June 2013 Issue
May 23, 2013

Changing the world one girl at a time

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
girls rising event
Caption: From left: NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler; Cold Spring Harbor students Gabrielle Ewall and Ella Isreali; social worker Robin Deluca-Acconi; and Kennedy Odede, co-founder of Shining Hope for Communities. Photo provided.

Educating a girl generates years of positive ripple effects that have the power to change the world. That message resounds in a new documentary film - Girl Rising - that is sweeping the country and garnering attention from educators and students.

So many people showed up at a recent showing in Albany, for instance, the film was expanded to two, then three and, ultimately, four theaters as a line of movie-goers filled the sidewalk into the parking lot.

The documentary, directed by Academy Award-nominee Richard Robbins, is sponsored by 10X10, a global action campaign to educate girls. It tells the story of nine girls from nine different countries who are marginalized by arranged marriages, child slavery, violence and poverty, and depicts their persistent and often perilous efforts to gain an education against backdrops of war, economic hardship, politics or religious oppression:

Sokha is an orphan who scavenged in the dumps of Cambodia yet became a star student and an accomplished dancer;

Suma, who composed music to help her endure forced servitude in Nepal, now advocates to free others;

Ruksana, a budding artist, lives with her family on the pavement in India;

Yasmin, a young Egyptian girl, falls prey to a violent attack but refuses to become a victim;

Wadley does not let a devasting earthquake in Haiti break her spirit;

Amina is an Afghan child-bride who ultimately rejects her society's limitations;

Mariama, a teenager from wartorn Sierra Leone, becomes the first in her family to go to school;

Azmera, a 13-year-old Ethiopian who, when told she must marry, bravely says no; and

Senna, whose family struggles to survive in a bleak Peruvian mining town, becomes a spoken word poet.

School social worker Robin Deluca-Acconi and English teacher Joey Waters, members of the Cold Spring Harbor Teachers Association and advisors to the Holocaust and Genocide Project, an after-school human rights student club, arranged for a showing of the film for students on Long Island.

"It was very eye-opening for them," said Deluca-Acconi. "A lot of them were shaken up." That same day, students were visited by Kennedy Odede, who, with his wife, Jessica Posner, founded Shining Hope for Communities to fight gender inequality and wretched conditions by linking tuition-free schools for girls with social services.

As a child, Odede told the students, he was lucky to have one meal a day. He sold peanuts to help support his mother and younger siblings.

"My mother taught me about gender equality. Had she been able to go to school, my mother felt she would have been able to feed and care for her family," he said. Odede eventually made his way to the United States, graduated from Wesleyan University, and returned to Africa to establish the Kibera School for Girls in Africa's largest slum.

"I saw the world through the lens of my mom and my sisters. In the newspaper, I saw women in high offices. But in my community, I saw women being beaten. So I decided to build a school for girls, where they could be respected, be protected, be free," Odede said.

Students sat with Odede and asked questions about "the experience of extreme poverty and how they could make change themselves. Kennedy Odede taught us that we all have the power to make ripples toward justice," said Deluca-Acconi. "Education is a human right that unfortunately is denied to many. We wanted to give a voice to people who don't have a voice."

The Cold Spring group is raising money for Shining Hope through the sale of Fair Trade chocolate and plans to Skype with Kenyan students next year, Deluca-Acconi said.

"If we're going to make a change here, we're going to do it by prioritizing the education of girls and young women globally," said Lee Cutler, NYSUT secretary-treasurer, who oversees the union's social justice efforts.

"I am so proud to be a part of the important work NYSUT members are doing across the state to build community and improve lives, in our own backyards and oceans away," he said.

Beth Dimino, president of the Port Jefferson Station TA and a member of NYSUT's Civil and Human Rights Committee, said education empowers women and helps them support themselves. They, in turn, educate their families and their communities and improve societies.

"The way that a culture treats its women tells you everything you need to know about that culture," she said.