August 6th, 2009

Interview: Aspiring to Sisterhood

How do you convince a twelve-year-old girl to question Chris Brown’s character? Earlier this summer, we covered Aspire, an innovative summer program run through Cleveland, Ohio. The program teaches academic subjects to adolescent girls, but it’s also concerned with empowering them in the non-academic areas of their lives.

laurengardnerThis week, we spoke to Lauren Gardner, Aspire’s dean of students, about the discouraging reaction some of her students had to the buzz surrounding Rihanna and Chris Brown.

You told me earlier in the summer that some of your students had been “blaming” Rihanna for what happened between her and Chris Brown in February. Tell me more about that, and about the girls in the program.

Yes! This is crazy. Some of our teachers, early on in the summer, came to some faculty meetings really concerned about how much the girls adored Chris Brown — and how they had this kind of “loyalty” to him.

They aren’t great complex thinkers yet, right, so the issue for them was very Chris Brown vs. Rihanna. And not all, but a lot of them wanted to side with the one who they were putting posters of up all over their lockers.

Our students are all girls, ages 11-13, from the East Cleveland, Cleveland, and Cleveland Heights school districts, which are three of the most underfunded school districts in the Cleveland Metropolitan area. Our mission is not specifically for African-America students, though they make up the majority of the group. There are Hispanic and white girls in the program, too.

Right. When you talked about it in faculty meetings, what were the teachers’ concerns?

Basically that there was some kind of cachet around blaming Rihanna for getting beat up by Chris Brown. And, that the girls could be so misinformed and misguided about this situation, and dating violence in general.

Do your students date?

I don’t know how many of them are really dating, but I believe that the older ones probably do — or are at least at a point where their crushes aren’t just like, famous boys, but boys in their neighborhoods and in their schools who they actually talk to and stuff. So in that sense, yeah, I think many of them do have “relationships.”

I just want to add that, as a personal point of interest, there are a lot of them that don’t, too. That’s one of the crazy things about middle school girls– how developmentally all over the place they can be.

What’s your personal reaction to the idea that adolescent girls would defend someone who abuses his girlfriend?

It’s hard to know what to do. I mean, I don’t like it at all — it’s B-A-D bad for any girl to believe, or even say, that a woman’s being abused by her boyfriend is deserved in some way.

But on the other hand, I’m not terribly shocked. It sort of confirms a lot of what is already out there about the way middle school girls think about relationships with men.

I think a lot of it is typical, middle school development forces. I think that some people would want to show the girls like, a picture of Rihanna’s face and say, “See? This is unacceptable!” and maybe talk it out about domestic violence a little bit further. But I don’t know how much that kind of an approach would faze the girls — that kind of thinking isn’t just something to snap out of. I see it as much more sympotmatic of their developmental stage.

Did you and the rest of the staff decide to “do” anything about it?

Well, we had already had a special “day” programmed into our calendar at this point, called Love Your Body Day. It’s been part of our program for a few years now. We thought that instead of getting into some kind of new and potentially messy “domestic violence” workshops, we’d approach the issue by going on the offensive. We really worked hard to run a variety of workshops that focused on positive body image.

We played up the message that it’s important to treat you and your body right — girls could make healthy smoothies, or make face masks from household ingredients. We had a self-defense class, too, which was really awesome. Also yoga, stretching, and a few discussion groups– about images of women in the media, friendship, etc.

In the end, did you get any of the Rihanna-haters over to the woman-loving side?

At the age that they’re at, I don’t know how possible it would have been to have made the Chris Brown fans fall out of love with him. Personally, I’m more interested in effective ways of teaching the girls how to balance mixed messages — how to like someone’s music or dance without modeling your life after the messages they’re sending– I think that’s huge for so many of these girls, and even adults, too.

And so, while I don’t believe we necessarily disbanded the Chris Brown lovers, or got his posters off their lockers, I do believe that we did as much as we could to give the girls the necessary tools to think about themselves and their world in a critical, intelligent way.

Interview edited by Elena Schilder.

Interview: Summer days, drifting away [Ed Beat 07/08/09]
Relationship Abuse: That’s Not Cool [Ed Beat 07/30/09]
Love is Respect [Teen Dating Abuse Hotline]

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