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?
All girls are willful girls until they aren’t. Until they meet their match—some force that stems the tide of their passionate beliefs and enthusiastic imagination; some barrier between what is and what’s possible. Until they are not willful in the ways we value— that is, in the ways that make us feel good, reflect back our good decisions and correct beliefs. Until they challenge us where we live. Then they are the troublemakers in our crosshairs or the girls pushed out or pushed aside.
The willful girls in this book know they are irritants. Like a burr under a saddle, they know they cause discomfort; they are a bother, a disruption, an interruption. When I ask them what advice they would give younger girls interested in activism, they want to prepare them for the experience of being the problem. “There is a lot of backlash in activism work, especially in feminism,” Izzy says. “Activism is hard,” she adds, but “it’s more important to do this work than it is to feel bad.” Kaitlin agrees. “You’re going to get pushback from the people who benefit from the structure the way that it is.” But “don’t be afraid to share your opinion,” Cheyanne advises young activists. “Whether people think your opinion is right or not doesn’t matter.” Just “keep fighting,” Treva agrees. “You know that when pushback happens it’s because the word is getting out there and people are starting to hear what you’re saying.”
Girls want other girls to know what the barriers look and feel like, to help them anticipate shaming tactics, efforts to shut them down, and the pressure to make amends. It’s important to make distinctions, Kaitlin says, between hurting people and dissenting. “When you hurt someone” or when “you tread on people’s toes, you want to apologize . . . But that’s entirely different from apologizing for your passion, beliefs, for doing what you think is right. Don’t apologize when you are right and it was your action. Don’t apologize for what you’ve done. Own up to it and say, ‘This is me. Yeah I did this.’ Yup, work it.”
Activists, the girls tell their imagined young protégés, question what they’ve been taught and trust what feels wrong or off; they don’t accept at face value what others tell them. “Look at things like it’s the first time,” Montgomery advises. “Look at them like you are from another planet and ask, ‘Is that really fair? Or is that right? Do I really think that’s right?’ If you are raised in our country you will most likely have to rewire a lot of what you’ve been taught. Read things you wouldn’t have read before. Rethink a lot of things. Look at things differently.”
In the end, it’s worth it to fight for something you believe in. The reality is, Izzy says, “your feelings will get hurt.” It will be easier not to care. “But like, keep going and don’t stop.” When Alice thinks back to her middle-school self, she wants to shout, “Care about stuff! Don’t worry so much about being like chill or cool or whatever, which is like, ‘Who cares?’ Like, give a shit!” In the vernacular of adolescence, “I don’t care” can become a protective front against daily indignities, pressures, and open hostilities. But it’s also a kind of giving up on curiosity, on passion, on possibilities.
But most of all, the girls say—and this is what makes them so different from TEDified versions of girl activists—don’t go it alone. One girl after another advises those younger to find people who share their passions and projects and to find community organizations with adults who will support them. “Find a group,” Maya says, “or start a group. Find some people who think the same way as you do. Starting at the community level is the best place because that’s where there are people who really care about you.” You’ll need to be discerning, for sure. You’ll need to “listen to your instincts about the people in your life that are good for you,” Alice says. You’ll want to “distance yourself” from “toxic” people who don’t get that “activism is about making change and not collecting personal accolades,” Katy says, from people “who treat activism like a competition.” But in the end, find your people and “keep each other going,” Jasmine advises. Find “other girls and adults who help you” and who “you can rely on.” “Get a group,” her friend Amber agrees. “Don’t try to do it on your own.”
So activism is hard, it requires effort and company and a thick skin, but in the end, Yas says, “It is just absolutely the most wonderful thing.” Yas has been involved in activism for years—on the SPARKteam, through her efforts in support of comprehensive sex education, and in her work for Powered by Girl. More than anything else, Yas wants younger girls to know how personally transformative intergenerational activism can be. “I was confused about my identity, because when I was a kid I wanted to wear boys’ clothes,” she explains. “I didn’t really care. And that didn’t change, but I sort of changed because I wanted to fi t the ideal of how I thought I should be. You sort of get to a point where you are pressured so much.” Becoming a feminist and an activist, Yas said, “I just decided that I don’t really care what anybody else really thinks. I kind of do things anyways.”
