The Girls Are All Right

Political and Proud amps up female Gen Z power at Encinal High School.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

If the future indeed is female, it will be partly due to three young women from Alameda.

Lily Conable, Aniysa Lustig-Ellison, and Sarah Skaff are bright, articulate, engaged in engineering change — and juniors at Alameda’s Encinal High School. Like many members of Gen Z, they want to make a positive difference in the world that will be theirs.

Not long ago, Conable saw a Facebook posting from a fellow teen in Connecticut who had created an October 2017 event she called “Political and Proud,” aimed at organizing and motivating young women. Conable knew she wanted to create a local version, so, after recruiting friends Lustig-Ellison and Skaff, planning for their own first event began.

On Feb. 21, Political and Proud California hosted a crowd of 200, mostly of their peers, to hear a slate of powerful women speakers. Though keynote speaker state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, had to cancel at the last minute, the trio asked civil rights lawyer and Alameda County District Attorney candidate Pamela Price to replace her, and Price responded with a speech that earned a standing ovation. Other speakers included Hydra Mendoza, deputy chief of staff for education and equity for the San Francisco Mayor’s Office; Government Relations Coordinator Sameena Usman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; and Mosaic Project Executive Director and co-founder Lara Mendel. The Alameda League of Women Voters registered young people to vote at the event, which also partnered with the Women’s March of Oakland, among other organizations.

“We’re told, as young women, that we can’t have an impact. We can’t yet vote, but we are aware of what is going on in the world,” said Conable. “Activism is just as much of an education as sitting in a classroom. We wanted to show [our peers] how to take what they know and put it into action.”

Noted Lustig-Ellison, “Our school has a lot of politically active teens, but they need to know how to turn their passion into active change.”

None of the three shrinks from being identified as feminist, despite Conable’s casual admission that she’s been called a “feminazi” by those who don’t agree with her views. Undeterred, she said women are often discouraged from pursuing leadership roles by sexual harassment. “We are still judged by how we look, not the content of our character,” she said, pointing to the many times Hillary Clinton’s physical appearance outweighed what she was saying during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“A big part of Political and Proud is the mentorship aspect of it,” said Skaff. “If girls don’t have the confidence or support to be a part of leadership, we want to show them role models and give them networking opportunities.”

Their own role models include both expected and unexpected names. “Emma Watson,” said Lustig-Ellison. “She took on the role of a non-stereotypical girl [Hermione in the Harry Potter films], and now she’s involved with #TimesUp and the U.N.”

Conable cited actress Viola Davis, Afghan feminist activist Malala Yousafzai, and Michelle Nunn, who ran for a senate seat in Georgia while Conable was living there. “She didn’t win, but she was inspiring.”

Skaff chose both Michelle Obama and Oakland singer Kehlani, whom she called “strong and independent.”

Addressing the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement, Lustig-Ellison said, “It’s been empowering to hear these stories. Woman have been paid to keep their stories in the dark. We should know the pasts of a candidate or potential boss.”

The concept of “intersectional feminism” comes naturally to all of them. “Gun control, racial equality, LGBTQ issues, people with disabilities, classism — they all intersect with feminism,” said Conable.

A question about whether there is a lack of political interest among their peers elicited some nods. “A lot of high school students don’t care and are stuck in that mindset,” said Lustig-Ellison. “It can be hard to change those opinions, getting the point across that you have to empower yourself to empower others.”

Skaff noted, “Some guys think the ‘wage gap’ isn’t real, for example, and that female inequality isn’t either … You hear, ‘Women aren’t being stopped from anything.’”

But all three believe that leading by example can change minds. They all belong to Encinal’s Restorative Justice Center program, and this has influenced them as they think about career paths.

“I can see myself working in the justice field in the future,” said Lustig-Ellison.

“I have a passion for both science and social justice,” said Skaff, “and I’d like to find a way to connect those two things.

Politics attracts Conable. She mentioned running for office, but also noted that she had discovered how big a difference those who work behind the scenes for political figures can make. “I can see myself as a senator, but I also believe nonprofit work effects good change in communities,” she said.

Meanwhile, they are thoughtful about the success of their first event and about making the goals of Political and Proud sustainable. “To see firsthand how people were affected at our first event was very inspiring. Boys attended the event as well, and Pamela Price was so eloquent,” said Lustig-Ellison.

“People messaged me afterwards about how they are going to become more active,” said Skaff. “People could relate to Pamela Price — not every student here is privileged,” said Conable. “As a woman of color who is so accomplished, she spoke to them.”

Another Political and Proud event is being planned for later this year, the trio said — and much bigger than that, they are working to help create a nationwide Political and Proud network. “We want to empower youth to use their megaphone as students,” said Conable.

“We need to be this generation’s voice,” said Skaff. “You are an agent for change. The more they hear it, the more it becomes true.”

Lustig-Ellison added, “It’s also about changing things for boys and young men. It’s OK to have feelings and express them.”

Conable summed up: “We should not be disrespectful that people have been working on these issues for years. But we haven’t achieved equality, and you can’t gaslight us.” She reflected,  “Learning about different voices is crucial. We need to take a moment and listen.”

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