Creating a generation of leaders with Jen Lacy of American Daughters
What was the introduction to activism in your own life?
I was introduced to activism while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Several of my professors taught me about intersectionality as a framework for understanding public education. Those professors also taught me what it means to be a teacher committed to social justice. The first time I participated in activism outside the classroom was after the shooting of Tony Robinson, a young black man who was killed by police just a few blocks from my apartment. While I followed the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, this tragedy and the learning opportunities that were taking place on campus and in the community by groups like Young, Gifted, and Black Ferguson to Madison taught me the importance of protest and teaching as an act of political resistance.
Did you have a mentor when you were in school? If yes, how did that impact your career, if not, how do you think it would have changed your path.
I have had several mentors in my different levels of schooling. Each mentor created a learning environment in which I felt known in their presence. They each helped me create a vision of who I wanted to be, the kind of world I wanted to live in, and taught me how to use different tools like education to bring about that vision. Mentorship meant having someone in my life who believed in me and my vision, and it gave me the confidence to pursue my goals.
Tell me what inspired you to launch American Daughters?
We were propelled to launch American Daughters after the 2016 presidential election. Sarah, my sister, kept coming back to this idea of American Daughters and what it meant to be an American Daughter. We knew being an American Daughter didn’t mean citizenship; it had to mean something more. We saw a need to reclaim and redefine words like freedom and patriotism that seem to be so easily thrown around and reduced to holidays and slogans on a t-shirt. We also had a vision of more women, in all fields, becoming leaders because our voices and stories were not being heard. Empowering women leaders is still a goal of ours, but our ideas of leadership have changed. People often associate leaders with the people that are seen at the top, like Congresspeople and CEOs. We now understand that leaders are people driven by a mission and who possess the qualities to organize others towards that mission. The goal is not to be at the top, but to create new opportunities and bring about justice for all people.
What was the process like to actually build this organization?
Finding women to serve on our board of directors was not difficult. At that time (and still today), there are so many women who are educating themselves on intersectional feminist issues and finding ways to learn from the people directly impacted by them. Kansas City is full of women who want to support each other and work collectively to empower all women.
The process of creating a 501c3 non-profit was a long process. I had just finished my dissertation, so I was still in a mindset of…we just have to put in the work even though we don’t always know what we’re doing. We attended a non-profit workshop through UMKC, searched the internet for how to fill out state and federal forms, and continually worked on developing our vision. The process took about 4 months. Kelly Castor, an illustrator at Hallmark, donated her time and skills to creating a logo, and once we had a face for the organization, it felt real.
“We also had a vision of more women, in all fields, becoming leaders because our voices and stories were not being heard.”
You work with high school students. What was the reaction from school administrations to your concept?
Creating a learning environment for high school-aged women to explore intersectional feminist issues, share their stories – including ones of sexual harassment and assault – and bringing in educators to help them navigate this time in their life can be tricky with administrators, especially in Missouri. At my previous school, I was always thinking, “How do I resist the status quo and not get fired?”
For example, I invited a gynecologist to speak to our young women about the female body and to answer questions they had asked me, but I could not answer. For instance, a young woman asked me what precautions she should take as a lesbian woman when having sex. I also knew their questions were not being addressed in health class. When I asked my principal for permission to bring this gynecologist in, he said no. He said the school already provided sex ed. I then asked him if I could bring in this same woman, who also had a degree in engineering to talk with the young women about what it’s like to be a woman of color in the STEM fields. He loved that idea. When the guest speaker arrived, she spoke about her experiences as an engineer and doctor and then opened up the discussion with the students and offered to answer their questions. The young women came prepared with all their questions, and by the end of the hour, she had answered a wide range of sexual wellness questions.
What has been the reaction with the students? Are they embracing the idea that they have a voice in politics?
The students love the club! My greatest joy is watching them grow into a sisterhood and listening as they share their stories. They speak with more confidence and conviction each week. Last spring they came to me and spoke about a need to protest gun violence. After a few weeks of learning about the issue and creating protest posters, they participated in what the school was calling a “memorial” for the students lost at Stoneman Douglas High School. However, after the student body headed back inside, five young women from the American Daughters Club stood by the flagpole and refused to go back inside. They felt their voices had not been heard. After several hours of protest, even after several warnings from administration, their parents were called, and they were suspended for five days. While we were all shocked by the punishment and the girls’ resistance was almost immediately broadcast across social media. A young social activist shared the girls’ story on Twitter which was retweeted thousands of times; KCUR, a local NPR affiliate, wrote an article that featured many of their voices; a local news station interviewed them; and Mary Beth Tinker, a free speech activist known for her role in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District Supreme Court case, voiced her support for these young women.
After the students returned from their suspension, I asked them, “How many of you would have done that [protested] by yourself?” All of the young women said they would have never protested alone. We then discussed the importance of sisterhood and the power of solidarity, how we can do things collectively that we could never accomplish on our own.
Can you tell us about this year’s summer Academy program?
The summer of 2019 will be the first year for the American Daughters Summer Academy. We just recently selected our participants, who come from different high schools in KCMO and KCK. When each young woman applied, she told us who she is and who she wants to be, including her idea for a summer project based on her interests and future goals.
This four-week summer program will allow participants to explore an area of interest through mentorship; visit Kansas City neighborhoods and landmarks, including institutes of art, food, culture, and education; learn from and with women entrepreneurs and leaders; and work together to explore social and community issues. By introducing participants to a community of supportive women and resources through the Academy, the young women will leave feeling empowered and confident to step outside the familiar, pursue their goals, and claim their futures.
Upon completion of the Academy, participants will share their individual projects at the Academy Party, a gathering of family, friends, community members, and fellow American Daughters. This event will be another opportunity to celebrate each participant’s accomplishments and make connections with people who care about their success and want to help them on their journey.
A huge thank you to Jen Lacy! Head over to American Daughters to learn more about this amazing organization.