How Can I be “Real As Me”?

Once a week, 30 young women from Manhattan Comprehensive Night & Day School meet online to explore some of the most challenging and sensitive issues that young women face today. CYD is using the national award-winning “Real As Me” Girls’ Empowerment curriculum, which uses a story based approach to help teens deepen their understanding of gender issues, and provides them with the tools and poise to confront difficult situations that lack a clear solution. After undergoing extensive training with curriculum developer Youth Communication, CYD college and career advisors Anansa Benbow, Mina Gradinarova, and Victoria Mohtes-Chan have been holding group sessions since February. Three groups meet once a week to delve into a story that poses a conflict that young women might face. With topics ranging from sexuality and identity to navigating difficult home lives and body issues, the meetings are a safe space for young women to find their voices and build confidence and skills.

Multiculturism is a defining feature of these groups. “I love when they talk about Senegalese family, a Chinese family, an American family, and you see similarities across many cultures in how girls are treated according to what they can and cannot do,” says Anansa. “The stories are written by young people, so I think the girls see a really clear and direct connections between themselves and the storytellers. You see the writer talk about the messiness of trying to grow up in our society.” Student participant Brianna M. echoes this idea: “We talk about having people tell you that you have to dress a certain way, you have to interact with boys a certain way, you have to modify or change things about yourself to be accepted, and it’s been really helpful to hear how we all have those things in common. These stories paint a picture of what’s going on around us, I feel seen.” In addition to deepening the girls’ emotional language, the story-based structure is helpful to immigrants who aren’t native English speakers. “Because the curriculum is read out loud, it encourages students to start reading and speaking in English and building confidence in their language skills,” describes Mina.

The meetings provide the participants with an escape from everyday class and homelife, a safe space that allows for an in-depth emotional discussion that isn’t part of conventional classwork. Early on, the advisors established community guidelines to ensure productive and respectful discourse. “In a challenging year where students have had so much to deal with, this has been a place where they can take a break from everyday life and join that community and then go back out into your day refreshed,” says Victoria. “This is a place to talk about topics that they don’t usually have the chance or the space to talk about. It’s not something that would casually come up in conversation with friends, so it’s a great way for students to talk and really develop social and emotional learning as they grow up. Even though we just started meeting a few weeks ago, the girls have developed a bond.”

Self-advocacy is one of the most important skills that the “Real As Me” curriculum helps develop. “It’s a skill that students need at college and in the workplace—going to the registrar, navigating financial aid, negotiating compensation. In each session we talk about speaking up for yourself and figuring out what groups of people you feel comfortable around or uncomfortable around and why, and in each one self-advocacy comes up. There’s a point where they can take a step back and have the space to reflect on choices they have and be better advocate for themselves,” Anansa explains. “The stories end in an empowering way where girls are finding their voice or making a decision. For me one of the biggest goals is to show girls that they have options and can make decisions.”

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