Sarah is working this summer at The Sadie Nash Leadership Project, which was founded in 2001 to promote leadership and activism among young women. The program is designed to strengthen, empower, and equip young women as agents for change in their lives and in the world.
My experience with gender socialization growing up in suburbia, CT, centered very much on the idea that I was special. I was smart, beautiful, and I had a good sense of morals – which, according to almost any adult I encountered, made me unique and a step above most of my peers. I think I grew up with the slightly supercilious sense – or at least a sense of forced humility – that I had been handed the perfect package from God, that I was blessed with many gifts and, better yet, I had been groomed to use them for good, not evil. So this made me strikingly different from other youth.
That was the message I received from my parents, my teachers, and my ministers. I was taught that I came from a position of privilege and that I had a duty to help those less fortunate than I. This viewpoint neglected to include any sense of equality, of mutual respect or of reciprocity between the subjects of my benevolent aid and me. It wasn’t until college that I started to question this ideology behind community service.
And that was most definitely the limit to which my work extended: community service. I thought of it only on a localized scale, probably because no one had ever challenged me to look at issues on a systemic level. Not to devalue community service – I still do a fair amount of it and it has certain undeniable benefits to a community – but it neglects to really address the underlying, societal causes. It tries to fix the symptoms rather than cure the illness, if you will. If taken on its own, it is not the kind of activism we need to make real social change. But this wasn’t something I ever considered until I left my safe bubble in the suburbs of Connecticut.
I was also raised with this idea that I was not or could not be a part of a larger movement among other youth to make actual change. I was always taught that I, specifically me, on my own, could do anything I wanted to. I could achieve anything, I was so smart and so talented and so special that nothing would stand in my way. What was missing from the equation was any sense that I needed or could bond together with other people my age to start or contribute to a movement. What ended up happening was a sense of isolation from my peers, as well as a sense of engulfing hopelessness that nothing could ever be changed if it was me against the world.
So I grew up with a vague sense that I was alone in my idealism or in my urgent sense for change. I also lived in a WASPy, wealthy town where talking a lot about societal problems but not doing anything about them was kind of the norm, and I think this contributed to my despair that nothing would or could be done. I wasn’t even sure that other people my age saw the problems in the world that I saw.
Then I got to college. And suddenly my experience was similar to the experiences of other people; in fact, most of my peers were incredibly involved in social movements and were thinking about social justice issues on a level of which I hadn’t even started to consider the existence. It was heartening. My experience at SNLP this summer has similarly led me to realize that I’m not that special (whew! pressure’s off!) and that, in fact, there are more than enough peers for me to work with, to bond with and to collaborate with to promote and further social change.