How Not to Be the Wall
There are so many ways to enable girls’ activism. Perhaps the hardest thing of all is learning how not to be the wall—how not to interrupt the flow of a child raised conventionally girl who loves boys’ clothing. How not to be the force that pushes young Yas toward an ideal that cuts her off from the deepest parts of herself. When I ask the girls what advice they would give women who want to work with and support girl activists, they offer all kinds of ways not to be the wall—“not to dim down the energy and excitement teenage girls have,” Simone says. “Not to take control over a lot of things,” Ty adds. “Let girls be creative, and have our strong feelings,” says Jasmine. Give girls “the opportunity to speak out, and have their opinions heard,” advises Yas. The list goes on: “Don’t put us down,” “be honest,” “be a decent person,” “show up,” “show that you care,” “be open,” “listen,” “check your adult privilege.” And then, Yas says, offer hope. Let girls know, she says, that “everybody has the ability to change the world, but we just have to start believing that we do. Breaking down the barriers really, we are all in this together. We are all fighting against the same backlash.”
It is good for girls to engage the world critically, to be knowledgeable and aware. It is good for a world rife with wicked problems to have a generation of girls with energy, with passion that hasn’t been dispersed, drained, redirected, or fragmented. It is also good for those of us who work with them. Quite simply, Joanne Smith says, working with girls “will make your life better.” The women activists in this book have benefited in so many ways from learning to become the adults girls say they want. They have revisited, as Ileana Jiménez says, the “pitfalls and gaps and absences” in their own lives to rediscover the value of openness, of messiness, and they have come to understand, as activist Rebecca Solnit says, that “perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” Working with girl activists changes us. As girls learn to “give a shit” about some things, women learn not to care so much about others. As girls step into the fray, women learn, as Dana Edell says, to be “brave and not give a fuck when the haters are going to hate.” As girls’ willfulness reveals the wall, the women they work with learn how to be more porous, open, how to fall away.
“Let’s face it,” Judith Butler says, “we’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” When we take girls as experts on their own lives we become accountable not just to them, but to ourselves—we who were once young with a different set of choices and possibilities, compromises, roads and roadblocks; we who are still, even as adults, both vulnerable and resistant. Waves of recognition, clarity, uncertainty, risks of knowing and not knowing are part of our undoing. Conversations that bend toward curiosity and humor, confusion and anger, voice and relationship are a kind of unraveling. The potential is in the letting go—of our need to control girls, to persuade, discipline, or determine meaning. In the service of creative solutions and new possibilities, we become unsettled and uncertain.
Girls can get in the way of our enjoyment, our pleasure in working with them. Their responses are enlightening in the ways they reveal tension between girls and women. A good kind of tension, which is not to say an easy one or one that feels good, but rather the kind that comes from a challenge to the ways we see and do things. As they set their own boundaries, we can feel uninvited, pushed out, alienated, out of relationship with those we want most to work with, when we most want to work with them. As they begin to say, “Not now, not this way,” we are left with “When then, and how?” They can be our “feminist killjoys,” taking away our contentment and happiness, interrupting our flow. But this too is a gift. As Ahmed says, “a killjoy can be a knowledge project, a world-making project.” Their persistent rejection of our version of success, of our version of a future, is the best we can hope for.
In the end, our work with girl activists is offering support of many kinds, staying present in the aftermath of less-than-perfect actions, offering loyalty when the powers that be use shame and discipline to dissuade dissent. Respecting girls as a force to be reckoned with is humbling. Respecting boundaries, knowing when we are not helpful, when we are not needed, waiting for direction, speaking when spoken to is incredibly hard. But if we want girls to be able to “fuck up and not have their entire world come crashing down,” as Melissa Campbell says, we have to represent the part of the world that stays intact, that can take it, and that believes in them whether or not we agree with them.
