throughout country, and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results on both the local and national level.” There’s something powerful in her commitment to students and the communities that support them.

Michelle Rhee has taught me to embrace my idealism, no matter how unpopular it might be. She has taught me to have courageous conversations and force innovative approaches. She has taught be that if I can imagine what a better future looks like and begin to charge forcefully toward my vision, isn’t that at least a positive step in the right direction? In the end, isn’t that the definition of idealism?

Women’s History Month 2012: Norma Rodriguez

This is a blog post I wrote back in November 2010 that was featured on the City Year San José blog.

In today’s data-driven education climate, it is often easy to lose the human aspect of what City Year Corps Members, teachers and school administrators signed up to do this year; to help reduce the achievement gap. At first glance, this goal seems unattainable. But Mrs. Norma Rodriguez, Principal of Anthony J. Dorsa Elementary School, does everything in her power to achieve this goal everyday.

The Alum Rock Unified School District, in which AJ Dorsa is located, ranks #548 in California. Further examination of this data tells us that this is not the entire story. What you do not see in Alum Rock’s ranking is that during Rodriguez’s tenure, AJ Dorsa has jumped a whopping 120 points in the Academic Performance Index. Thanks to Mrs. Rodriguez, approximately 630 underprivileged students in San Jose, CA grow socially and academically every year.

Norma is fiercely dedicated to the intangible relationships students form everyday, from being greeted in the morning with lively music and a community rally to the mentorship they receive from the adults around them. It is in this spirit that she has welcomed the City Year program with open arms to the Dorsa community.

When you step into her office, you’re instantly reminded that Norma has a mission to improve student achievement every year. The charts showing growth and performance throughout the school illustrate her commitment to academic excellence.

It reminds her that although the school has come a long way under her leadership, there is still a lot to be accomplished before her team achieves the ultimate goal of becoming a California Distinguished School. She knows she cannot accomplish this task alone and that she must incorporate the needs of every parent, teacher, City Year Corps Member and student in order to be successful.

When the City Year team at Dorsa talks about Mrs. Rodriguez, it is with an air of reverence, trust and respect. The amount of appreciation that each Corps Member feels toward the work that she puts in everyday is astounding. They are constantly thinking about ways to “make Mrs. Rodriguez” proud.

Today I had the pleasure of listening to a conversation she was having with the fourth and fifth graders enrolled in our After-School Program about respect for each other and changing the traditional story of low-performing minority students. She said,

“Change begins with each of you. When you make bad choices you’re not just effecting yourself, you’re helping to rewrite the story that we have set out to change together. We must work as a team and hold each other accountable. I love you all and will do anything to support you but first, you must support each other.”

Thanks to Mrs. Rodriguez, students are learning that no matter their background, the story of the 21stCentury American education system can indeed be changed.