This article appears on the Kveller website and was written by Abby Sher. Thank you so much, Abby, for your work to help get the word out about this important topic. You may read the article on the Kveller website or here.
Even before #MeToo became a viral hashtag, Minnah Stein — aged 14 at the time — was working to educate and empower younger generations about sexual assault and harassment.
As she says, “sexual assault and harassment don’t start in the workplace or in college. They begin much earlier. K-12 schools are breeding grounds for harassment and assault, and I want to stop this problem at the source.”
After hearing a report on NPR that 1 in 5 girls will be sexually assaulted while in college (as will 1 in 16 boys), Minnah was inspired to launch EMPOWERU, an initiative to educate students on consent, safety, and Title IX rights, which protect students from discrimination based on gender. More than 40,000 students and educators currently benefit from EMPOWERU’s programming, and EMPOWERU’s influence keeps expanding.
For this groundbreaking work, Minnah is a 2018 recipient of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards. We spoke with Minnah just after she graduated high school in Sarasota, Florida.
What is your favorite book?
My favorite book is Gone With the Wind. It is the most interesting feminist novel I have ever read. There are so many hidden references and allusions, every time I read it I get something new out of it.
Your favorite thing to do with a free afternoon?
I enjoy reading, hanging out with my friends, drawing, and playing my banjolele.
And how about school — what’s your favorite subject?
My favorite subject is always history. We learn so much by studying what was done in the past.
Who would you say has had the greatest positive influence on your life?
The biggest positive influence in my life has been my mom. She has taught me from day one that no dream or goal is too big or unachievable if I put in the work, and that Tikkun Olam isn’t something we just learn about — it’s something we have to practice in our daily life.
And can you tell me about that first moment when you heard that report on NPR and decided you had to raise awareness about the statistics of sexual assault?
Sure. When I was 14, I heard an NPR story about the Red Zone, the time between Thanksgiving and Winter Break, when college students are the most at risk of being sexually assaulted. When I heard the statistics, I was shocked and appalled. I later learned that these statistics for college are equally rampant in high school and that the problem starts even younger. My friends and I would be heading off to college soon, yet no one was talking to us about this. I felt like, armed with these facts, I couldn’t stay silent. I had to do something. I wanted to educate students on the facts of the issue to help them stay safe.
What was your first big initiative and how did it go?
I had over 200 high school students in Sarasota County take the pledge against sexual assault. I got messages from some students taking the pledge who supported my work and encouraged me to continue it. Some students shared with me that they or a friend were a survivor, driving home the point that this problem is real, it happens in our communities, and it needs to be addressed if we are going to ever stop it.
Wow. And can you tell me more about EMPOWERU’s Title IX program? How and what do you teach?
EMPOWERU works to empower students by starting an important discussion on the issue of sexual assault and harassment. I want to teach students the facts of the issue, what constitutes consent, rights under Title IX, and how to be a helpful bystander. With the #Metoo and Time’s Up movements, sexual assault and harassment in the workplace have become a national issue. That’s great progress and very necessary, but sexual assault and harassment don’t start in the workplace or in college. They begin much earlier. K-12 schools are breeding grounds for harassment and assault, and I want to stop this problem at the source. The way to do that is to start the conversation and present the facts. I work to get students, families, and schools working together to combat this problem. I also help promote #MeTooK12, which was created by the national nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools specifically for K-12 survivors, families, and advocates.
What would you say is the hardest part about doing this work?
Well, sexual assault and harassment aren’t easy subjects for most people to talk about. The hardest part of this work is starting the conversation and making people open to talking about sexual harassment and assault in K-12 schools.
The most rewarding?
The most rewarding part of the work I do has been seeing students engage with the material. When I was hosting screenings of It Happened Here — a documentary about sexual assault — students would ask all kinds of questions and get really interested in the subject. It was amazing to see these students get the education they need and deserve.
How do you balance this work with being a teenager and going to school?
I think the key way to balance being a teenager, going to school, and being an activist is making sure the things you commit to are things you are passionate about. I have a busy school schedule and workload, but I try to balance it with doing extracurriculars I am passionate about. It’s never something I have to do; it’s always something I feel compelled and driven to do.
And so, what’s next for the EMPOWERU campaign?
I partnered with the national non-profit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools a few years ago and helped produce the documentary “Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School!” Using this educational video and support materials, I have developed an educational program for Sarasota County K-12 schools that will educate over 40,000 students, teachers, and administrators on the facts of the issue, what constitutes consent, rights under Title IX, how to file a complaint, what to do if a student comes to you and tells you they have been assaulted or harassed, and how to be a helpful bystander. I want to help other schools and organizations nationwide adopt this program. The video and support materials are free to anyone who wants them by logging on to www.ssais.org/video
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
If I had a superpower, I would want it to be the power to heal.
Sounds like you’re doing that already.