by Jenna Fournel
“I heard what you said and it’s making me change my mind.”
These were the words Lawrence, a high school student in Washington, DC shared openly with a group of around 30 students – most of whom he’d never spoken to before. During Inspired Teaching’s second Speak Truth session of the 2020-2021 school year, comments of this kind came up more than once as students navigated the critical question “What is consent?”
Speak Truth brings together high school students twice a month to discuss and debate timely topics that affect them. The topics are chosen by student-facilitators who guide the conversation with carefully prepared questions and readings. Over the past five years topics have ranged from 21st century beauty standards to, earlier this month, police brutality. In surveys, participants consistently come away saying the range of perspectives present during these discussions help them to think in new ways.
That feels more vital than ever right now.
Just minutes before the September 17 session began our phones lit up with a news alert: the president announced plans to create a commission to push ‘pro-American’ history. Speak Truth was born from our colleague Cosby Hunt’s Real World History course, which is designed to build students’ critical thinking skills around the ways in which American History is taught, told, and created. He added the Speak Truth sessions to the program after hosting a seminar years ago in which students from different schools came together to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Case for Reparations.” In that discussion he observed that “communities of young people have diversities of opinion. There’s power in their opinions and their discussions can be a launch point for action.”
What action might come from a conversation around “consent?” When Lawrence shared that his mind was changing, it was because he had just finished sharing his perspective that people should have the freedom to choose their partners free from judgement. Then another student, Adena, brought up the point that significant age differences between sexual partners can lead to unequal power dynamics. “The older person is fully developed, the younger person is still figuring out who they are. Is that right?”
A discussion around consent is challenging to structure, particularly when the participants don’t know each other. Menkhu-ta Whaley, a veteran of the Speak Truth program, facilitated the night’s conversation which began with a focus on a recently passed California law, SB 145 which “allows the judge to decide who must register as a sex offender in all statutory rape cases.”
Menkhu-ta asked the participants to share their definitions of consent. Nile said, “It’s clear cut, direct permission to engage in sexual acts, even kissing.” But Traci pointed out that such a definition can be complicated by the influence of alcohol or drugs. “There are a lot of different scenarios in which saying ‘it’s okay’ is not actually okay.”
As with the nuances of consent in general, the nuances of SB 145 are complicated, and that became clear as the conversation progressed. As a thoughtful facilitator, Menkhu-ta broadened the focus to bring in more voices. She asked questions about the role popular culture and media play in shaping our understanding of consent, and whether it’s irresponsible of producers of this entertainment to create platforms for problematic content.
Elijah said he watched Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” often as a child and now questions the way the film portrayed the relationship between the priest and the gypsy. “I didn’t know when I was growing up [that this was wrong] but at this age I see how Disney can sometimes be a little shifty.”
Reflecting on “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Traci said, “I think it’s harmful to society to romanticize emotional abuse because when you get tied into an emotionally abusive relationship you get stuck in that and you start to feel unsafe, but you can’t leave and you think you’d be no one without this person.”
The group went on to discuss the fact that the legal age of consent in DC is 16 though the age to vote or join the military is 18 and the age to drink is 21. Students noted that these discrepancies make little sense. Adena commented, “The ideas the government has are for their own benefit.”
Cheyenne Gartin, a teacher from DC’s Paul Public Charter School commented after the session was over that she was inspired by the engagement of all the students present. “This is something all students would want to be part of, and I know it’s something my students will be talking about when I see them again on Monday.”
“I’ve seen young people redefining what it means to be political,” said Nina Pulley, Speak Truth Program Coordinator. “Political change really means organizing to have basic, fundamental issues of the community discussed.” The opportunity to engage in discussion around issues that impact their lives happens too infrequently for students, but Speak Truth offers a safe space for doing so.
Want to see what Speak Truth is all about? All students are welcome to participate and teachers are invited to join us to observe for the first hour and then discuss in the second. Register for one of our upcoming sessions:
October 1 and 15
November 5 and 19
December 3 and 17
January 7 and 21
Second semester dates will be posted in the coming weeks.