SSL Interview: Dana Edell of SPARK part 2

If you haven't checked out the first installation of this interview, check it out HERE. I particularly encourage you to check it out if you're thinking, "What exactly do you mean by the sexualization of girls?" or "Maybe it's not too big a deal, that's just how things are." Otherwise read on as I talk with SPARK director Dana Edell about how SPARK and what it is.

SPARK came out of research the APA (American Psychological Association) conducted; an amazing research project - looking at the impact of sexualization of girls on girls and young people all over the country. It was a massive study where there were a lot of researches involved and their research findings were not so surprising. They realized there's a lot of sexualization of girls happening in this country...and it has a huge impact on all areas of girl's lives; on their mental health, their self esteem, and their academic achievement...It's oppressive, and it's getting worse quickly, so one of the big things at the end of the study is researchers said, "Well we know things are really bad. What do we do about it? We have all this evidence now. We've collected all this data. What do we do?" And, one of their core recommendations for what we do now is we actually need to create a movement in collaboration with girls to really address this problem. We need to talk to girls. We need to create ways that we're not just protecting girls from this problem, but we're inspiring them and training them to be active agents and activists in their own lives, and that's how we're going to solve this problem, and get out of this crisis.

So, SPARK kind of erupted as a summit...one day where we're gonna bring together girls and researchers and activists and people who work with girls and have like a one day summit where there are trainings and action stations where girls are learning tools to become activists. There were workshops on things like public speaking for activists, and how to write your own radio show and broadcast it, and dance workshops on getting in touch with your body....There was a street theater performance workshop where girls created monologues that they wanted to perform in public spaces to raise awareness and get people thinking about these issues. Then there's also research presented at this summit, and it was an awesome day. I think there were over 300 people there. It was really inspiring, and at the end of the summit, people were like, "okay, so now what do we do?" It just all came together ,and we're motivated and inspired and pissed off, and ready to take action, and so SPARK the Movement really came out of the summit and SPARK the movement has been taking off in pretty amazing ways since them. 
In the time since I conducted this interview, SPARK has announced the 2nd SPARK Summit on October 29th, 2011; this time in Portland and in conjunction with Girls Inc. Check the summit site HERE. It is sure to be a fantastic event. One of the many interesting aspects of the original one in 2010, was that Geena Davis spoke at the opening ceremony. I never fully realized how passionate an activist she is about the roles and depictions of women in media. She created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.  If you have a few minutes, watch the video of the SPARK Summit 2010 opening ceremonies HERE. Geena Davis comes in at about 37:30, but the rest of it is also worth watching if you have the time.

Now, as I mentioned in the first installment of this interview, one of my favorite parts about SPARK is the emphasis on girl activists, because girls are the ones living inside this situation. It's not that adult women are unable to understand or to help, but we adult women did not grow up in the same world as these girls, and we may not fully understand the problems we are trying to solve. We need their help and their buy in. However, I also really really love that SPARK cares about building critical thinking in the girls they team with.
We're not just flat out saying that any girl who wants to write anything is gold, and we'll publish because it's from a girl's voice and that means it's great. (What we are doing is) really encouraging girls to see and critique the world around them. One of our core partners is the Women's Media Center , and they do fantastic media training - really guiding girls to think very critically about how media is produced, where it's coming from, and who's interest it is that these images exist and are perpetuated. 
Some of these well-educated young activist blog for SPARK and I recommend you check out their work.

We have what we call SPARK's team which is really at the heart of what SPARK is about which is a girl's movement that is fueled by girls in collaboration with people who work with girls and care about girls. The SPARK team is made up of young women who are amazing, brilliant activists and advocates for girls issues. So, we have a group of girl bloggers. We have about a dozen of them now, really cool girls from all over the country - a very diverse group of girls. The youngest is 13 and the oldest is 22, and the girls iChat as a crew once a week. They talk about the issues that are going on in this country today, what's urgent, what do they need to talk about, what does the world need to hear from them about the status of the sexualization of girls in this country. How is it escalating? What are girls doing about it? How do they feel about that? So, the blogs range from a critique of Kanya West's new Monster video to talking about Bristol Palin's new memoir that just came out to talking about Slut Walks to Forever 21. They're challenging media. They're challenging corporations. They're challenging artists. So, all of the blogs are written by girls, and we're planning in the Fall to have a retreat for those girls, so we're bringing them all to New York and doing a 3 day activist, leadership training for the girls, and really empower them to be stronger leaders as bloggers but also in their communities, their peer relationships, their relationships in school, and in their lives and help them kind of have a greater platform in their activism also. 
We're also going to launch a new program in the Fall called the IT girls, and they will be on college campuses...I'm not saying we're the first group ever to care about girls' issues or women's issues from a college students perspective, but we are a very inter-generational movement, and our focus is on girls, particularly it's on young girls and teenage girls. So, the college initiative is to work with college girls but to also help them create partnerships with local schools, with teenagers, with younger girls, and really creating activist projects with college students and their peers and then also girls younger than them. 

