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As we mentioned last week, SPARK activists recently took the stage and the mic at the United Nation’s 58th Commission on the Status of Women. They talked about girls’ activism and why it’s so important for adults to listen to, and work with, girls on the ground. Here, SPARK girls Sam Holmes and Cheyenne Tobias share their UN experiences.

Sam Holmes:

On March 11, 2014, I had the opportunity to team up with the Working Group on Girls, SPARK, and other amazing organizations in order to share my voice at the 58th Commission on the Status of Women. I participated in a roundtable on sexualization. Initially I was nervous about the idea of sharing my experiences with UN employees. Sexualization is still one of those issues that tends to be discussed in a whisper. It’s pervasive, and it impacts girls everywhere. Yet, there is still so much taboo in pointing out such a major societal flaw. Even though sexualization has cast a shadow in my life for years, I initially struggled when I wrote my speech for the day. Censorship and euphemisms were so tempting. But as the white screen of my laptop stared at me, it inspired some newfound honesty. I began with a story:

I went shopping for a six year old cousin, and so many products featured pictures of super made-up women with really extravagant or revealing clothing. She is not even in first grade and she’s being bombarded with images of fairies in fishnets and pin-up princesses. She’s a child but these images are trying to push her into this culture of objectifying women’s bodies. Professor Sarah Murnen of Kenyon College found that America’s top 15 retailers use sexualized images in 30% of their ads for girls clothing.

Hesitancy gave way to passion as memories of anger, confusion, and oppression fought their way to forefront of my consciousness. Scores of offensive advertisements, sexist comments, degrading music lyrics, and countless microaggressions sprang from the mental cage that I had worked hard to force them into. Writing this speech was the closure that I needed. All of the words that I had swallowed for years were going to make their debut in a room full of unfamiliar allies. Knowing this, I continued with my honesty:

If you walk around the city I’m sure you’ll easily ten billboards that feature a highly retouched photo of a black woman in some ridiculous advertisement. Black, Latina and Asian women are sexualized for their “otherness” factor. The media tries to portray these women as exotic and exciting rarities rather than human beings. Women of color are deprived the right of being conventionally beautiful because that standard consists of being thin with blonde hair and blue eyes. We are placed in a separate category.

LGBT women are also victims of sexualization. In television shows, relationships with two women are often used as a plot line for the male protagonist to ogle at. Ads will use pictures of two women together to heightened sex appeal. In doing so, they are making an image that these relationships are sexual and something to gawk at, rather than legitimate, enduring love between two people.

By the end of the third paragraph, I felt a little drained. It’s a downside to activism. Repressed thoughts really take their toll when they’re all released at once. Finally, the speech entered a more optimistic plain as I typed the word SPARK. Reflecting on SPARK’s awesomeness brought both gratitude and sanity as I finished my piece. I had the opportunity to revisit the Seventeen Magazine Campaign, numerous petitions, and even the recent Google Doodles action.

I loved the finished product; I was able to share my personal struggles while shedding light on a serious issue. At the actual roundtable, the UN employees were incredibly responsive. Everyone came prepared with an inquiring mind and plenty of questions. There were young women who came forth to share their own stories as well as parents of young women who wanted to take a stand against sexualization.

In addition to speaking with these adults, I also loved meeting my SPARK sisters throughout the day. This was one of my first times meeting these amazing activists in person. I witnessed them all being passionate about the issues that impacted their lives. Eloquent and empowered, my SPARK sisters definitely left their mark on the CSW.

Cheyenne Tobias:

Going in, I didn’t exactly know what the CSW was, nor what the Millennium Development Goals were. As we got closer and closer to the event, I began to understand more about what the week of events was really about. I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I had been in the past about speaking at a panel with the Working Group on Girls, mostly from having done it before, and also from now knowing the girls a little more. I went to several rehearsals and run-throughs and wrote and edited and rewrote and edited my speech over the course of 2-3 weeks leading up to the event.

