A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles to host Plan International USA’s second #Plan4Girls Youth Gathering, in partnership with Nickelodeon. Last year, I traveled to Nickelodeon’s office in New York with fellow YAB member Fatima to share research we had completed about youth perceptions of gender equality. This year, we put that research into action.
For weeks leading up to the event, I worked with YAB member Alisha and Plan staff members Maria, Pat, Bernice, Kate, Shanna, Shaylyn and so many others to brainstorm the best ways to engage young people in conversations about gender equality, while also utilizing Nickelodeon’s resources and opportunities.
We started the event with Human Bingo and a photo booth, as well as a fun introduction to the work Plan does, both in the U.S. and around the world. We were then joined by Nickelodeon staff members, who spoke about their mentorship programs that encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. We heard the inspiring story of Anna, a young woman who had recently been accepted to an animation school in California with Nickelodeon’s support!
We then joined the young people on a tour through the Nickelodeon studios — speaking with animators, executives and storyboard artists (all women!) to learn more about life at Nickelodeon and in male-dominated careers. I could tell the young people were excited to see sets, drawings and sculptures of their favorite shows, like SpongeBob SquarePants and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Honestly, I was too.
Alisha and I then hosted our own panel session, where we spoke about how we became involved with Plan, what gender equality means to us and how to ensure the fight for gender equality remains accessible, intersectional and inclusive for everyone. We used statistics from the gender equality survey Plan recently conducted, and how we were surprised by the many influences that shape our perceptions of equality — how our parents divide household chores, the classes we take in school and even the toys we play with. I remember one girl sharing that she let her brother play with Barbies — even though her parents forbade them — because she believed there was no such thing as a “girl toy” or a “boy toy.” The skills her brother could learn playing with Barbies — compassion, empathy, caring for others — are far more important than any he might learn playing with an action figure.
For the rest of the event, Alisha, Maria, Kate and I each hosted a different breakout session, focused on how young people can work with lawmakers, teachers, parents and the media to advance gender equality.
I hosted the breakout session on media and spoke with participants about the role media plays in perpetuating narratives about unrealistic body images (for both girls and boys). We also discussed the gender-normative stereotypes that are reinforced by social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Many of the participants were still in middle school, or had just started high school, but I was continually impressed by what they had to say. Many of them noted that though social media can create and reinforce negative images, it is also a powerful platform to share stories of accomplishment and success.
One girl in my group spoke excitedly about Kylie Jenner. Not about her Instagram posts, but rather about the status she recently gained as the youngest self-made billionaire with her makeup products. She asked me, “Why aren’t we talking about these kinds of stories?” Another participant jumped in, saying, “The media doesn’t want women to be successful. They want us to sit on the sidelines.” They were both just 14 years old.
The event concluded with ice cream (because who doesn’t love sweets?) and great conversation about what would happen next. The participants were eager to get involved with Plan somehow — whether through starting clubs at their schools, joining the Youth Advisory Board or attending our summer Youth Leadership Academy. I was so excited to see how enthusiastic young people were not just about Plan, but about pushing forward the movement for gender equality.
This is the purpose of our Youth Gatherings: mobilizing young people to change the world, one conversation at a time.