These uni students are holding feminist workshops in Sydney high schools

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By Anna Hush and Subeta Vimalarajah

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My kind of feminism

Three teenage girls talk about what feminism means to them.

PT1M11S 620 349

It is not every day that you find yourself in the midst of a heated discussion with a 15-year-old boy about the politics of Nicki Minaj's 'Anaconda', trying to ascertain whether Minaj is being objectified by the misogynistic, capitalist music industry or whether she is exercising agency by subverting white standards of beauty.

Yet this is a common experience for volunteers at fEMPOWER workshops, a program engineered by students at the University of Sydney, which was delivered to hundreds of high school students during the 2015 school year.

fEMPOWER was born in a meeting of the Wom*n's Collective (a feminist activist group within the university's Students' Representative Council) last April. Instead of simply bemoaning the lack of feminism in the high school curriculum, we came up with a way to include it.

A poster made by students during a fEMPOWER workshop.

A poster made by students during a fEMPOWER workshop. Photo: fEMPOWER

At the peak of our program, in early December, we carried out workshops with every student in Year 9 at Sydney Secondary College's Balmain campus. We busted myths about feminism and deconstructed sexist quotes from prominent Australian leaders (you can probably guess who). We looked at a range of feminists, from Australian disability activist Stella Young to African-American transgender advocate Laverne Cox.

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Although many students come to our workshops already equipped with knowledge of feminism, it is often only informed by the mainstream, pop-culture feminism of Emma Watson, Lena Dunham and Hillary Clinton. In creating our workshops, we aim to expand these views and encourage students to engage with other feminisms that are inclusive of a range of identities - feminism that is not solely fixated on the concerns of privileged white women, but also encompasses race, class, sexuality, disability and more.

Initially, uncertain of how and which schools to approach, we ran a general workshop for any interested high school students. We urged Facebook friends to share the event and were lucky enough to have 40 or so students register their attendance.

In a cluttered room at the Sydney Law School in July, we projected our YouTube playlist of feminist classics onto the whiteboard, awaiting their arrival. As ;Independent Woman; by Destiny's Child played, we entertained the apprehensive but interested high schoolers with pizza, dip and light chit-chat as they poured in.

At the end of the two hours, each student filled out a feedback form. The results were overwhelmingly positive. We scored 99 per cent for being friendly and informative demonstrators, and 93 per cent for students enjoying the workshop. Even students who entered the classroom hesitant left behind a buzz of excitement, some staying back to ask more questions.

We told them to write down their email addresses if they wanted to stay in contact, and they all did.

We e-mailed students from different schools and asked them to arrange meetings with teachers who might be interested in facilitating fEMPOWER at their schools.

An ambitious student from Penrith High School knocked on the door of her principal's office and, a month or so later, our volunteers arrived at her school during lunch with milk crates full of zines, poster painting material and freshly laminated pictures of feminist icons.

Students at Sydney Secondary College, Leichhardt and North Sydney Girls High School did the same. Their belief in the importance of our program, as well as the assistance of teachers who went above and beyond in hosting us, allowed us to spread the word about fighting structural oppression to students across Sydney.

As we introduced ourselves at the beginning of our first workshop, perhaps facetiously, we said we were all excited to learn from the students. Little did we realise, that is exactly what would happen.

Some students rolled their eyes when we tried to explain what the term "cis" means, obviously already aware. One called us out for our use of binary terms like "girls and boys" during the workshop. We soon realised that a lot of students were well past the pay gap and basic explanations of intersectionality - they wanted to analyse Audre Lorde and make radical zines.

At the same time, our experience at Sydney Secondary Campus, Balmain - the first time we worked with a whole year group - taught us that these extremely engaged students are few and far between.

The average classroom still holds budding internet trolls who smirk as rates of gendered violence are recited and who unconsciously mansplain over female students; those who would suggest we "include men's perspectives more" in our conception of feminism.

Feminism is still treated as an extracurricular pursuit by the NSW curriculum. But, when gender inequality seeps into our classrooms, our online spaces and homes, we see it as a vital part of secondary education. That is why we will be continuing these workshops into 2016.

If you would like to get involved, like our Facebook page or email us at fempower.workshops@gmail.com. If you would like to support the program, check out our crowdfunding campaign.