Ileana Jiménez: Inspiring Feminism Locally and Globally
Social media as well as blogs and communities like the FBomb have played a key role for young people involved in the feminist movement by giving us a platform to share our thoughts and ideas and allowing us to learn about and discover feminism by scrolling through our social media newsfeeds or browsing the blogosphere. This phenomenon is also becoming more prevalent every day (according to Facebook, #feminism is trending).
However, I came to the movement through a high school feminism class taught by Ileana Jiménez called “Fierce and Fabulous Feminism”. This class has become a rite of passage for many of my peers and me and is the only class I've ever taken in which the students agree not only that the class should be two hours as well as a required course.
Social media did not exist when Ileana was growing up, nor did she have access to a feminist elective in high school. And yet, as I recently found, her journey to discovering and embracing feminism–beginning by observing and questioning things about herself and her surroundings– is not at all unfamiliar. I sat down with Ileana to find out how she came to feminism and decided to make it her life’s work to bring the movement to young people.
How did you first become interested in Feminism?
ILEANA: My high school years were bookended by two historical events related to women. The first one was Anita Hill testifying against, whom is now the Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas. She basically opened the entire conversation up in terms of workplace harassment. Also, the fact that she was an African American woman accusing an African American man of sexual harassment brought in the question of gender and race. At the end of my high school career, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was going through her own confirmation process to be the second woman on the Supreme Court. After I graduated in 1993, I watched her nail it on every answer she gave to the senate, proving that she belonged on the court. Those two moments were the big click moments for me.
Squeezed in between all of that was reading James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It was about a young boy who had been bullied on the playground—I had been bullied on the playground. He was kind of this poet type who wrote poetry under his bed covers—I used to do the same thing. He questioned the church—I questioned the church. He was moving into a sexual awakening, I was moving into a sexual awakening. The question that came to mind was: why haven’t I read about a girl just like me in a book? Why do I keep having to identify with male protagonists, particularly white male protagonists?
That got me doing research on women writers writing about coming of age, sexuality, identity. I actually did my entire high school research paper in AP English about it. I went to the library to do research and I discovered feminist theory and feminist literary criticism. It was that paper that brought me my big feminist consciousness. Reading all those books helped me to understand that I wasn’t the first person to think about issues of gender, that there were all these people before me and I thought: wow, I just hit a treasure trove! I got so excited because I thought I was the first person to suddenly discover feminism in the basement of my public library on Long Island. All of the reading I did led me to realizing I wanted to go to a women's college. That project changed my entire life.
What do you think most of your high school students take away from the Feminism class?
ILEANA: I think what happens over the course of that class is that students walk in with varying ideas of what feminism is. Some know exactly what it is, and others, often boys, come in thinking “I think I know what feminism is, but can I be one because I'm a boy?” Some come in somewhere in the middle wondering what feminism is all about. One year I had a girl say to me, "I'm really shy. Can I still be a feminist if I'm shy?” Students walk in with these preconceived notions of what feminism is, what feminists are, and characteristics that you have to have, because people associate feminism with really confident and bold women and don't think of it as including boys and men or people who are not as outspoken. They don't realize that it’s not just about people marching down the street. It's about much more. There’s a journey that I try to bring students on, which is most importantly that feminism is about you, that it is relevant to you as a young person, that it is something that you can use as a vehicle, as a tool to make change, and to also understand yourself and your identity and the world around you. I think by the end, students see feminism in a much more multifaceted way— that it does pertain to them but it also pertains to things they can change on a tangible level.
Since the Fbomb is a website for teenagers, what would you say is the most important aspect of feminism for young people?
ILEANA: The very core of class, the first month, is teaching students the theory of intersectionality- that is the number one thing that I want students to walk away with. I think people think feminism is only about gender and sexuality, and they don’t think about feminism as relating to a broader social justice movement and a broader social justice goal, which I think is to address not just gender and sexuality, but also other categories of identity, such as race, class, ethnicity, age, ability, religion, and all these other identities, and also how those groups are connected to systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia. I want students to understand those identity categories, then I want them to connect them to the systems and cycles of oppression, and then once they understand the theory, I want them to apply it to their own lives and to use that lens of intersectionality to write their own stories, to say, for example, "I am a young African American girl from the Bronx going to school in downtown Manhattan and how does that affect my understanding of my race my class my gender?” or “I am a young Dominican gay boy whose parents immigrated here and I'm a first generation student about to go off to college and I'm just coming out in my sexuality and how does feminism apply to me as a Latino boy who is also gay?”