The first event was the introductory day on Sunday, March 9th. All the girl delegates from all these different organizations piled into the auditorium and listened to and partook in various activities engaging us in the Millennium Development Goals. We first began with some exercises and skits guessing and getting a basic understanding of the MDGs, then we danced and took a break from sitting. We listened to the extraordinary Amina Mohammad and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speak. We broke for pizza and then came back to workshops where we were able to get to know some of the other people there (there were girls and boys there) and I finally got a detailed understanding of each of the MDGs.

I was especially struck by Amina J. Mohammad, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development, who stressed the importance of education in a girl’s life no matter what her circumstances. I found her extremely inspirational, eloquent and wise. She spoke with conviction and passion and was the most powerful force in the room, yet she relinquished the pedestal that often comes with such a presence and it was clear that she was giving it to us, and those around the world who strive for change. One thing she left us with that resonated was this: “Don’t just take what you’re fed, don’t just take your prescription, if you can do better, do better.”

At the MDG panel on Wednesday, March 12. I spoke about MDG #5: Maternal Health. My focus was on teen pregnancy in the United States. I spoke about the messages that I’ve received from my family and school, the importance of sex-education, opening the conversation about sex, and the vitality of prenatal care. It’s a cycle. It begins with the conflicting messages we are fed as children about motherhood and virginity. We internalize them and there grows the stigma behind women and girls and having sex. Because of the stigma we are not given all the information we need about sex because a common belief in America is that the best way to avoid problems is not to have sex at all. That isn’t realistic. Girls have sex and because of this cycle of misinformation may not know how to protect themselves correctly and then may not know how to seek prenatal care because of the shame that society puts of pregnant teens.

I was originally somewhat apprehensive about speaking about this topic because I didn’t realize how much I already knew. I’ve focused on and been so passionate about sexualization of girls and women in the media and about racism. But once I sat down and brainstormed and did a ton of research it was a clear path. I went to several run-throughs and everything went wonderfully. So well, in fact that at various points there were girls who came up to me here and there who had heard me speak before and had seemed inspired by what I had said and that was the best part of it all. The best feeling was to know that what I was saying was being heard. That my passion had come through and touched others and that they felt what I was saying and could relate. One girl came up to me after the MDG panel and expressed that she could completely level with what I said about sex-education and the stigma behind teens having sex. Honestly, it took a bit of restraint not to pick her up her and spin her, because all I could’ve hoped for was that there were girls who left learning and feeling like someone was speaking up for them and that they could speak up too!

I’m so happy to have had this experience, and hope to continue to be engaged with the Working Group on Girls.

Support SPARK’s work!

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Since 2010, SPARK has been training girls between 13 and 22 to be activists, organizers, and leaders in the fight against the sexualization of girls. Our team of girl activists has been growing steadily–from fewer than 10 activists in 2010 to 31 in 2013–and together, we’ve been achieving more and more! SPARK’s work is critical not only to the girls on the SPARKteam, but to our media culture at large. As the 2013-2014 SPARKteam, we’re making waves in every arena–and our current action is to raise money for our training retreat this August, where we can plot and plan for next year. Here’s just a sample of what we’ve done in the past year:

And in 2014, we’re on track to do even more! With your support, we can take the SPARKteam even further–expanding our reach, our power, and the voices of girls. Here’s what some of us want you to know about our experiences with SPARK:

“SPARK has helped me to grow in confidence and as a person and has encouraged me to think about how I can help to change the world for the better. I know SPARK will be able to engage many other girls just like they did me.” — Georgia Luckhurst, SPARKteam activist since 2012

“I love SPARK. The girls that I work with are diverse, welcoming, and brilliant visionaries who have supported me as an activist, a writer, and just in general. We are making the world a better place for women and girls through our dedication, honesty, and passion. SPARK has done, is doing, and will continue to do amazing things.” — Sam Holmes, SPARKteam activist since 2013

