Teenagers often surprise us with their maturity and savoir faire. Ninth graders from Léman Manhattan Preparatory School recently did just that, when 12 students came together to put on a conference about gender, focusing specifically on broadening the definition.
And the roster of attendees was inclusive as well. Students at Léman Prep, whose downtown campus is part of the Meritas International Family of Schools, availed themselves of students from as far away as Chengdu, China, and Geneva, all of whom attend Léman schools.
Once in the city the overseas students spent a few weeks sightseeing and bonding with their city peers. They also brainstormed. All 12 students had to choose a “universal” topic, meaning it had to have global resonance. They eventually settled on gender equality. School advisor Merion Taynton told the students to use “New York City as their classroom.”
They did research, and went on field trips: To the Fashion Institute of Technology, to learn how fashion can be used to express different gender identities; and to the offices of Girls for Gender Equity, an organization dedicated to the physical, psychological, social and economic development of girls and women.
“It’s been an incredible experience watching the students learn about equality,” Taynton said. “It’s had its own organic evolution. We gave them a starting point but they’ve turned this into something great.”
On the day of the conference earlier this month, the students buzzed about Léman’s Morris Street auditorium, testing audio and setting up projection. The audience was made up of eighth graders from Léman Manhattan’s lower school. Many appeared awed by their proactive peers.
Two students from the Geneva campus welcomed the audience and, with the question “What is Gender?” projected onto a screen, they described the difference between biological sex – anatomy – and “socially constructed roles and behaviors.” They then showed advertisements from the popular Super Bowl campaign “Like a Girl,” which asked girls of different ages why the saying “like a girl” is used as an insult. Throughout the conference, students explained research into women in politics, educational limitations for girls, honor killings and salary inequalities.
The second half of the conference took as its cornerstone the acronym LGBTQIAP – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexuality/a gender and pansexual. The students walked the audience through some explanations and definitions and then talked about inequalities each community faces.
“Education is the best way to fight ignorance,” Sophie Stoch explained while wrapping up the presentation. All 12 students then engaged in a question-and-answer session with the audience, the result of which was an engaging conversation between teenagers and adults.
One eighth-grade boy stood up simply to thank the students for putting on their conference. “What you guys are doing means a lot,” he said. “It makes a difference.”
Following the conference, the students said they chose the subject as a way to open doors for more communities to gain equality. “Every generation gets better,” Emma Balibrea from Geneva said. “The word normal doesn’t make sense to me, I hope that term goes away in the future.”
Students shared personal stories, with some explaining how they try to fight prejudices at home or in school. Tehya Bailey of Léman Manhattan explained how members of her family had conservative sensibilities and found it difficult to accept transgender people.
She said listening to those you disagree is the key part of dialogue.
“Imagining ourselves as parents is important,” Bailey said. “We will be able to teach our own children about equality, and hopefully overtime the world can be a more accepting place.”