Following that I always have an activism piece. So how do you apply the theory to yourself and then to something outside of yourself, which is an issue you might care about, like sex trafficking or sexual harassment, or street harassment, or reproductive rights. I think students walk away with a much more analytical and social justice based understanding of feminism that allows them to apply it to something real in their lives that they may face everyday, such as bullying, harassment, or unhealthy relationships, which you can address with language you didn’t know before. That’s what I want students to walk away feeling— that the language and thinking and writing and activism around feminism is something that applies to their lives directly.
Your efforts and influence extend beyond my school community – your passion and work has affected young people all over the world. Last year, you embarked on a school tour of India, teaching your feminism class to students all over the country. Can you tell me about what inspired you to go to India? What was your favorite part and what did you find most difficult?
ILEANA: As part of my teaching the Feminism Class here at LREI, I really wanted to have a global component. As a result of my Fulbright to Mexico a few years ago, there was a woman in my orientation cohort who was a principal of a girls school in India. We stayed in touch and she connected me to a fellow feminist English teacher, Paramita, who works at a girls’ school in Kolkata called Shri Shikshayatan. Over the past two years, Paramita and I have been collaborating on International Day of the Girl. That was the foundation for me wanting to take a group of students to India, but that fell through, so I decided to go to India on my own and continue this collaboration with these teachers. They asked me to come and teach a class at Shri Shikshayatan. It turned out that some political reasons kept me from teaching there for the full three months that I was invited to be there, so what I wound up doing was a tour of India, which even better because I was able to go to four schools.
The first school was the Sanskriti School in New Delhi. We talked about everything from the global slut walk movement to sexualization of girls in the media, the Delhi gang rape to the recent 377 criminalization of homosexuality in India. Then I went to an amazing school in Delhi called the Tagore International School. They had launched a campaign addressing LGBTQ issues called Breaking Barriers. It was fantastic to meet young people doing this work and who were committed to these issues.
Next I went to the Shri Shikshayatan school, and I taught there for about a week or two. With those girls I was able to do something more sustained. The girls wrote their own stories about gender and what it meant to them to grow up as young Indian women in Kolkata and the traditional mores they were beginning to analyze. After that I went to the Prerna School for Girls in Lucknow, which serves low income, marginalized girls who have a working knowledge of English. What I loved about that school was that their whole approach to the school was a critical feminist pedagogy using consciousness raising to engage the girls in talking about issues that matter to them, like dowry, child marriage, gender based violence, and domestic violence. This tour wasn't really about me teaching as much as me learning from them and about what they wanted to talk about— what was most pressing, most urgent for them, and also what was silenced that they wanted to speak out most about. They were the ones who named the topic they wanted to explore. It was more about collaborating with the students and teachers to raise issues that are traditionally silenced throughout India. One inspiring moment was when the girls at the Prerna school performed their feminist poems and street theater performances for me about child marriage and dowry, mainly because they were so passionate- it was so clear that they wanted to perform it. Also, it came from their own experiences and I could tell that they wanted to share that with me. The other moment that was really powerful was when I was with the Red Brigade in Lucknow and they were teaching me self defense moves. I had no idea what I was doing. They were grabbing my wrists and my hands and throwing me all over the place. I thought, wow, these girls are so strong- not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They are so strong in the face of a great deal of violence and the threat that they face everyday. I cried at the end of that visit because I felt so inspired by these girls who were teaching me how to defend myself and who, despite everything they had gone through, could get up the next day and keep fighting for the girl who got acid thrown in her face, or got raped down the street, or was molested by a father. They were so spirited and that inspired me to do even more.
As a result of Ileana’s trip to India, four students from the Tagore International School, who are members of Breaking Barriers, are visiting my school and staying with students. Thanks to her initiative and commitment, we now have the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with students from across the world who share our passions.
It is inspiring to witness the impact that Ileana has had on the lives of so many young people, who are now doing, and will continue to do, incredible work for their schools, their communities, and the world. Ileana is the woman responsible for the fact that I not only identify as a feminist but also have a deep understanding of what the label represents. It is safe to say that no class has changed my life and perspectives as drastically as the “Fierce and Fabulous Feminism” class she teaches at my high school and I only hope more high schools across the country choose to offer similar classes as well.
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