We also have as part of the SPARK team, a young woman who is a research blogger and she is taking research that is coming out now...grounded in data driven projects, grounded in long term quantitative and qualitative research, often published in total academic jargon ,and these are rarely accessible to anybody who is actually dealing with the issues. She does a translation of the research and then blogs about it, so this is a way for us to make the research about the sexualization of girls more accessible to the people who work with girls and to girls - people who are probably not going to subscribe to a certain academic journal and then read these academic research articles. So people can actually use that research in their fund raising and their advocacy work, and it becomes useful. Often academic research feels like it lives in the academic world and it's not often used as an activist tool.  

The other, and I think pretty exciting, part of SPARK is its partnerships.
One of the big things that SPARK is doing is working with individuals, organizations, people who work with girls, girls themselves and raising the visibility and advocate more for the work that they're doing. So, we're not necessarily running our own program, or we're not a direct service organization, but we're really trying to build awareness and help people find ways to take action and really make a change in the ways that girls are being sexualized. So another project that we have going is called the SPARK Kit. These are ways for SPARK to partner with organizations that are working with girls and have specific projects that they do which are sort of an activist training tool kit idea.

For example, we have been working on a SPARK kit with an organization in Canada, and they have a curriculum that is geared towards middle school girls that is sort of a body awareness and self esteem curriculum. We're working with them to take a small piece of their curriculum and repackage it and rebrand it with SPARK and with their organization. It's a couple activities that girls can do, and we make it something that is available on our website as an activity for girls, so it would be a much smaller version of their entire curriculum, and it would be the type of project that would have some kind of creative outcome for it. Let's say they make a collage of media images as part of the project...We have a gallery of all the things that were made with the SPARK kits and then the organization that we're partnered with also has a gallery or links to our site. So it's a way to raise the visibility of the organization; about what they are already doing and then also start building more tools for girls to use across the country.

 We're really trying to build these partnerships over the next few years and have a core base all over the country, and in other countries eventually, with organizations of girls and people who work with girls; people who can mobilize, people who can take action, people who are activists in their community, who are doing amazing work. We are helping scale that work out and raise the visibility and awareness of what they're doing so that it can be replicated in other cities, so we want to really help what's already happening so it can get better and stronger and bigger, but also offer new tools and new inspiration and new energy for organizations that want to do something but don't know what to do or how to do it. One of our big goals for next year is to have 2 partners in every state. We want to be everywhere and not feel as through we're in one particular place, because it's a national crisis and it will be an national solution. 
 I asked her about working with girls and what kinds of challenges that creates.

We were very consciously thinking about ways that we can support their activist work without necessarily having our own agenda and our own strong opinions about it....In terms of working with girls, I mean it's been amazing. They've been so inspiring and surprisingly ready to dive in and learn and grow. The girls that we're working with are brilliant. They're very aware of what the issues are and what the controversies around those issues, and there have been some controversies, like one of the recent blogs was about Rhianna's new video, the S&M video. It was a pretty complicated argument about whether that video was empowering or exploitative.(Rhianna) got a lot of backlash for this video, and a lot of it came from the idea that she had been a survivor of physical abuse from Chris Brown, and now she's making this video that is about S&M and violent sex, and how dare she do this. So our blogger's, critique of this was that she has every right to be whatever kind of sexual person she wants to be, and it has nothing to do with her history of sexual abuse. She got a lot of push back on this. A lot of the comments were like, "I thought SPARK was supposed to be about challenging sexualization and how dare you say that it's empowering - it's not empowering at all. She's being totally exploited and objectified. She's basically like the woman you're critiquing in Kanye West's video. What's the difference?" It was an important moment, I think, for us and for the blogger and for our community. How do we really support girls, not censor their work, not tell them you can write this, you can't write this, but really provide spaces for them to speak honestly and authentically about how they feel about these issues and be prepared to deal with the backlash they might get. We need to really make sure they're trained and confident enough to respond to their criticism.  
I think SPARK is an amazing organization, and as I said in the last post, their mission is a powerful one and one that is crucial to moving female sexuality forward. It was wonderful to speak with Dana Edell, and I again think her for her time. If you are want to support SPARK, want to read their blog, or are just interested, head over to their website HERE

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