The 411 Initiative for Change is a youth organization dedicated to promoting change by engaging young people across Canada. Since its inception in 1999, 411 has worked on projects aimed at educating youth about issues such as HIV/AIDS and human rights. The current focus is aimed at empowering young women by educating them about Girls rights. This includes issues affecting girls such as body image, careers, healthy relationships, and bullying / cyberbullying. Presenters for this project include hip hop artist Masia One, award winning actress and playwright Anita Majumdar, and freelance reporter and public speaker Ivy Prosper. 411 presents in schools across Ontario. Executive Director, Tamara Dawit, answered our interview questions.
Since the start of the 411 Initiative for change in 1999, programs have been developed focusing on HIV/AIDS and human rights. The focus right now is Girls rights. Why do you believe that Girls rights is an important topic to educate youth about?
We started doing programming on Girls Right’s in 2008 with Plan Canada and MTV because we had all co-produced together a documentary “Girls of Latitude” which looked at the lives of teenage girls in conflict zones (Haiti, Colombia and South Sudan). We knew that there were many similarities between girls in Canada and their peers overseas and had a great run to over 150 schools across Canada with that program looking at the stories of girls globally. However during that program we always got feedback from students and teachers about wanting to focus more on content and issues affecting girl’s right here in towns and cities across Canada. Due to those requests the new program focusing on girls in Canada was born. We know that girls face many different challenges, stereotypes and socialite stigmas that boys do not experience to the same extent. It is important to take time out for girls only events like this program for girls to talk about their feelings and meet with female role models from a variety of backgrounds.
All of you are powerful women who have many accomplishments. Can you describe the biggest hurdles that you had to cross in order to get where you are today?
I can only speak for myself but I think that sexism and stigma are unfortunately still things we are facing as women in our careers. I grew up in Ottawa and from my late teens work managing DJ’s, local musicians and events. I was always perceived as someone’s girl friend or even worse a groupie. But the assumption was never that I was a business woman running my own company at 18 but that I was hanging out backstage as a groupie not because this was my music festival. All of the cast members are actively carving our spaces for themselves and a future generation of women in our industries.
Young women are constantly bombarded by the media to look a certain way. Have any of you ever felt pressure to lose weight, or to wear something you have felt uncomfortable in? How did you deal with it?
I went to a nearly all white and wealthy high school in Ottawa where I grew up. As a half Ukrainian and half Ethiopian/Eritrean I have really curly hair , and throughout high school I fought my hair trying all means to straighten it and lighten the color so that I could have a hair style like the other girls at school. I also wanted to dress like them and have my entire wardrobe from Club Monaco like everyone else. This resulted in me cutting off all my hair really short in grade 11 and creating my own wardrobe with clothing repurposed from the Salvation Army. Looking back this was likely since I wasn’t seeing anyone else like me at school or in the media to look up. The only black person I recall seeing on TV in those years was Tyra Banks on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air where she had long straight and blonde hair.
On whatsthe411.ca it mentions the “mean girl syndrome”. Can you describe what the mean girl syndrome is?
It is basically a catch phrase born from the movie “Mean Girls.” Unfortunately it seems to have become cool to be a mean girl, to put down your peers and to bully your classmates. I think this is further personified by TV shows like Gossip Girl or Jersey Shore where it is only too acceptable to gossip, extract revenge and do anything you can to get even. As an adult I can watch these shows and understand the satire or fake dramatic elements, but we can’t be sure children will have the same ability to decode these shows from reality. I remember as a child reading Archie comic books and the babysitter club series and thinking my high school experience would be exactly the same as that. Weekends of babysitting and soda filled dates with hot boys.
A major issue that today’s youth face is cyberbullying. It is much different than previous generations because youth can no longer leave it at school, it follows them home through social networking sites. What advice do you have for young people to deal with bullying by classmates?
I had a bully experience in high school. At the time I thought he was a racist skin head neo Nazi who told me he was going to blow up my black history month assembly, defaced my locker and drew pictures of me on blackboards. Looking back I realized that he was actually a sad and lonely boy acting out to try to get attention in the wrong way. But like you have said I only faced my tormentor at school I didn’t have to deal with him over my cell phone or online. Young people need to know that you can report these types of things, whether it be to the social media site you are on, to a teacher or to services like Kids Help Phone. You also need to know when to turn off the internet and how to protect your privacy so that only people who really are your friends are able to contact you.
What are 3 things that young women should know about maintaining a positive self image?
- Be true to yourself, don't do things that you are uncomfortable with to fit in.
- Don’t feel that you have to follow the latest styles of images in 17 Magazine etc.
- Experiment, you don’t have to fit into a mold. We don’t wake up knowing who we want to be. Try different styles, volunteer or job shadow at different careers. The world is before you to make and explore.
What women have inspired you? Why have they been so inspiring?
I have always been inspired by Alice Walker, she used her writing and books to tell stories of women that were not normally told in the mainstream media and in doing so she gave them a voice. That is what I hope to accomplish through my work.
The 411 Initiative for change has presented to students across Canada. Empowering young women must be very rewarding. Are there any interactions that you have had with the students that have stuck with you?
It is always more about the one student who comes up to you and chats after a program about the personal impact to them that is more rewarding then a gym of 500 girls cheering or singing along. For myself it is girls who stand up in front of the entire school or come up to me after and share a personal story that they are no moved to take about (related to abuse, sexuality or fighting stigma to join an organized sport). However I will never forget the teacher at a school in Dartmouth Nova Scotia who told us “We have never had black people speak in our school before.”
How can young people get involved in their communities?
Young people have to do volunteer work in Ontario to graduate that is a great opportunity to get involved with organizations that support women and girls locally. Our goal is to get students talking about issues they are facing in their schools. Get them talking with their friends, with the boys at their school, in the classroom and maybe ever at the dinner table at home. If they also want to volunteer or fundraise that is great. We also encourage girls to consider creating their own artistic works (plays and songs or poems) to continue spreading the ideas they have learned in their community.
What is next for The 411 Initiative for Change? Are there any plans in the works for future projects?
411 always tours our programs about two years to make sure we can reach as many schools in Canada as are interested in the program. We will also be touring our HIV/AIDS education program for schools in Canada again in 2012 as it is important to continue the discussion on prevention and stigma as related to HIV/AIDS in Canada.