We are very excited to be supporting Lyn Mikel Brown, as she publishes her new book Powered by Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists. Powered by Girl provides us with a diverse collection of interviews with women and girl activists and explores how girls have embraced activism and a guide for adults who want to support their organizing.
Author Lyn Mikel Brown has been studying and working with girls for more than twenty-five years. A professor of education and human development at Colby College, she is the author of five previous books about gender and girlhood, and is the cofounder of three grassroots organizations.
Below is a powerful excerpt from Powered by Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists which discusses “wicked problems” and how “willful girls” are helping solve them.
Wicked Problems and Willful Girls
We have to create; it’s the only thing louder than destruction.
— andrea gibson, “yellowbird”
We tell youth in a whole variety of ways that we, as adults, are the arbiters of success and well-being. We act as if the pathways to psychological health, good relationships, and civic responsibility are one-directional—all roads lead to us and what we have created. Success, we remind youth daily, is contingent on their ability to accept and work within the constraints of situations, rules, and norms that we have proffered. But of course we don’t have it all together. Just look around. It’s not pretty: an environmental crisis, global poverty, racial injustice in all its intersectional forms. We are facing what design theorists describe as wicked problems—widespread, complex, and interconnected, these are problems with no single solution, which tear at the fabric of everyday life and touch each one of us where we live.
“We cannot deny the wickedness of wicked problems,” design professor Simon Sadler says. “We cannot detach from their political reality, deny our limited ability to solve them, or encourage hubris where we need humility.” Yet this is exactly what we so often do. We ask youth to walk lockstep into our classrooms and programs. We insist that they bank our knowledge for their future, assimilate to our ways of being, accept the current state of affairs. These are unreasonable requests, a bit crazy, in fact, and they know it. We know it. Tackling wicked problems requires an entirely different way of working—one that invites openness, flexibility, creativity; one that creates space for innovation and playfulness, where we can breathe deeply, fill our lungs with possibilities.
Wicked problems are passed down from generation to generation. The solutions we offer are only as good as our ability to work across generations, share what we know, creatively make it up together. So why is there so little political education in schools and community organizations, so few opportunities for youth to question the way things usually go, such little encouragement to imagine new pathways? Why are we obsessed with proper and good and coloring between the lines when clearly what the world needs are places where imagination, dissent, and passionate engagement rule? Why are we asking girls and young women, in particular, to “lean in” to flawed systems—systems that prop up wicked problems— when we all should be “digging deep” to address the conditions that undermine and divide us?
The girls and women activists in this book are testament to the collective power of intergenerational projects as places where girls learn to question, explore, build coalitions, and organize, and in so doing spark social imagination as educator and philosopher Maxine Greene defines it: “the capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, in our schools.” All of the girls engaged in this work are connected to adults and communities. They rely on us in a whole variety of ways—for education, for resources and platforms, for guidance, for emotional support, as sounding boards. It’s challenging work, it takes our time and energy; it’s often frustrating, and sometimes dangerous; it’s also wildly creative and our best chance to address the version of wickedness in front of us.
Intergenerational synergy happens far less often than it could and should, not because girls are lazy or tuned out or obsessed with remaking themselves, but because adults don’t step in early enough and don’t step up often enough. We benefit from the way things are. We fear giving the impression that we don’t know what we are doing. Our adult privileges blind us to the brilliance of the youth all around us. For these and other reasons, we set up barriers of various kinds. We defend and protect our version of events. We pass off convention as reality; we pass down expectations, stereotypes, and assumptions as truth. We excuse thoughtless acts in the name of polite society; we shore up inequitable systems to keep the peace. When we let things go by, pretending not to see, not to hear, we encourage girls to disconnect from what they know and want, which means we all lose the potential of their creative forms of dissent.
To be willful, race and cultural studies professor Sara Ahmed says, is to refuse “to give way, to give up, to give up your way.” Girl activists are willful girls. They have the audacity to interrupt the usual flow of events. “You can feel a force most directly when you attempt to resist it,” Ahmed says. “It is the experience of ‘coming up against’ that is named by willfulness.” In these instances, “we might need to be the cause of obstruction. We might need to get in the way if we are to get anywhere.” The very best gift we can offer girls is how best to get in the way.
There is a weird disconnect between what we associate with willfulness and what we say we want for girls. Girls leadership programs talk more about helping girls develop “grit” than high self-esteem these days, but the concepts have much in common. Psychologist Angela Duckworth describes grit as “working really hard to make your future a reality.” This, of course, is the neoliberal ideal. It’s also a way to justify our privilege by blaming those victimized by societal inequities for their lack of “passion and perseverance.” There is a fundamental difference between success measured as personal improvement and success measured as compassionate leadership. What we want for girls should have something to do with courage—with speaking up against injustice, with standing against hurt, with becoming a threat to inequity, with getting in the way. That is, it should have something to do with being willful. We should be concerned when it doesn’t. As sociologist Julie Bettie warns, “When the accomplishment of middle-class norms is linked to mental health and understood as an individual trait (i.e., this girl has high self-esteem) . . . rather than linked to structural inequalities (i.e., this girl has race and class privileges), it gives cause to question the distinction between having self-esteem and being arrogant,” between high self-esteem and “a feeling of cultural superiority.”
In my experience, willful girls are likely to call out such arrogance and name such injustices, which means they won’t do well in normative or lean-in types of girls leadership programs.
In truth, it’s a pretty unusual adult who actually wants to spend time with willful girls. Or maybe we do until they say something we don’t want to hear, stand for something we might not like, step out of line or over the lines we have drawn. Then they are not easy to be with. Then they are “bad” girls, “at risk” girls; inconvenient truths. What is high self-esteem if it’s not reflected in a girl’s willful behavior? What do we call all those willful girls who challenge us, who make life a challenge for us? What do we do with them?
Click here for the full excerpt.