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High school students came from around the greater Boston area and beyond yesterday to attend the Athena Conference, where Harvard undergraduate volunteers led them in self-defense classes, creative performances, and guided discussions.
The Athena Program, which was founded over 15 years ago, aims to educate high school students, especially young women, about gender, sexuality, and female empowerment in a fun and safe environment.
The program held their semi-annual conference at the Student Organization Center at Hilles from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The organization, which as a policy does not turn anyone away, hosted 15 women and three men. The attendees were predominantly disadvantaged students from public and charter schools.
The Athena Program, which displayed the slogan “Blasting Through Stereotypes” on the poster at the entrance to the conference, hoped to help young women recognize the subliminal messages coming from the media and then rise above the resulting pressure, organizers said.
“We want to create a conference dedicated to creating a community of girls dedicated to communication about gender and social justice and fun,” said Athena Conference co-organizer Alice M. Laramore ’11.
The Athena Program volunteers used several different types of activities to make the girls comfortable in their environment. They encouraged them to write down the ground rules they wanted for the conference on the floor, and then to step over the rules into the “safe space” which the conference provides.
Participants gave enthusiastic and positive feedback about the conference.
“I didn’t know what to expect...I learned a lot,” said Jasmine Boyd-Perry, a senior at Boston Latin School who was participating in her first Athena Conference.
Boyd-Perry ran a workshop for other high school girls, which she said was a rewarding experience.
“Putting on a workshop...it sort of automatically gives you empowerment,” she said. “Every high school girl should at least know something about [issues of gender and sexuality].”
Boyd-Perry also praised the mentor-mentee relationships at the conference, explaining how the program participants meet up with the mentors to simply go eat or “hang out” together.
Ronesha Williams, a senior at Boston Latin Academy, echoed Boyd-Perry’s positive thoughts about the conference.
“It’s really good for leadership skills,” Williams said of teaching her first group of students.
Mentors in the program said they were excited about the effects they see the conference having on the girls’ lives.
“Once the conversation has started, it goes past this conference,” said DanThuy T. Chu ’13, a mentor and former participant in the conference.
Event co-organizer Tara D. Venkatraman ’11 said she enjoys observing the empowerment the young women feel.
“To see them owning this conference as their own...that’s really powerful,” she said.
Diedre Degraffenreid, a counselor at the YMCA in Dorchester, brought two girls to the conference and was very pleased with the results.
“I thought it was really good,” she said, “I’ll bring them back. Definitely.”
—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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