Beautiful Trouble: SPARKing an AGENDA for Change

By Lyn Mikel Brown

In the fall of 2010, I cofounded SPARK Movement with my grad school friend, Hunter/CUNY professor Deborah Tolman. SPARK was our response to the American Psychological Association’s Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls. We linked the fight against sexualization to the need for “enabling conditions” for girls’ and young women’s healthy sexuality; conditions that could only be created out of the shared conviction and momentum of an explicitly intergenerational movement.

We were passionate about partnering with youth. Over the next six years, with our Executive Director, Dana Edell, we gathered together a diverse SPARKteam of more than 60 young feminists, 13-22 years old, who lived in ten countries and 18 US states; 65% were girls of color, and 37% identified as queer, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Together, working largely online, we launched a series of actions and campaigns that engaged girls as central to the solutions, instead of protecting them from the problems they face.

We defined our intergenerational work as “girl-fueled”. While girls and adults together chose the issues we took on, girls developed and moved the actions and campaigns forward. Adults provided the necessary scaffolding in the form of infrastructure and financial support. We also provided activist trainings, on the ground meeting spaces, and online platforms for girls to share and enact strategies for change that addressed urgent feminist issues as they experience them.

From the moment the SPARKteam was born, the girls shaped the movement. They pressed us to move away from a primary focus on media sexualization to tackle what, for them, were more pressing issues such as gender-based violence, reproductive health, racism and homophobia in their schools and communities. The wanted to make media too, and wrote over 700 blogs that included visibility campaigns like Black Women Create and Talking With Fierce Feminists. Under their leadership, SPARK became “a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement.”

Together we learned that intergenerational youth-driven activism is complicated, messy, time- and labor-intensive for everyone. It’s also deeply relational, demands ongoing reflection, radical transparency, and for adults, a large measure of humility. Girls called us on our protectionist, perfectionist, and adultist tendencies all the time. We were in this for the SPARKteam and our coalition, as well as for the campaigns we launched, and that meant we stopped to tackle the hard conversations and breaches of trust. We privileged girls’ views, concerns, and needs over expediency.

We began SPARK with the idealistic belief that our little revolution would be funded. We thought we had the perfect social change model—work intensely with a diverse group of young passionate activists to launch layered, smart campaigns that our nearly 60 partner orgs and thousands of followers would share with the world. And we had success. The girls changed Seventeen’s policy on Photoshop and brought Google and LEGO execs to the table to talk gender and racial diversity. They garnered interview segments with Linda Ellerby and Brian Lehrer. They were featured in all the major newspapers. Our funders loved this version of success, and so we felt increased pressure to chase mass media attention. We struggled with what we were willing to sacrifice.

Under pressure to commodify girls’ activism and to commodify girls as activists, we stayed true to our mission: to support a coalition of willful young intersectional feminists passionate about creating and launching impactful actions. For us, success was not measured by the scale of an action or the media attention it garnered, but by what we learned, by our capacity to do difference together as a team, and by the beautiful trouble we created. We knew that creating the necessary conditions for girls to create social change together took trust and trust took time to develop. We knew seasoned activists take calculated risks and learn from failure—and failure doesn’t sell.

In the end, we could not financially sustain our work and retain our integrity. And so, we pivoted. We asked our funders to support us one final time to build a new website that would tell our story, document our campaigns and actions, and share what we learned together in the form of free feminist tools and resources for youth to create the world they want. We no longer do direct service with girl activists—there is no SPARKteam–but we continue to work with former SPARKteam members and partner organizations. And we remain committed to supporting youth-led activism with resources and spaces for feminist voices on our blog and our social media platforms.

After the Women’s March in Washington, Dana Edell and I worked with Boston-based Wee The People and New Moon Girls to create Young Voices for Justice, a free toolkit for parents who want to encourage their young children’s desire to fight injustice. Our latest project is our most ambitious yet. Dana and I teamed up with Wales-based activist Emma Renold to build AGENDA, an online toolbox that offers 20 different ways youth can take action in their schools and communities. And with a goal of changing #metoo to #neveragain, for each tactic we offer extended examples and additional information specific to sexual violence prevention.

Genuine relationships and intergenerational partnerships with girls, with all youth, require that we trust them as experts on their own experience. In the process of SPARK’s intergenerational activist work, we learned a great deal about the importance of deep relationships, horizontal partnerships, and radical transparency. It gives us enormous pleasure to share what we’ve learned working with the SPARKteam and to know that former members like Carmen Rios, Calliope Wong, and Yas Necati are out there making a difference every day. They are living proof that a diverse coalition of youth armed with activist skills, a feminist intersectional lens, and a range of tools at their disposal can be the change.

Learn More

Brown, L. M. (2016). Powered by girl: A field guide for supporting youth activists. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Edell, D., Brown, L. M., & Tolman, D. (2013). Embodying sexualisation: When theory meets practice in intergenerational feminist activism. Feminist Theory, 14(3), 275–284.

Brown, L.M. (Fall, 2017). Girls Against Dress Codes. Rethinking Schools, 31(4): 7-9.

Author Bio

Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown is an activist and Professor of Education at Colby College. She is the author of six books and co-founder of three intergenerational girl-fueled social change organizations. She’s passionate about supporting youthful resistance and dissent in the face of oppression and writes about this in her most recent book, Powered By Girl: A Field Guide For Supporting Youth Activists.