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A Day at Sub/Urban Justice

I had the good fortune to be able to spend half a day last week with the participants and staff of Sub/Urban Justice, a group of individuals and organizations “committed to transforming suburban and urban communities by supporting youth to develop a social justice perspective”, thus endowing them with leadership skills that will allow them to make positive changes in their respective school and communities. The Sub/urban justice summer program which takes place three times a week for three weeks, aims to break down the barriers that separate community like class, race and gender, and so create an equitable society.

The summer program works by discussing three topics (class, race and gender) individually for one week each and holding a number of activities that revolve around those issues. Coming from a country like Egypt, which is predominantly Muslim, sexual harassment and gender discrimination are day to day issues that women have to deal with. Thus, activism in relation to gender was a perfect place to start my experience in the program. The day started off with a simple discussion of terms relating to gender which may be difficult to define. I was suddenly swept into a gust of terms and definitions like ‘androgynous’, the difference between sex and gender and gender mutual pronouns like ‘zie’ (in place of he/she) and ‘hir’ (in place of him/her). Usage of these pronouns on a daily basis is a good place to start ones quest of becoming a more gender tolerant person because – as one participant pointed out – many cultures and languages (like Spanish or French) instill the use of addressing a whole group as male even if only one male is present.

The first activity was a process where participants, including myself, were asked to analyze where they perceive they fit into in categories like gender expression, biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. This led onto a discussion of where those issues could overlap and an interesting story of a man who believed he was a lesbian arose – thus depicting a complicated overlap in his gender expression and sexual orientation. The group then broke up into three different affinity groups based on how they perceive their gender- as male, female or androgynous. I joined the female group where the conversation was very similar to that of a group of friends sitting together to share their thoughts.

Recollections and experiences, where women have had to always think twice about their attire and the way they express their gender so as not to compromise their safety, were brought up. Topics – like sexual harassment, the way males use disrespectful terms towards women without a second thought, why women put each other down – which we all think about and are acquainted with but never discuss, were brought to light. I was deeply impressed – never had I witnessed anyone discuss such intimate topics with the ease and comfort of these women. And not just discussing, but tackling – the participants came up with solutions and requests that they would put out to men they know so as to improve the way with which women are perceived and also treated. Upon regrouping for feedback, I realized that this comfort extended to the others as well. While the males affinity group voiced their unease regarding the way males are always expected to take certain steps first (like ask a girl out on a date) and so are at times given responsibility they do not feel comfortable with, the androgynous affinity group discussed the issue of unisex bathrooms and other such day to day issues they have to deal with – all issues which we witness but never speak about.

And it is this relaxed, comfortable and welcoming atmosphere that is the real highlight of the Sub/Urban Justice program. My initial intention when going in had been to find areas in the curriculum where Berkman could help integrate digital tools. However, to the contrary, when going in and experiencing the program for myself I actually felt that a computer would simply ‘spoil’ the purity the program currently maintains.

Surprised? Well, so was I.

-Kanupriya Tewari