“Working with SPARK has been a life-changing experience for me. I’ve been empowered to write about issues that matter to me personally and affect the girls of the world. Writing for SPARK has taught me to use my words to create change, and our retreat built a community of brave young feminists who are working together to make the world better for everyone–including you!” — Anya Josephs, SPARKteam activist since 2012

“SPARK has given me an outlet for my voice, priceless opportunities, and extraordinary friendships. I can’t wait to do it all over again. I never considered myself an activist before SPARK, but now I know how to be the change I wish to see in the world, I can take that with me throughout my life.” — Montgomery Jones, SPARKteam activist since 2013

SPARK’s actions and programs rely on the generosity of individual donors. Without you, we can’t continue our transformative work. Please join us in building a world where girls’ voices are elevated and celebrated!

Donate today to our SPARKteam-run Piggybackr campaign and help us reach our $10,000 goal.

Make room to feel it all: an interview with Andrea Gibson

by Maya Brown

Andrea Gibson is a feminist spoken word artist and activist. Her poems explore gender norms and identity, bullying, war, class, race, and other subjects. “I first head about Andrea Gibson when we watched one of her poems in my high school’s Gay Straight Trans Alliance, and I’ve been a huge fan of her work ever sense. I was so excited to get the chance to interview her, especially in the middle of her tour. She’s such a role model for me, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to see one of her live shows soon!”  Andrea has written two books and five albums of poetry.


What drew you to spoken word?  What or who was your first poem about?

I discovered spoken word for the first time at a poetry slam in Denver, Co. I was immediately flooded with a feeling of, “This is what I want to DO!” I was inspired by the sincerity, the aliveness, the honesty, and fact that so many of the poems were written with the hopes of creating a more peaceful world. The first spoken word piece I ever wrote was about how difficult it was coming out to my family.

What makes you want to write? How do you decide on the topic of a poem?

I don’t know what makes me want to write. I just know I don’t feel quite like myself when I’m not writing. It’s the one place where the world makes more sense to me. It’s where I feel the most turmoil, but also the most peace. It’s the one place I look my life straight in the eye. I decide on a topic of a poem by whatever topic I’m currently finding impossible to stay quiet about.

What do you think makes spoken word so powerful?

The connection between the performer and the audience. The possibility that exists in that much transparency. The telling of a story out loud, the vibration of a spoken story. The aliveness. The anger. The faith. The sincerity. The climbing out of the grief. The refusal to be silent.

You define yourself on your website as an activist, what does activism mean to you? How do you see spoken word as a form of activism?

I have spent the last decade working with Vox Feminista, a performance group of radical artists and activists bent on social justice. Vox’s motto is “To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” I consider that every time I write a poem, and I consider that in my daily life. The year I discovered spoken word was the year I participated in my first political action, and perhaps that’s why the two have always been intertwined for me. In a culture full of so much destruction, creativity is in itself activism. That said, I’m aware when I’m writing that more is needed than our words.

In an interview with Autostraddle you mentioned that one of the things that keeps you up at night is the world’s treatment of women. Can you say what you mean by that?

I mean the world treats women terribly. I mean it is sometimes something I can not always look at without falling in on myself. I mean there are days I struggle to stay hopeful. And there are days I don’t. I mean there is so much to do, right now as I am typing this, there is so much to do, and I am often in an argument with Time. I mean we can change things. I mean there is so much possibility. I mean we are so capable. I mean all of that presses in on me, as it presses in on many of us, and it makes it difficult to want to rest.

How does your feminism impact your work? What does being a feminist mean to you?

Feminism is in every single line I have ever written. It’s the pulse of why I can’t not speak up. It’s why staying silent would bury me. I can’t put into words what feminism means to me without writing a novel. Twenty novels. The word “Celebration” would title a number of those chapters. What would the world look like if everyone of us were celebrated?