Girls are targets of neoliberalism in its most predatory forms: marketers and media seek them out, offering the promise of exceptionality and then profiting from the inevitable insecurities, anxieties, and desires—profiting even from their creative forms of resistance. Girls are touted as the new model citizens, sociologist Jessica Taft argues, but “offered a limited model for engagement— one that is individualized, de-politicized, and rooted in neoliberal notions of personal responsibility.” Against this, the intergenerational girl-fueled activism we offer can seem like a drop in the bucket. What are small acts of community protest or online resistance against the vested interests of billion-dollar bank accounts?
But if we are truly in the midst of what educator and cultural critic Henry Giroux calls “a systemic war on the radical imagination,” then intergenerational activist work with girls is absolutely the best way to preserve the local, the grassroots, against the pressures of consumer culture. Our feminist work with girls ensures counterpublic spaces where the creative, the unpredictable, the unmarketable thrive; where girls have control over the way things go, where they can debate what matters, where they can shore up their willfulness.
I’m reminded of a recent exchange I witnessed between students at my college and visiting speaker Patrisse Cullors, cofounder of Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter began as a brilliant social media campaign, but Cullors is first and foremost an experienced community organizer. When an undergraduate student of color who aspired to get a job teaching “anywhere but my hometown of
Baltimore” asked for advice about getting involved in the movement, Cullors paused thoughtfully. “First, I’d like you to stop and reflect on why you want to leave Baltimore.” Her point: We do our best work together if we know what we know, if we stay in relationship, if we learn from one another, if we work together. The hard work, Cullors emphasized, is on the ground, building coalition, working to change existing inequities in the places where we live.
Most of the girls I interviewed for this book began their activism in their schools and community organizations, some as young as twelve years old. By the time I interviewed them, they had three, four, even six years of activist experience under their belts. They are now expert in constructive critique, knowledgeable about the manipulations of media, skilled at working together to make the world a more just and caring place. They leave our programs and organizations transformed, ready to seed all kinds of beautiful trouble. This work is an investment of enormous value.
“Knowing, like living, grows up out of the dirt and the cracked pavement—through the fences and around the corners,” says educator Noah De Lissovoy. “It reveals itself in uninvited and miraculous shoots that spring up everywhere that people live and struggle. This living knowledge of experimentation and protest, of assertion and critique, ubiquitously presses outward into its surroundings.” In girls’ hands, we set loose glorious possibilities. Our small, local efforts to scaffold their brilliance moves into the world in all kinds of hopeful ways and in all kinds of creative forms.
It comes down to this. If we want girls who are engaged in our schools and communities, we have to affirm, understand, and invest in the conditions that support them. If we want girls who can grapple with the culture of power in effective and promising ways, we need to share what we know about how the culture works and responds. If we want girls who can bring their entire selves to solving social problems, we need to step into relationships in ways that open up space for creativity and imagination. We need to ask hard questions, support their best thinking about how to open up systems to scrutiny, use our privilege as adults to clear a path, offer our time, our expertise, our connections, our passion, and our belief in what they know—and whatever else it takes to bring their creative solutions into being. And we need to insist on the importance, the visibility, and the benefits of our part in this, because what we learn doing this work is instructive and we need so many more of us doing this work.
This is an urgent call for what Ahmed defines as a “willful politics . . . a collective politics” in the form of intergenerational feminist partnerships. If we want girls to experience, in novelist Jeanette Winterson’s words, “an imagination that will detonate life, not decorate it,” we must risk a step into the unknown and “[live] out our hope and resistance in public together.” Without a forceful reaction to that which hurts and divides us, this generation of girls will battle a precarious world filled with increasingly wicked problems, armed with little more than neoliberal pablum. Stepping into the difficult work of feminist activism with girls is a complex, radical, boundary-crossing interruption of the way things usually go. It’s also wildly creative and vitally necessary if we are to create the world we want and if we are to sustain that world over time.
Excerpted from Powered By Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists by Lyn Mikel Brown (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.