Athena Conference Helps High Schoolers Re-Think Gender

Approximately 40 Boston-area high school students grappled with gender and identity on Saturday at a day-long conference led by the Athena Program.

Since 2008, Athena, a mentoring group focused on gender empowerment, has held a conference as the culmination of semester-long discussions between mentors and their teenage mentees. But this year was the first that Athena included male high school students among their mentees.

This semester’s conference was entitled “Growing Up Gendered,” and featured several rounds of workshops and a keynote address delivered by Chiwen Bao, a lecturer in the Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality.

Students could choose from workshop activities ranging from “Spoken Word: ‘Creation Stories’” to “SAT Strategies” to “Relaxation Station: Yoga.”

“We want to expose people to the broad range of issues that you can bring a gender lens to,” said Athena Director Keri A. Hartman ’12.

Many of the students who attended the conference will be first-generation college students or come from immigrant backgrounds, Hartman explained. The workshops are designed not only to broaden their thinking about gender, but also to give them practical advice.

The conference closed with a coffeehouse, during which Athena mentors encouraged students to express themselves. The group had dwindled to about 10 students by the end of the day. One boy broke the silence by standing up to perform a piece of spoken word poetry that he had composed in a conference workshop.

“This is what I made in the spoken word thing,” he said, before breaking into verse. “In the beginning, there was everlasting darkness sprouting from every corner,” he recited.`

Another student shared his spoken word piece about sharing a kiss with a friend on a snowy day. He followed the poem with an a cappella rendition of Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away.” Three girls stood up to read an excerpt from “The Vagina Monologues,” inspired by a workshop on the play.

The conference also included a session during which female graduate students discussed their own career paths.

“My favorite part was just talking with grad students about what their lives are like now, what struggles they have, and relating to them,” said Rachael D. Saiato, an Athena mentee.

Saiato and a friend, Adriana L. Fernandez, seemed enthusiastic about the conference and left smiling and chatting.

James R. Sares ’12 said that the inclusion of male mentees added a new dynamic to the conference.

“There is still a focus on women and that is key because women are oppressed, but we try to look at how women are oppressed and how that connects to the construction of gender itself,” Sares said.

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