Joanne Smith

Young Leader discusses work to promote gender equity and feature in new documentary exploring historic Anita Hill case

April 17, 2014

Joanne Smith, a 2012 Young Leader, is the Founder and Executive Director of Girls for Gender Equity (GGE). She is responsible for moving the organization closer to its mission through strategic planning, development, and leadership cultivation.

A Haitian-American social worker born in New York City, she founded in 2001 GGE with the support of the Open Society Foundation to end gender-based violence and to promote gender, race, and class equality.

She completed post-graduate training at Ackerman Institute for the Family – providing therapy to families, supporting the family/school collaborative, and linking families to community resources. She is an alumna of Hunter Graduate School of Social Work and Columbia Institute for Nonprofit Management and has co-authored her first book, Hey Shorty: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Public Schools and on the Streets, published by Feminist Press (2011).

Joanne has been honored by a number of prestigious organizations, including the Union Square Award and the Stonewall Democratic Club, in recognition of her leadership and dedication to women's and LGBTQ rights. She is part of the first Move to End Violence cohort—a 10-year initiative designed by NoVo Foundation to strengthen the collective capacity to end violence against girls and women in the United States.

She resides in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Girls for Gender Equity is committed to the physical, psychological, social and economic development of girls and women. Through education, organizing and physical fitness, Girls for Gender Equity encourages communities to remove barriers and create opportunities for girls and women to live self-determined lives.

 

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Joanne SmithJoanne, we are delighted to have you among our Young Leaders community and to have you share your work with our members. You are the founder and executive director of Girls for gender equity, an intergenerational organization committed to the physical, psychological, social, and economic development of girls and women. You decided to support the documentary “Anita,” which tells the historic tale of Anita Hill and her very public sexual harassment claims. What does Anita Hill’s story mean to you and your organization?
The film "Anita: Speaking Truth to Power" is a documentary where Anita Hill generously shares her private life and openly tells the nation about the experiences that led her to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. Tremendous social and institutional pressures silenced Anita Hill when she was sexually harassed in the workplace. Her experience in many ways parallels the barriers faced by young people when they tell their stories of sexual harassment, assault, and bullying in schools.

It was an honor for Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) to be featured in the film because Anita Hill is an African-American woman who paved the way for our young people to bravely stand up against sexual harassment and bullying in schools and communities today. Like Anita, our young people’s experiences are also further complicated by their race, sex, age, and gender expression, so it’s affirming for everyone to see how despite being oppressed, they have everything it takes to speak their truth. Anita is a role model for so many of us, and it’s so important that our youth see a woman who looks like them tell her story on her own terms and be supported. The movie offers many important lessons in believing survivors of sexual harassment, assault, rape, and incest when they report the violation. As bystanders, family members and allies, we must always stand with them during their most difficult times.

The movie offers our nation a second chance and critical opportunity to honestly face issues of sexism, racism, classism, and violence that greatly plague our culture at large. Like all institutions, the workplace, schools, colleges, and military are simply microcosms of society and the violations at the hands of people in power reflect cultural norms that must change. We work for that change at Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), and we’re proud to join Anita Hill in leading the way.

How did Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate in 1991 change the feminist movement? How influential was she in bringing public awareness to the issue of sexual harassment?
In 1991, Anita Hill's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee changed and continues to change the feminist movement in the United States and internationally. We [feminists] became the unintended consequences of Anita Hill’s courage because women and men believed her accusations of sexual harassment and we knew that the public humiliation that the Senate put her through - while still confirming Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court - was an injustice. By Anita testifying about the sexual harassment she experienced from Justice Thomas while she worked for him, and Justice Thomas using his race as a black man to denounce her accusations, it exposed the lack of intersection of race and gender within the women's rights and civil rights movement. For feminism, it birthed eloquent and honest statements of solidarity with Anita Hill as a black woman and books that challenged race, gender, and class politics by academic-activists such as "African American Women in Defense of Ourselves" by Barbara Ransby, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Deborah King; and "All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies " by Akasha Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith.

It birthed Third Wave feminism when Rebecca Walker wrote an article entitled “Becoming the Third Wave” for Ms. Magazine examining the impact of the Clarence Thomas confirmation. In which she stated, "I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the third-wave." Walker articulated a rage, anger, and hunger for action that resonated with young women and men across the country who wrote to Ms. declaring themselves part of the Third Wave of Feminism.

