What Would You Tell This 11th Grader? Teaching Our Girls (& Boys) to Speak Out, Stand Up

I’m Vietnamese. In AP History class, I think my teacher was a Vietnam Vet. He’s big and bulky. He often throws my papers at me and one day, called me Charlie, Chink, and other names. The principal heard him calling me those names and said nothing.

Why didn’t I speak out? All of us in AP classes are driven, it’s important to us to get good grades. I needed to get the grade and put it behind me. I knew I wouldn’t have to have him for a teacher next year. (11th grader)

YOUNG PEOPLE LEADINGst. louis from Mississippi River

Saturday was one of my favorite volunteer days of the year here in my geographical (St. Louis) Main Street:  Diversity Day. We have an extraordinary 9-month youth leadership program that engages high school juniors from 30+ schools. The purpose of the event is to elevate young people’s leadership capacities so that they not only notice differences, but are able to speak out with honesty and act with more tolerance, more inclusivity, more bravery.

Picture it: Young women with heads covered. Young men wearing crosses. Young people sharing that they’re gay. Young people openly talking about stereotypes of how others see their “rich” and “poor” schools and families. Youth talking about how they feel like “others” for their looks, including the colors of their skins.

As I drank in the room filled with over 100 youth, I felt pure joy. Joy that I live in the U.S. – that I got the chance to be in that room — with these incredible, diverse young people.


In a small group of 6, young people shared their stories of times when they felt “different.”  One young woman wanted to speak first. She told us that she’d been called Charlie and Chink by her teacher, even with the principal in the room. (Excerpt above.) When she’d finished and we’d all talked a bit about it, her eyes filled with tears. She turned to the person next to her and said, “I need a hug.”

Another young woman quickly spoke up next and said she understood. She explained that her Mom came here from Honduras. She and a girlfriend “had to jump” a boy in the hallway, beating him up because he made fun of her in class, saying she should “get a green card” and the teacher had laughed along with the class. (Group members laughed but then quickly told her they thought violence was not the answer.)

As a young person, a student, lots of people ‘control’ what we do, or we’re raised and conditioned to think they do. But these young people’s stories struck me as eerily similar to how Mainstreet Women interviewees responded to the question, “Has there ever been a time when you didn’t speak up or stand up for someone or something? If so, what stopped you?”

speak your mindsFEAR FACTOR  

This young student’s grade stopped her. She said that she was afraid if she spoke out, the good grade she is ‘driven’ to achieve might not happen.

Of Mainstreet Women interviewees, just four out of 52 couldn’t really remember a time when they didn’t speak out or stand up for someone, something, or for themselves. The overwhelming majority recalled, in exquisite detail, a time or times when FEAR silenced them.

What are we afraid of? Themes I heard from women included:  losing a job, being judged, feeling unworthy to speak, and fear about not understanding or ‘knowing’ enough to speak out. Some women talked about fear stopping them as children or young adults. Others expressed that they sometimes remained silent because they wanted to avoid conflict, a big hairy uncomfortable situation.

Most women expressed deep, heartfelt regret about the times they didn’t speak out or stand up. Several women talked about how speaking out as a woman in other countries could mean death and wondered, why are we not speaking out more here in the U.S.?


We have reason for optimism. Most Mainstreet Women said that with maturity comes more confidence, more freedom to speak out and stand up; or as one woman said, “I don’t really give a damn about what people think anyone.”

Over the next week or so, I’ll be sharing Mainstreet Women’s ‘what stopped me’ stories. There are glorious stories to be shared too, when Mainstreet Women acted as everyday heroines, showing real courage in the face of tough odds. In particular, women spoke out and stood up for others, something they report being easier for them than speaking out and standing up for themselves.

Yet consider this, Victoria Brescoll, a professor at the Yale School of Management, attributes women talking less than men on the job to their fear of being perceived as too aggressive. In a recent article that appeared recently in Administrative Science Quarterly, she explains:

“When men talk a lot and they have power, people want to reward them either by hiring them, voting for them or just giving them more power and responsibility at work. But when women do it, they are seen as being too domineering, too presumptuous. Women perceive this, and that’s why they temper how much they talk.”

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY? courage fear yin yang

As a leadership facilitator on Saturday, it wasn’t my role to advise the young people on what I think they could or should do. Saturday evening, I had that pit-of-my-stomach queasiness that our young people are experiencing these kinds of situations. Even now, I can’t quite shake the sense of alarm that adults in schools may be accomplices to the silencing of young women and young men. What does that mean for our families, our communities, our companies, and our country?

If you got the chance to talk with this amazing 11th grade girl, what would you tell her? What would you say to the teacher or the principal in her story? What would you say to her parents? To her peers? Hey, maybe you feel like giving me a piece of your minds for staying in my facilitator role and not taking action!

My Mainstreet Mom passed on her love for Ralph Waldo Emerson to me. Emerson said, “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.”

So while I wait to hear what you’d tell this wonderful girl, I’ll be focusing on making those 5 minutes happen.




Speak Your Mind


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