 Some of the actions we’ve done at SPARK call attention to how stereotyped “girls” and “boys” toys are for children, so your poem “Andrew” really resonated with me–like the line “Tell Barbie she can go now/ Tell G.I. Joe to put his gun down and find a boyfriend.” Could you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write that poem?

Everyone deserves to name themselves. Everyone deserves to define who they are. Everyone deserves to live outside of definition… if they choose. Every second I am alive I am changing. The idea that we are all constantly becoming…that’s what inspires me. My growing up life was full of restriction. I want to make art that is expansive and awake with possibility. I want to live in my body that way, live in my gender that way, live in my heart that way….opening all the windows.

I found your poem “Blue Blanket” recently, and was struck by how powerful the line “Tonight she’s not asking you/ What you’re going to tell your daughter/She’s asking/What you’re going to teach your son,” could you tell me some more about this poem and why you wrote it?

When I started writing “Blue Blanket” I had one idea in my mind, “If I had a son, what would I want to teach him?”  Before I started writing I honestly thought I was going to write a somewhat sweet instructional poem. If you’re familiar with the poem you know something much different came out. I’m yet to write a poem that quickly in my life. It was definitely something I needed to write for my own personal healing, and also something I had to speak out loud into the ears of culture. In a nutshell….I want men to take active immediate responsibility for stopping rape.

Do you have a poem (either one of yours or otherwise) you think every girl should read?

For Young Women Who Don’t Consider Themselves Feminists, by Mindy Nettifee.

What advice would you give to an aspiring girl activist or spoken word artist?

Make room to feel IT ALL. Feel you grief, you joy, your wonder, your light, your dark, your fear, your hope, your falling,  your love, your rage, your patience, your panic….all of it. Let it all be the fuel that creates your amazing life and your amazing work.

What would you say to a girl, or anyone, who is afraid that what they have to say won’t be heard?

Don’t push away that fear. Let it exist. Let the fear be part of your story. Make room for it so it never gets in the way of you raising your voice. We are all terrified of not being heard. We are all terrified. And we all have something to say that could save someone’s life.

One last question, I’ve heard from reliable sources that your dog, Squash, travels with you when you’re on tour. How does she like the traveling poet’s life?  Any funny stories?

Squash is a 9-pound terrier rescue from a shelter in Denver. She is also my beating heart with fur and legs. She likes to wear baby onsies with trucks on them and she is a master traveler. Her favorite part of the day is coming out to the merch table after each show to get snuggles from all the people. That said, I’m fairly certain she’s not a fan of poetry. She lays down at the sound booth and sleeps through all of my shows.


To find out more information about Andrea’s current tour, click here.

SPARK at the UN!

We’re super excited that six of SPARK’s activists are girl delegates at the 2014 Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations!

The Commission on the Status of Women meets at the UN every year to report on and evaluate gender equality and progress for women across the globe. At the 2014 CSW, the focus is on the Millenium Development Goals set in the year 2000–what’s worked? What hasn’t? And what will we do in 2015 and beyond? You can read about the goals in full here. In brief, they are:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDs, malaria, and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Establish a global partnership for development
This week, SPARK girls Annemarie McDaniel, Ria Desai, Mehar Gujral, Montgomery Jones, Sam Holmes and Cheyenne Tobias will join hundreds of other girls from across the world in reporting on how these MDGs affect their lives and the lives of girls and women around the globe. We’ll have a full report from after the event–until then, you can follow along with these incredibly important conversations on Twitter using the hashtags #CSW58, #UNgirls, #GirlsRights, #GirlDelegates, and #WGG2014.