According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings, sexual harassment cases more than doubled, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996. Awards to victims under federal laws nearly quadrupled, from $7.7 million to $27.8 million in the same period. Another consequence of Anita Hill testifying was the increased involvement of women in politics. The media heralded the 1992 election year as the "Year of the Woman" when a record number of women ran for public office and won. In the U.S. Senate, eleven women ran and five won seats—including one incumbent candidate. In the House of Representatives, 24 women won new seats. We saw this increase as a direct reaction to Justice Thomas’ nomination. His appointment to the Supreme Court dismayed many women, who felt that Anita Hill's allegations were not taken seriously by a Senate that was 98 percent male. Among so much more that was sparked, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 was passed in response to gender-based violence and it created everything from funding of domestic-violence programs to new Civil Rights remedies for victims of gender-based attacks.

There’s so much more that I can share to demonstrate how Anita Hill’s graphic testimony was a turning point for gender equality in the United States and ignited a political firestorm about sexual misconduct and power.

How is Anita Hill’s story relevant and meaningful for youth today? How does Girls for Gender Equity’s work with young people combat sexual harassment?
Our young people have a vibrant cameo in the film and brilliantly represent our strategies for combating sexual harassment in schools and creating the conditions for young people to lead, educate, and advocate together. Our short time on screen shows our Sisters in Strength youth organizers leading workshops in schools for their peers and demonstrates how we value young people being experts of their experiences and determining and contributing to the accountability they need from each other and adults in order to create a safer, thriving school environment and community.

GGE’s work to combat sexual harassment is only part of our larger mission to end gender-based violence and vision to live a world where gender equity is the norm. We run three after-school, middle-school programs for boys and girls ages 11-14 years old. We run programs that develop the advocacy skills of high school and college aged girls. We partner with local organizations to make up the Coalition for Gender Equity in Schools . Using our curricula, documentary, and the book Hey, Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets, we train organizations, colleges, professionals, and schools nationally and internationally on strategies to end gender-based violence.

The work we do provides the intergenerational hope that young people and youth of color are not complacent about rape culture and that their spark can ignite a firestorm of change as we do this together.

Do you think Clarence Thomas would have been appointed if the story happened in France at the same period?
I absolutely do believe that Clarence Thomas would have been appointed if the story happened in France during the same time period because I believe that the appointment of Clarence Thomas was politically motivated by former President Bush, Sr. to place Thomas as the second African American to serve on the Court following Thurgood Marshall, who was best known for his high success rate in arguing before the Supreme Court and for the victory in Brown v. Board of Education, a decision that desegregated public schools. If you take a look at Justice Thomas’ record on the Supreme court over the past 23 years and listen to his personal and political positions when we he speaks, he is not the Civil Rights advocate and mastermind that the late Justice Thurgood Marshall was.

The same political appointments have been and continue to be made by people in power. Although France passed a vague sexual harassment law in 1992 defining sexual harassment as an abuse of authority, in 2012 the French National Assembly unanimously adopted a new sexual harassment law. The bill was drafted after Cecile Duflot, the country's housing minister, experienced hooting and catcalls from male legislators in the National Assembly when she stood up to deliver a speech on July 17, 2012. The male legislators only sexually harassed her and then dismissed the violation as them merely showing their appreciation for her attire and that their conduct had not been equivalent to harassment.

Further evidence of the abuse of political power are the two cases against the former French finance minister that have been dropped. An allegation of sexual assault against writer Tristane Banon in Paris in 2003 did not result in criminal charges because it had passed the legal time limit. In the case of The People of the State of New York v. Strauss-Kahn, where hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo accused Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault and attempted rape, the charges were dismissed but Strauss-Kahn was later forced to pay her substantial damages reported to be in the region of $6 million.

As Anita Hill states, “People misunderstand that harassment is about sex. It is really about power and abusing it.”

What is next for you in your work?
We continue to do great work at Girls for Gender Equity and recently launched a storytelling and leadership development campaign on school push-out and its relationship to gender-based violence. School push-out is anything that prevents young people from completing their education. Some contributing factors to school push-out are sexual harassment and bullying by peers or administration, harsh discipline practices, zero-tolerance policies, high-stakes testing, hostile environments, over policing, lack of resources, and low expectations of students.

The storytelling campaign is an opportunity to raise awareness about school push-out as experienced by students, teachers and parents/guardians. The stories will particularly lift up the experiences of girls of color, LGBTQ, and gender nonconforming youth so that they’re stories are part of the national discourse. Our goals for this campaign are to change the hearts and minds of those in our school communities, to spread awareness on students’ rights, advocate for the enforcing current policies to prevent school push-out and promote prevention, safety, and the academic achievement of all students.

As part of Move to End Violence (MEV), a 10-year program of the NoVo Foundation to strengthen our collective capacity to end violence against girls and women in the United States, we will continue being a national voice and strategists within the movement. We will also continue meeting with the French-American Foundation friends and cohort members as we work to validate the experiences of the most marginalized within the global context.