by Claire Davenport
Alexandra Himmel plays a lot of roles at Haddonfield Memorial High, located in western New Jersey, close to the Pennsylvania border. She’s an engaged student, vice president of the student body, and president of the 50/50 club, the school’s gender equality student organization, which currently has 37 members.
And her big focus as club president is on their yearly “Through a Woman’s Eyes” art show, run in coordination with the Haddon Fortnightly, a local women’s group with around 120 members that is part of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs — the largest women’s volunteer organization in the world.
Every year, the students pick a theme based on what feels relevant for the community, and this year, it was “Women in STEAM,” with prizes named after six pioneering women who have made contributions in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.
The partnership underpinning this yearly art event exemplifies what we mean when we talk about changemaking — how intergenerational collaboration, working on proximate issues, and youth team building are so critical for realizing community projects.
We talked with Alexandra; Margaret Gammie, the 50/50 club advisor and social studies teacher at Haddonfield Memorial High; and Denise Sellers, president of the Haddon Fortnightly, about the inspiration for this project and what it takes to run, along with how they see fostering changemaking and leadership skills among young people as so critical to realizing a better future.
Curating a women-focused art exhibition
According to Sellers, the art event started in 2017 when a high school student who helped her at an after-school program in town told her about the 50/50 club, and Sellers suggested that it would be nice to do a joint project together. Since women don’t often get the same treatment and visibility in art spaces, they landed on an art show.
“We thought we’d have to teach the girls much more than we did. We just provided the building, the extra hands, and refreshments,” she laughed.
Since, the show has been a staple of the Haddonfield community, with as many as 50 artists contributing at a time, and usually 10 to a dozen students participating yearly. Each year, they also raise money through the show to send donations to a charity picked by their partner Girls Learn International.
Alexandra first joined the 50/50 club out of an interest and commitment to feminism and women’s rights, along with the encouragement of her teacher Margaret Gammie, who is the club’s advisor.
Now, as president, Alexandra leads the club in choosing the theme for that year’s show, setting a strategy for recruiting local artists, and planning for the final exhibition. There’s a lot that goes into planning an art show — from recruiting sponsors to setting up a space for the event and publicizing it in local media.
For Alexandra, these responsibilities are an exciting chance to practice organizing and running an initiative. “I think it’s rare for high school students to get the opportunity to plan and execute an event like this, and I felt like I was working as an equal with the adults throughout the process,” Alexandra shared.
It’s also important to her that the show is understood as a community initiative, not just a school one. “It’s a show for women artists, and we open it up to students too — but it’s not just a student art show,” she said.
The power of leading at a young age
For Alexandra, the process of leading the 50/50 club and organizing the art show has been a real opportunity for learning and growth as a leader.
“I think I had a very skewed idea of what leadership is — that it’s putting your head down, having an idea, and executing it by yourself with only the necessary people involved,” she confessed. “Then I came into the art show and was like, wow, that’s not how it has to be. There are people here to support you.”
She also learned the importance of delegation and letting others on a team share their voice. “As a leader, I always want to make sure there is a clear goal at hand at that we’re working towards something,” she said. “That helps everyone feel involved and engaged.”
She also mentioned the importance of choosing issues to tackle that are close to your identity and interests. “If you’re really connected to the issue, then you’re going to bring it forward,” she explained.
Tip to other young leaders from Alexandra: “Don’t be afraid to make space for yourself. There might not be some team waiting to receive you. Sometimes you have to go out and seek people to build a project, and don’t limit yourself by your age, gender, or whatever factor you think is prohibiting you from doing something you want to do for your community.”
The importance of intergenerational exchange
The team also highlighted the significance and power of the intergenerational nature of the project. “It has been incredible to work with the Fortnightly ladies, because they really provide a different perspective that young feminists just aren’t getting. It’s easy to get wrapped up in issues happening right now and forget that there are other feminists who have paved the way and all the progress we’ve made,” Alexandra said.
They also underscored the ability of intergenerational work to teach kids how to interact with adults — an important skill as they move into life after high school.
Sellers noted how dynamic flows both ways, allowing adults to take on important self-affirming roles as mentors. “Kids need to see that sometimes adults do things not for their own best interest, but for other people,” she said.
Tip to other young leaders from Alexandra: “Seek advice from elders and mentors who have done what you’re interested in doing before or who have similar interests.”
Adult allies and the roles they play
Adult allies like Gammie and Sellers can also play an important role in creating spaces in schools or other youth environments for young people to take on roles of leadership and pursue social impact.
They suggest a light-touch approach, letting young people experiment, make decisions, and sometimes make mistakes.
“We tell the students — here, you go ahead and lead it, but we’re standing behind you to pick up anything you need to be picked up,” Gammie said.
“Kids need to know that people care about them beyond just paying their school taxes!” Sellers added. “That people support them in the things they want to do.”
They recognize that sometimes letting go of the reins can be difficult, but that’s it is essential for fostering the sort of leadership skills and drive to act that young people need to make change on issues that matter to them.
“Originally, we thought we were going to have to do a lot of it ourselves. And then we saw we needed to step back and let them make the decisions,” Sellers explained. “We just give them that framework and let them be responsible for the details. We’re like the mothers and grandmothers in the background.”
Fostering the next generation of changemakers
This year, the art show was a big success once again, with 70 submissions from 30 student and adult artists, and about 200 attendees. They also raised over two thousand dollars for Girls Learn International.
Seeing the incredible community impact and engagement with this work, the art show team calls on other educators and students to start their own initiatives and tackle issues close to them.
And they are seeing this happening in real time, as teamwork and leadership are incorporated more and more into schools’ curriculums, even at the elementary level. But there is still progress to be made.
“There can be a lot of the school process that’s more rote, and [changemaking] is all about thinking about what’s important to you and running with that instead of waiting for someone to tell you what to do,” Gammie shared.
“It would be incredibly transformative for students everywhere to feel empowered and get the resources to make change in their community, and eventually in their work life and future communities,” Alexandra added.
“It would be cool to see what other students’ art show equivalents would be, like if they’re looking to create events that promote women in the local community,” Gammie said. “How would other young people interpret the question, ‘how can I make change in my community?’ Everyone has an idea about how change can be best effected.”
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