#ReadWomen 2014: A love letter to Tamora Pierce

This post is part of #ReadWomen2014.

by Anya Josephs

Tamora Pierce has written a number of series of books for young adults. Most of them are set in one universe, a sort of magical alternate history in a place called Tortall. Her first series, The Song of the Lioness, focuses on a girl named Alanna,  who disguises herself as her male twin to train as a knight instead of learning courtly mannners like a lady is supposed to. (Her brother  doesn’t have to crossdress for eight years like Alanna does, just disguise himself for the journey and then learn magic at the convent Alanna was supposed to go to). She, however, has to remain in disguise for the years she is a page. She then becomes the squire to the crown prince, her good friend Jonathan. She learns magic, defeats an evil sorceror, and then goes on a quest to find a mythical jewel.

There’s a lot of amazing things about the series. Alanna is a great example of empowerment for female characters. She relentlessly pursues her goal of being a knight, she overcomes all sorts of practical and personal hardships, and she becomes physically and mentally stronger than any of the boys she trains with. She’s naturally small in stature, and has to work harder than the others to make up for the fact that she’s physically weaker, but she still becomes the best of the knights.

Alanna is also an interesting and complex character. She’s flawed, but not in the typical “quirky” way we see with a lot of young adult heroines. Alanna’s major flaw is that she has a terrible temper. She also has difficulty accepting some things about herself, a problem she has to overcome in the books. Alanna was born with the Gift (basically magic powers) and she’s very afraid of this aspect of herself. She also has to learn how to accept herself as a woman even though the traditional path of early, arranged marriage wasn’t for her. Despite being surrounded almost exclusively by men because all the other pages are boys, she seeks out and develops friendships with women.

She’s good friends with George, the King of the underground Court of Thieves, and goes to his mother for advice when she first gets her period. Eleni Cooper, George’s mother, also teaches Alanna how to wear makeup and wear dresses when she chooses to (although this has to be in secret because she’s disguised as a boy). Eleni also gives Alanna a magic charm that acts as birth control. In a scene I found really realistic, Alanna at first has no intention of having a sexual relationship, saying that she’ll be too busy maintaining her disguise and achieving her dream. However, she takes the birth control charm as a precaution. A few years later, she enters into a healthy sexual relationship with Prince Jonathon.

This first romance fizzles out because Jonathon pushes her to marriage, which she isn’t interested in, and she briefly flirts with her friend George before leaving on the aforementioned quest for the Domionon Jewel. On the way, she meets Liam, basically a wandering martial arts expert, and they become lovers on the trip. However, he’s intimidated by her, and the relationship ends. Alanna ends up happy with George, but what’s significant about all these romantic relationships is the tropes in literature, especially young adult literature targeted at girls, that are being subverted.

First of all, I think this is the only YA book I’ve ever read where a young female character has three happy, supportive relationships that are explicitly stated to involve sex. There are a lot of love triangles in fiction, but there are rarely multiple, subsequent relationships, all fulfilling and happy in their own way—the way Alanna’s relationships, and relationships in real life, often are. Also, the traditional happy ending of settling down and marrying the handsome prince is decidedly avoided in this book. Alanna is romantically involved with the prince, and sleeps with him, and remains his good friend for the rest of their lives—but when she realizes being queen isn’t in her best interest, she ends their romantic involvement. Another stereotype, that women are naturally jealous of each other and compete for the attention of men, is hugely subverted. Alanna ends up introducing Jonathan to a foreign princess, Thayet, and encouraging their romance. She and Thayet become close friends and she is genuinely happy for both of them when they get married.

Another wonderful thing about this series is that a number of different cultures are represented. Fantasy novels can veer a little bit into white-washing, because they’re often set in medieval England where almost everyone was white. However, The Song of the Lioness (and even more so the rest of Pierce’s books) have equivalents to many different cultures. Sometimes (as with the Bazhir, a nomadic tribe living in the desert and clearly based on Arab people) these can seem a little bit stereotypical, but in my opinion it’s still wonderful to have a YA fantasy novel that represents people of color, although the representation isn’t perfect.

I don’t find Tamora Pierce’s prose particularly beautiful—rather, her style is plain, existing more to tell the story than anything else. Additionally, the basic plot is not the most original thing—it’s a very similar story to many other quest narratives.

