Building a community: the Active Voice listening tour rolls on

“Activating girls’ voices” was the advertised title of the gathering, a Saturday morning at a high school journalism workshop in Indiana. It was our public “coming-out party” after months of groundwork by our student fellows, a chance for our most-wanted audience — high school girls — to see what Active Voice is all about.

Optimistically, we set up 60 chairs. Would anyone come?IMG_6480

Would they ever. The Indianapolis hotel conference room couldn’t handle an overflow crowd exceeding 120 students, occupying every available patch of wall and floor. Nor could a little conference room contain the indignation of fierce, opinionated girls who’d had enough.

Nearly every one came with a story to share about facing adversity in writing about issues of social importance and feeling abandoned — or worse — by school authorities.

There was the Missouri high school editor whose newspaper endures an angry public outcry anytime same-sex relationships are acknowledged:

We have a big parent community at our school and they all have backlash, and they kind of erupt in fighting anytime anything controversial comes up. It’s directed at the students who are featured in the article. It’s mostly just parents on Facebook arguing with each other. The parents will talk about the students in the article or the students who wrote the article and kind of call them out that ‘this is not okay to talk about.’

Amid the frustration were moments of defiance, and of joy. Moments that reminded us how powerful one well-supported and determined voice can be, up against authority figures who devalue girls’ opinions and expect them to accept devaluation as part of their daily educational lives: “I think that’s why most of us are here, because these are the girls that want to fix it,” said a voice from the back. “We’re the girls that aren’t going to listen to that.” Another said:

I think we live in a society where women are constantly subject to these misogynistic and patronizing and patriarchal attitudes that kind of stop us from achieving what we want to do in life. I’m a girl and on top of that I’m African-American so I’m constantly discriminated against. People tell me ‘Oh, you’re not good enough. Oh, you can’t do this’ because you’re not a male and you’re not a part of the bigger racial group in America. Sometimes it’s hard because you believe in yourself so much and there’s always going to be people who are going to put you down. But really it’s all up to you what you’re going to achieve and what you’re going to pursue.

The room burst into warm, sustained and welcoming applause.

Indiana-based Active Voice fellow Sophie Gordon of Ball State University did her best to encourage students still uncertain for their futures after a surprising round of national elections that few foresaw. Schools, she told them, emphasize IMG_6482the importance of producing civically engaged critical thinkers well-prepared for active citizenship: “What better place to do that than in a newsroom where you can operate like an actual newsroom.”

One student editor spoke up to share a story she never wrote at all.

It was about how the local school superintendent forced the student government president to drop his catchy daily sign-off after reading each morning’s announcements: “Question everything.”

About two months into the school year, our superintendent asked him to stop. I wanted to write about it. I was like, ‘that’s exactly what you should be encouraging high school students to do.’ But his argument was, it would disrupt the school day. Kids would question ‘why I should do my homework?’ I wanted to write about it, and I was telling my mom about it, who works at the high school I go to, and she said, ‘You know, you might not want to write about that because of the backlash from it. You could get in trouble with the superintendent.’

And so, so much more. One student shared her anxiety over writing about divisive political topics, because she’d seen how the school refused to come to the aid of another journalist who faced harassment after writing an article questioning immodest dance routines at a campus assembly: “I volunteered for the two election spreads we’re going to have in the yearbook, and now I’m afraid of writing anything because I’m Muslim. I have to be neutral for the Muslim spreads. I don’t know how to approach it now, because of the way they didn’t help that girl.”

When the hour was over, no one wanted to leave. “Can we all take a group picture?” one student asked. Everyone readily agreed. Because that’s how communities start — with human connections, with sharing ideas, and with listening.

Thank you, to our friends at the Journalism Education Association and National Scholastic Press Association, for providing this launching pad for a movement that can’t be stopped.

If you’re interested in hosting an Active Voice event at your campus or in your community, drop us a line,