Story and photos by Jenna O’Donnell |
TINTON FALLS – On Friday, several dozen high school girls sat down and chose an issue they cared about, then stood up and argued for it in front of a hypothetical school board.
One of the issues was inspired by a team member’s frustration at her local high school, where the boys’ soccer fields are far superior to the one where the girls play. The team rallied around the cause and made an argument for a literal equal playing field.
“We are proposing a new field that will benefit the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams equally,” a student from the group argued. Their platform: Women for the WIN.
Running and Winning was the theme of the day – and the name of the event – an annual workshop held at Monmouth Regional High School, during which high school girls spend a nonpartisan day hearing from women in government before breaking into groups to take on the issues themselves.
“Girls don’t always see role models in government,” said Marian Wattenbarger, a member of the American Association of University Woman (AAUW) of Northern Monmouth County who co-chaired the workshop on March 17. “So this is an opportunity.” AAUW, along with The League of Women Voters of Greater Red Bank, the Junior League of Monmouth County and the Red Bank Chapter of Hadassah sponsored the event, which is now in its eleventh year.
“We started the day with the statistics of how poorly represented women are in government,” said Wattenbarger.
That statistic shows that while more than half of the United States population is made up of women, the number of women in elected positions are far surpassed by men, particularly in New Jersey.
“It does not reflect us,” said Linda Bricker, a member of the Junior League of Monmouth County and a chairperson on the steering committee for the event. “We’re just not represented the way we should be.”
Workshop organizers would like to change that status quo, and they hope this event will inspire young women to take an interest in public life and politics, and give them the confidence to seek out leadership positions.
During the workshop, 60 young women from ten local high schools gathered at Monmouth Regional High School to learn about how to get involved in public life from women who successfully won positions as mayors, councilwomen, county clerks, assemblywomen, state senators and more. Students spent the morning interviewing female leaders, including New Jersey State Senator Jennifer Beck, Assemblywoman Joann Downey, and Janice Fuller, Chief of Staff for Congressman Frank Pallone, on what it takes to run for office, how to face their fears and overcome challenges and how to choose positions on the issues.
The girls then had an opportunity to take a position of their own. Students broke up into small groups for a “Finding Your Voice” exercise during which they chose an issue to be presented to a fictional school board. After taking a position, accounting for the pros and cons of their argument and proposing changes, the teams stood up and campaigned on platforms that included “Less HW=Less Stress,” “Press for Equal Dress,” “Earth Without Art is Just Eh,” and “Less Stress Leads to Success,” among others.
“The only thing in common was that the issue was coming before a school board,” said Bricker. “The idea is to pick something in your community, which is your school, decide what your issues are and how you are going to make your argument.”
Girls argued, sometimes passionately, for less restrictive dress codes at their schools, more free time to pursue their dreams and personal interests, and proposed a less stressful high school experience for overworked students.
One group, arguing for more focus on creativity, asked their “school board” to protect funding for the arts.
“We’re asking you to put a spotlight on creativity,” one student said. “Because you can memorize all the words in the dictionary, but if you lack creativity you cannot put them together in a sentence.”
For organizers, the group sessions are a key part of the day in helping students from all different backgrounds find common ground and work together on an issue. They asked participating schools to send not the girls who were already in student leadership positions, but the ones who had the potential to lead.
“We look for the girl who, through this type of experience, might find her voice,” Bricker said, noting that her own daughter, who participated in the workshop several years prior, left with the confidence to run for student government at her large university. “We hope this kind of a day might tap into something.”
Young women finished the day with a new grasp on the possibilities that lie ahead. Claire Haynes, 16, of Rumson Fair Haven High School said she most enjoyed speaking to women leaders during the morning session.
“It made me want to get involved,” Haynes said, of the experience. “And It taught me a lot about local government. I didn’t know too much about it before.”
This article was first published in the March 23-30, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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