However, what is completely unique and wonderful about this series and the rest of Pierce’s books is how sensitively and thoroughly she deals with gender issues. She creates a rich, interesting, fantastic world, and fills it with complex and appealing characters, men as well as women. Honestly, I can’t recommend her books enough to anyone who loves science fiction or fantasy.

Black Women Create: highlighting Black women in film and TV

by Joneka Percentie

Many people underestimate the power that representation in the media can have for young girls, and especially young girls of color–but connecting with the experiences of another person and empathizing with their stories and lives is powerful.  Whenever we talk about why representation matters, I always think about this quote from actress Whoopi Goldberg:

“When I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

Now, though, television seems overwhelmingly white. It wasn’t always this way. I grew up watching shows like Good Times, A Different World, The Cosby Show, Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, The Jeffersons, Smart Guy–I could go on and on. And there were also shows that weren’t just majority Black, but majority Black women:  Moesha, Sister Sister, Living Single, and Girlfriends, and That’s So Raven, television shows that showed not only diverse Black women, but also the diverse relationships they had in their lives.  These amazing shows feel like ghosts of diverse TV past. Few cable and broadcast television shows make the same statements of diversity today that Black sitcoms began to make in the 70’s. The case in major production films proves to be just as disappointing. A report conducted by the Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism Media showed that the amount of Black actors in top grossing films went from 13% in 2007 to 10.8% in 2012.

So many women, and especially women of color, struggle with their self-perceptions and self-esteem as a result of the stereotypes held of us. In a 2014 study conducted by the Women’s Media Center, Essence Editor-in-Chief Vanessa Karen Bush explains that “there is a pervasive focus in the media on the most extreme characterizations of Black women and a glaring lack of authentic, inspirational images.” This is why it’s so important to support media created by Black women. When the narratives written for Black women are so often not written by Black women, we’re doing everyone a great disservice. Allowing the voices of Black women to be heard in an industry that has so often silenced them is key in introducing new and diverse talent.

It’s not as though Black women aren’t making media–plenty are. There are thousands of Black women who are telling their own stories and who are creating complex and diverse Black female characters that are relatable and accurate, and we want to highlight their work and support their projects. That’s why we’re launching Black Women Create, a new project that will highlight the work of Black Women in the film and television industries and give young Black girls that are interested in pursuing these fields a place for advice, inspiration, and direction in navigating the careers. So far we’ve interviewed Tchaiko Omawale and Lena Waithe, who only confirmed the importance of this project and wide representation of black women on the screen.  As Tchaiko explained,

If you’re an artist, who you are and how you see the world comes out in what you do. So if you have a medium where it’s a majority of one type of person making that medium, you’re gonna get that one type of person’s perspective. [...] And that’s why you need more women and just more diversity, so that when people consume films, they’re consuming the reality of the world as opposed to a really small part of it. Even within black women. I have a small group of friends who I love and admire and who do amazing things, but we all make very different films and we all have very different viewpoints of the world or what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a black woman. It’s going to be different if you’re a heterosexual woman versus if you’re queer. There are just different things that are going to come out. I think it’s just really important to allow other voices to be present.

As recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o once explained, “The first time I thought I could be an actor was when I saw The Color Purple. I grew up in Kenya, and a lot of our programming was from all over the world, and we didn’t see ourselves on screen. So it was rare that you would see a world populated with people that look like me. It just shows how important it is to represent everyone in our profession.”

They’re right: this isn’t just a problem for Black women, but everyone who is a part of the film and television industries and watch their content. Black Women Create is about Black women, but it is for everybody. Every month, we’ll interview Black women in the television and film industries, highlight television series and films directed, written, and produced by Black women, and include personal experiences from the SPARK girls. You can follow the project here. We’re turning the lack of representation of Black women in the media on its head, and create more opportunities to give new voices and talent the space to showcase their work.