When Girls Take the Lead on Social Justice: 5 Stories

They started a troop focused on girls of color, exposed a human smuggling operation, and generally stepped up when adults didn’t.
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Girls get it done. 

Photo by SolStock/Getty Images 

The Radical Monarchs

Founded in Oakland, California, 2014

The Radical Monarchs started when Lupita, a fourth grader, wanted to join a Girl Scouts troop. Her mom thought it was a great idea but was concerned that Lupita, who is Mexican American, would be the only girl of color in the troop. Lupita’s mom asked herself: What would it look like to create a social justice troop that focused on girls of color? She casually mentioned the idea to Lupita—and the budding activist would not let it go, begging her mom to get it started.

Lupita and her mom reached out to classmates and friends, and soon Troop 1 was born, with 12 girls between the ages of 9 and 11, and two grown-up troop leaders. The curriculum is shaped by what the girls want to learn. They’ve camped, hiked, gardened, and visited a Native American sweat lodge. They combine activism and current events with useful, empowering skills. When all the girls got excited about learning how to code, the troop leaders designed a whole unit around it. The Monarchs got to learn the basics of this crucial computer skill, and they even designed and built their own original projects: social justice emojis and an app that lets you take a selfie with a “herstorical” role model. A unit on Radical Entrepreneurship enabled the girls to identify the kinds of products they’d like to make (and sell!), and soon they were making their own body oils and earrings. And a unit on Radical Beauty focused on developing positive body image and self-esteem—messages the girls are actively sharing back at school.

Megan Greenwell and Iliana Montauk

Published in Berkeley, California, 1999

In November 1999, Megan Greenwell and Iliana Montauk gathered for a staff meeting of The Jacket, the school newspaper of Berkeley High School, to brainstorm article ideas. An advisor mentioned a local news story: A 17-year-old girl named Chanti had died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a nearby apartment building, and her 15-year-old sister was found unconscious.

As the student reporters discussed the story, they noticed odd details that none of the local news coverage had mentioned: The apartment was just blocks from Berkeley High, but the girls weren’t enrolled there. They had recently come to the United States from India, and the girls worked at a local Indian restaurant. Why were these young people working and not attending Berkeley High? Were they enrolled in any school at all?

Through her initial research, Megan learned that the girls lived in an apartment separate from their parents—and the landlord of both apartment buildings was the owner of the restaurant where the girls worked. Once Megan and Iliana gained the trust of these sources, they learned that the landlord was known to bring poor young women over from India to work in his restaurants. The girls weren’t paid, and they weren’t allowed to go to school. It was a form of modern indentured servitude—and it’s illegal.

After consulting with school officials and a lawyer, Megan and Iliana published their article, “Young Indian Immigrant Dies in Berkeley Apartment, South Asian Community Says ‘Indentured Servitude’ May Be to Blame.” Soon after, the Berkeley police reopened their investigation—and uncovered an enormous human smuggling operation, as well as reports of abuse.

The case led to the creation of stricter human trafficking laws in California, and journalists from all over the world flocked to Berkeley to cover the story—and to interview the two young women who cracked the case wide open.

Celeste Tinajero

Born in Coalinga, California, 1995

Water leaked from old faucets. Crumpled paper towels littered the floor. Toilets clogged and overflowed, spilling precious water. That’s what Celeste Tinajero saw every time she went into the bathrooms at her high school in Reno, Nevada. Wasted water, paper, and energy—Celeste couldn’t stand it. And her fellow Eco Warriors felt the same way.

The Eco Warriors is an environmental club started by Celeste’s brother, Hector. After Celeste joined, the group decided to tackle the waste they were seeing on campus. Celeste applied for a grant from a coalition of environmental organizations in Reno, and she received first place. Reed High School was awarded $12,000 to update its bathroom facilities. The school was able to install low-flush toilets, automatic hand dryers, and new auto-sensor lighting and faucets that couldn’t be left on. These upgrades saved water, paper, and energy—and also saved the school a lot of money.

Buoyed by the club’s success, Celeste applied for another grant. This one addressed the problem of single-use plastic water bottles. Hundreds of students used them, and almost all of the bottles ended up in the trash.

Once again, Celeste’s grant proposal was selected, and this time her school received $3,500 to install “hydration stations,” where students could fill reusable water bottles. Celeste and the Eco Warriors also lobbied the school to stop selling bottled water, and they worked hard to spread the word about the new stations. In one year they saved 37,000 plastic water bottles from being used!

Constance McMillen 

Born in Fulton, Mississippi, 1992

Constance McMillen grew up in a small conservative town. When she was in fifth grade, she realized she was gay. She didn’t tell anyone until eighth grade, when she came out as bisexual. By the time she was a high school senior in 2010, Constance identified as a lesbian and had her first girlfriend. They wanted to do what lots of other high school couples do: get dressed up, go to prom, and dance the night away.

There had never been an openly gay couple at her high school before, so Constance asked her principal if they were allowed to attend prom. The principal said no. They would be allowed to attend the prom separately, he said. But if they danced together, or held hands, or anything like that, they would be kicked out.

She contacted the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and told them what was happening. The ACLU sent a letter to her school, letting them know that they were violating her rights by blocking her from bringing her girlfriend to prom. The school’s response? They cancelled the prom. Not just for Constance and her girlfriend—for everyone.

Constance sued her school district, and she won. The judge ruled that the school had violated Constance’s First Amendment rights. Constance received a large sum of money, but something even better came out of the lawsuit: The school agreed to a new nondiscrimination policy that included sexual orientation.

Cordelia Longo

Born in Sacramento, California, 2002

One day at school, eighth grader Cordelia Longo experienced a problem that a lot of women are familiar with: She got her period and needed supplies. She went from bathroom to bathroom, but all of the outdated tampon and pad vending machines were either empty or broken (and they took her last few dimes). She was frustrated and embarrassed—and also pretty mad. It didn’t seem fair that schools provided toilet paper and paper towels for all students but that girls had to buy menstrual supplies (if there were any). It’s not like menstruation was their choice.

So Cordelia started a petition asking the school to update its menstrual product machines and to provide free tampons and pads. She quickly gathered more than a hundred signatures, and they weren’t just from other girls. Many supportive boys and teachers signed on, too.

While the school was reviewing the petition and letter, Cordelia used her own allowance money to purchase baskets, tampons, and pads, and she placed them in each of the school’s girls’ bathrooms. The final touch? She added a little note on each basket with a quote from Hillary Clinton: “Women’s rights are human rights. Human rights are women’s rights.”

Within a week, the school had restocked the machines and disabled the coin operation, making the supplies totally free. Cordelia’s efforts made such an impact that the local high school did the same thing!

Reprinted with permission from Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women, by Kate Schatz; illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, copyright (c) 2018. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Illustrations (c) 2018 by Miriam Klein Stahl

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