Published in the Fall 2006 issue • Features
If The Miss G__ Project for Equity in Education gets its way, high school as we know it will be radically transformed
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While this support has been crucial to building Miss G__’s momentum, the hours of work they’ve put into speaking to politicians and school-board officials have been equally important. After all, these are the people who have the power to enact curriculum reform. Miss G__ met with women from all three political parties who pledged their support to the project.
In fact, the group has spent a lot of time at Queen’s Park. In March, they hosted an event called the New Girls’ Club Ladies’ Luncheon to poke fun at the notorious “old boys’ club,” an institution that, according to a Miss G__ e-mail, “operates on a daily basis: in the guys’ locker room, strip clubs, and on the golf course [to keep] women out of science classes, the boardroom and the House of Representatives.” The event included a riotous game of croquet on the Queen’s Park grounds. They hosted a ladies’ lunch that was attended by 15 of the 25 female MPPs. During a speech, Ghabrial and Shkordoff presented a list of reasons why they believe women’s studies is critical for high school students. “Because our herstory fills up no more than a sidebar in a textbook,” they said. “Because we learn what it is to be women from Seventeen magazine. Because pepper spray doesn’t solve the problem. Because eight out of 10 Native women are sexually assaulted at one point in their life. Because the worst thing you can call a man is a woman. Because in high school I’m a slut if I have sex and a dyke if I don’t. Because homophobia in high school kills. Because we are 52 per cent of the population and invisible in our own education.” And they’ve got dozens more.
One of their biggest challenges — like so many other activist projects and grassroots groups — is funding. So far, the group has been funded by its members and a few small donations. “We need to find someone who is a constant donor,” says Rawal, who jokes that they need a sugar mama. Apart from worrying about money, their day-to-day work includes answering the constant influx of e-mail (tackled mostly by Ghabrial), figuring out how to balance their activism and school (two Miss G__ members are now in graduate school) and learning the ropes of feminist organizing. A document on their website, written by a chapter member named Ginny Gonneau, speaks of the importance of creating an organizational structure free from oppression and based on collective decision-making. While the project coordinators understand the importance of developing a feminist approach to organization, they are not wary of leadership. They realize that having strong leaders in the group is crucial to organizing people on a mass scale. “Traditional definitions of leadership make feminists involved in activism [back away] from this whole idea of taking charge because it is associated with patriarchy,” says Ghabrial. “I think what we’ve been trying to do, and what we’re learning to do, is redefine leadership and what leadership means a little bit. It’s more like taking initiative, seeing a need for something and doing it.”
In October, Miss G__ presented a formal proposal to the Ministry of Education, currently headed by Kathleen Wynne. The group wants to work closely with the ministry to introduce not only a women’s studies course, but high-school Miss G__ clubs and a subject council, which is a group of consultants to the ministry that can keep politicians and school board officials in the loop in terms of current debates. These ideas are part of Miss G__’s vision for a flexible, robust course that addresses multiple sites of oppression.
“When you’re in school, you’re taught about racism, homophobia, sexism and classism separately,” says Mohan. “Teaching people about these systems in such a way leads to a fragmented understanding. I learned to look at myself as racialized in one moment and gendered in another, when my reality isn’t like that.” The women want an intersectional approach to the course, one that recognizes the spaces where oppressions meet and works through holistic understandings of people’s social locations. They will not be satisfied with what they call an “add women and stir” approach that would see women-focused topics get a couple of days at the end of a course. “We see this course as a great catalyst for changing the entire education system,” Ghabrial says. “We don’t see that change coming from sprinkling a few women’s names into a course; we want to do it in a much more profound way.”
Under the summer sun, singer-songwriter Jill Barber is performing at the read-in. People are dancing and lounging near multi-coloured Miss G__ posters. At the craft station, Rawal has the word “brazen” painted on her arm. Ghabrial proudly wears a “Miss Educated” button. The mood is light and boisterous, and the turnout is higher than the organizers anticipated. “This was hard to organize because we’re all in school and we rely on word-of-mouth to promote our events,” explains Shkordoff, standing back and admiring the results of the group’s hard work. “This is exactly how we pictured it. We wanted to have an event to get our supporters together and to show politicians that we’ll come to them to get women’s studies in high school, if that’s what it takes.”
Among their supporters are Rosa Marino and Bernice Chau, who share a blanket and discuss the importance of today’s event. Marino, 25, is an education student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and has helped Miss G__with research and contacts. Chau, 20, a women’s studies major at Wilfred Laurier University, is excited about the possibility of having the subject taught in high school. “I went into university thinking that feminism was evil. I didn’t know what it was, but I did know it was not good,” she says. “That’s not something I would wish on anyone.” And if the women of Miss G__ get their way, Ontario high-school students will never again have to face such an insufferable fate.