If there was (or currently is) a bit of a gap in your high school education in regard to discussions of feminism and gender, you’re not alone. These topics and their intricacies can often be beyond the parameters of a high school classroom, left for you and your peers to navigate once class is over. After high school, you might then find yourself trying to catch up, perturbed by discrimination and the larger systems at play. Alternatively, perhaps you were (or are) conscious of feminism, power and gender in your teens, but without a way to engage with these topics amongst your peers. fEMPOWER, an organisation instigated in Sydney, helps address these disconnections by bringing discussions of feminism and gender to high schools through organised workshops. I spoke to Arabella Close, one of the founders of fEMPOWER, about its ideas and goals, volunteering and the power of young people.
Talk us through the birth of fEMPOWER… how and why did this organisation come about?
fEMPOWER started early in 2015, out of the Wom*n’s Collective at Sydney Uni. We were trying to work out what initiatives we wanted to do through the collective that year, and the idea of feminist workshops in high schools came up. We’d all had less than stellar experiences with feminism in high school – it’s often taught as a very static “historical event” with little current relevance. We all wished we had come to university recognising that feminism could be used as a tool to make sense of the world around us. So we started devising the workshops we wished we’d had in high school. In particular, we wanted to create workshops that looked at gender discrimination in relation to other types of privileges and power, or lack of. We’ve always thought there’s not much point talking about sexism without reference to racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism.
Once we had developed some material we started contacting schools and once one school said yes, it was easier to find another that was keen to host us. Over time we created a more formal organisation structure – this year we’ve become a registered charity. Now there are five of us who run the organisation, and we deliver the workshops with the help of volunteers.
You go into classrooms expecting there will be great variation between students in what their ideas and understandings of feminism and gender are. Do you find fEMPOWER workshops vary between being a beginner crash-course in feminism to a discussion of more nuanced understandings of feminism and topics such as intersectionality? How do you balance this in your workshops?
We create each workshop based on what the school has indicated they want, as well as the age group, whether the schools are co-ed or not, and any information the teachers can give us about the kind of engagement with issues around gender they see amongst the kids. We’ve done workshops that work through more straightforward ideas like gender stereotypes, and others that are designed for students who have already read a lot into intersectional feminism on their own. It’s impossible to have a workshop that will cater to everybody equally, but we always have time set aside for small group activities, where there’s much more scope for individual students to direct the discussion to their particular level of engagement with the topics.
What kind of receptions have you got since you started out, have you been met with wariness or with open arms by schools around Sydney?
Both. Even within a single workshop we might get complete disinterest – even hostility – as well as rapt attention. We haven’t really worked out the formula to explain the different responses – sometimes you can see light bulbs flicking on in students minds all around the room, and sometimes there is just quite a bit of push back. But far more than not, the response is positive. We also try to keep some flexibility in the workshops so if we get a group who is really resisting what we’re talking about, we can change track.
Co-ed and all-boys schools have had you come speak to their students. How do you ideally engage young males in a conversation about feminism?
Ideally, we could walk into a classroom and say “look, this discrimination exists, it’s complicated and deeply ingrained and you play a crucial role in whether or not we perpetuate it” and that would be enough to engage them.
And sometimes that will work. But mostly it won’t, because that involves asking teenagers to admit their role in a deeply unequal system, to potentially see fault in others – men and women – who they may love and respect. Of course that’s hard. I would have resisted that at 15 too.
So, we focus on how rigid ideas of gender hurt everyone: how traditional conceptions of masculinity often leave young men feeling very isolated, angry and confused. We want them to see that the same structures, stereotypes and norms that make them uncomfortable crying in public and asking for help, are the same ones that lead to the gender pay gap and violence against women.
How do you want students to feel when they leave a fEMPOWER workshop, what kind of messages would you like to see sink in?
That gender is complicated. Anything more prescriptive than that I think would be unproductive and unhelpful. We’ve quite consciously avoided making students feel like there is a right way to do feminism – that would just be perpetuating the same issue we all had in high school where feminism was made to seem rigid and inflexible. There is sometimes a perception that teaching students to question and challenge entrenched gender norms is the same as teaching them to reject those norms. On the contrary! Embracing femininity or masculinity is always a legitimate choice – the issue we’re concerned with is the “choice” bit. We want students to feel that if the gender stereotypes don’t work for, or make them feel isolated and uncomfortable, that it is okay to challenge them, and to create something different for themselves.
Let’s say I am in high school and I’ve heard about fEMPOWER and would like you to come do a workshop at my school… how do I do best make this happen?
You can go to the website and fill in a form about hosting a workshop.
Once the form is submitted we will get in touch with you and the school. We go to all types of schools, all over the place, so don’t feel there’s any reason why you can’t get in touch with us. If you have questions, you can also email directly firstname.lastname@example.org.
fEMPOWER is established in Sydney and has just begun reaching out to volunteers in Melbourne. How can people get involved and do you need extensive knowledge of say ‘gender studies’ to contribute to fEMPOWER?
You definitely don’t need extensive knowledge of gender studies – I’ve never studied gender studies myself, and neither have lots of our volunteers. The only criteria you need to meet is that you have an interest in talking about intersectional feminism with high school students, and you need to be willing to be challenged or called out. Other than that, people of any gender, age or background can volunteer. They just need to fill out the form on the website for volunteers or email me at email@example.com.
What are your long-term goals/dreams for fEMPOWER and its reach?
We would love to venture out into regional areas – hire a van and drive around with a group of volunteers, as well as do more work with students from refugee backgrounds. We’d also love to set up more substantial workshops – where we could come back to the same school over a number of days and really flesh out the material.
Greatest things you have learnt about young people from your time doing workshops?
I’ve learnt to not underestimate their capacity to really grapple with complicated and messy topics. I think often it’s easy to assume some issues are beyond the grasp of kids – that they’re too young to care or understand. But you’re only doing them a disservice when you think that way. They’re thoughtful and cluey.