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Students convene to address gender issues

By Julian Caldwell

TIM LAMORTE/RIVERTOWNS ENTERPRISE

Zachary Gallin of Irvington talks with Zoe Kaplan and Heather Colley, co-presidents of the Sleepy Hollow High School Feminism Club.

 

Irvington High School hosted nearly 100 students last Sunday, April 10, for the first Westchester Youth Gender Equality Conference. The gathering, which was the brainchild of Irvington High School senior Zachary Gallin, 17, assembled members of school clubs throughout the county dedicated to gender equality issues.

“Gender equality is an all-encompassing thing and at the same time such an important form of social equality that includes LGBTQ rights, equality in the workplace, political equality,” Gallin said. “It includes very much how sexism intersects with things like racism and classism.”

Gallin’s passion for gender equality developed three years ago, while he was taking an AP World History class taught by Courtney Geelan. Discussions in the class often illustrated how, throughout history, women had fewer rights and opportunities.

“For the first time in our society this is starting to change,” Gallin said. “For the first time the playing field is really evening out and we’re almost there, but we’re just not there yet.”

Gallin was inspired to start organizing the countywide conference after attending a leadership institute in India sponsored by the organization Experiment in International Living, which provides summer abroad programs for high school students to experience new countries. When he started planning the conference, one of the first people he contacted was junior Katie Graubart, 17, a fellow member of the Irvington High School Feminism Club.

“I really appreciate my community and school and town because I feel like we are a very progressive town,” Graubart said, “but there are still people that have those anti-feminist, sexist mindsets that have just been ingrained in them as kids, that people are trying to unlearn. There are still people who take feminism as a joke and make rape jokes.”

Her feelings about the school and community were echoed by Gallin.

“Irvington is a very sort of egalitarian and accepting society, so I’ve definitely been away from the brunt of the gender inequality in our society. At the same time there definitely is sexism just in people’s dialogue in school on a day-to-day basis.”

The conference began with keynote speeches from Bobby Hodgson, a Skadden Fellow with the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Maggie Keenan-Bolger, founder of Honest Accomplice Theater, which features an ensemble of women and transgender people who tackle issues they feel are underrepresented or misrepresented.

Hodgson shared a story involving a pre-teen transgender girl who had transferred to a new school where administrators barred her from using the girls’ bathroom and locker room. Keenan-Bolger told the story of how she founded Honest Accomplice, admitting that being a white, cisgender woman gives her an advantage over people in her ensemble who she hopes to empower. (Cisgender people identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.)

“We have a responsibility to listen to minority voices in our groups,” Keenan-Bolger said. “We have to work at being uncomfortable in our privilege and not letting it stop us from moving forward. We have to listen and change when listening and changing are necessary. And perhaps most importantly, making sure our progress doesn’t come at the expense of others.”

Intersectionality, or the idea that people with different backgrounds within the gender equality movement have different needs, was the focus of one of 10 workshops led by high school students and adult professionals that followed the keynote speeches. Other workshops covered men and women in healthcare, disparity in dress codes, and domestic violence. Hastings High School senior Natalie Schlosberg, 17, led a workshop on global gender inequality, covering issues such as sex trafficking and child marriages.

“Instead of feminism in America, it’s about bigger issues — like life-and-death stuff that women face around the world,” said Schlosberg, president of the Hastings High School Feminism Club. “I want people to understand that the issue of women and girls and their safety around the world is the next phase in global equality, and I want people to understand that there are some really big issues that we don’t hear about in America that affect a lot of people around the world.”

Michael Sabatino, a Yonkers City Council member who belongs to Zion Episcopal Church in Dobbs Ferry, also attended the conference with his husband, Robert Voorheis. Sabatino is the first openly gay elected official in Yonkers, and he and Voorheis have spent decades advocating for rights for the LGBTQ community.

“You’ve got to educate people on issues,” Sabatino advised the young conference attendees. “The more people that are educated on this issue, the more that the word will spread, and hopefully there will be more understanding of the topics.”

Student organizers of the conference agreed that misunderstanding or ignorance about the gender equality movement is the main challenge to overcome.

“A lot of people sometimes think that it’s about making a matriarchal society and trying to overstep men and push them down, but we want to be equal,” Graubart said. “We want to be paid equal, we want to be considered equal, we want the same rights to control our bodies and help have a say in what goes on in the world. There are still people getting raped, there are still people getting paid less than their male counterparts, there are still dress codes that are unequal between men and women, in schools, in public places, in offices.”

The conference ended with students sharing what they learned from the event and what they hope to see from the gender equality movement in the future. Gallin learned that he’s not alone in his mission, and he plans to make the conference an annual event.

“It was wonderful to see my ideas and hopes realized, and it was remarkable to see so many passionate teenage activists gathered in one place,” he said. “We achieved our goals for this year’s event, and we are excited to host the conference again next year.”


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


 

April 15, 2016

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