Aisha Beltran took the microphone and faced a room full of about 70 guests. An enthusiastic smile spread across her face as she took a stance that displayed confidence. And then the sixth grader talked about the future – seven years in the future to be exact.
“In the year 2024, I will be old enough to vote here in the United States of America. What about you guys?” she asked her fellow peers on the stage as she turned to face them.
“In the year 2024, I will be able to vote,” answered one student.
“In the year 2023, I will be able to vote and I cannot wait,” came a response.
And then Beltran continued, but this time about the past: “But my guarantee to vote in the future would not be possible if not for the women of the past, who fought for their suffrage rights and, in turn, my suffrage rights.”
Beltran led the Women’s Suffrage Student-Led Panel Discussion at the BronxArtSpace annex on March 30, the opening show in a series called Women’s Voices: Untold Stories, commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the New York State Women’s Suffrage Movement. Hosted by Learning through an Expanded Arts Programs (LEAP) — a nonprofit organization that uses an arts-based approach to teach the core curriculum — the panel discussion, led by middle school students, featured five students as moderators and four adult panelists as the interviewees.
The event comes at a time when all of New York State is celebrating the movement. The 14-member Women’s Suffrage Commission, which was established by state law, will run programs celebrating the accomplishments of women’s suffrage through 2020. But LEAP’s focus is rooted a little deeper.
“Not only are we learning about women’s suffrage, we’re learning about intersectionality,” said Monique Jarvis, who works for LEAP on afterschool programs. “Our stories and how we fought from slavery are not stories that are going to be found in a textbook. We want to bring these untold stories out of the woodwork to leave a road map for the students to know how to extend the conversation beyond race.”
The panel discussion was broken up into three segments: women’s suffrage history, women and activism, and intersectionality and women of color. And it was apparent that the students were prepared to ask the tough questions.
“In 1917, 100 years ago, New York passed the 19th amendment, a law which gives women voting rights,” Beltran said to the crowd during the introduction of the first segment. “But why didn’t women already have the right to vote?”
The adult panelists, which included Deirdre Cooper Owens, assistant professor of history at Queens College; Jessica Peñaranda, special projects coordinator at Sex Workers Project; Tamara Fleming, Femworks co-founder; and Laura Richmond, Girl Be Heard, Inc. ensemble member; responded to the students’ insightful questions with motivating and inspiring answers.
“These brave women went out to secure the right to vote and yet there were still certain communities of women who could not vote until years later,” said Owens when a student asked the panelists why it’s important to know about the women’s suffrage movement. “But it was important to at least get women to live political lives, to show that they were thinking people, that they deserved to have democracy, that they deserved to be treated as full citizens.”
During the second segment, a slideshow of suffragists including the poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, fashion designer Amelia Bloomer and journalist Ida B. Wells, played on the ceiling while Beltran listed their accomplishments. On a wall in the intimate, white room, a poster read, “Girls of the World Unite!” A smaller poster on the opposite wall read, “Girl Power.” Beside it, were images of young girls holding up posters that said, “Votes for Girls.”
Before the event started, the LEAP cheerleading team wore headscarves and stood in silence to bring awareness to a student at Benjamin Franklin Science Academy in Oklahoma, who was asked to take off her head wrap because it was not part of her uniform. Second grader Lauren Gil from the Harlem Children’s Zone read, “I dream a world,” by Langston Hughes. In between segments, Shariana Allen, a sixth grader, performed “Girls of To-day,” a poem written by suffragette Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and another student performed an original song titled “I’m a girl.” A dance troupe also performed an interpretive dance piece, and Teller Avenue LEAP Afterschool students entertained the crowd with a step team performance.
“It’s more about really empowering not only the women and the girls, but boys, too, and the entire community,” said Jim Pugliese from LEAP. “We’re working on communities that are underserved and we’re trying to create an awareness of their culture in the community and how they actually have the power to create change.”
This message is clearly getting through to the students, who said they were happy to be at the event and eager to learn.
“Women still don’t have the same rights as guys and something needs to be changed about that,” said Rahim Hough, 11, a student moderator from the Bronx Writing Academy. Hough, who said that learning about the women’s suffrage movement made him think of his mother, said that he didn’t know that men were allowed to abuse women in the past.
“My perspective has totally changed,” said Allen, 12. “Are we supposed to sit down and just let men take all our ideas? It matters that you’re a person and everyone should get the right to vote no matter what race, if you’re a man or a woman, or if you’re an immigrant.”
During the last segment of the discussion, the students and panelists spoke about intersectionality. Richmond referenced “13th” — an Oscar-Nominated documentary by Filmmaker Ava DuVernay about the history of race and the criminal justice system in the United States — adding that this honor wouldn’t have been possible in the past.
“I think it was really empowering to be on the student side having them ask the older folks the questions,” said Peñaranda. “It builds self-esteem and teaches about leadership and critical thinking. These are our future leaders and we should nurture that and nurture more of this.”
Coming up next for LEAP in this series is a Storybooth Project, where students will interview diverse women, and the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Celebration Performance — a history-based theater production where students will show what they have learned about women’s suffrage.