3 teens triumph on the campaign trail
Meet three extraordinary young women who are paving the way for this generation’s girl power. They are Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis, juniors at Montclair High School, a New Jersey suburb 20 miles from New York City.
Shana Stein, their teacher in the Civic and Government Institute unit, has been teaching students about social reform and women’s rights, sharing the milestones women have reached over the decades. But it wasn’t until Ms. Stein mentioned an important fact that the idea-light-bulb flickered.
With each class, the girls pieced things together –questioning, as Sammi did, “Why are women underrepresented in politics when we’re 51 percent of the population?”
Ms. Stein explains, “We were looking at social change and how far women have come, and how so much more there is to do for the women’s movement.”
When Ms. Stein shared that 20 years had elapsed since a woman moderated a presidential debate, these three young women knew it was time. As they mapped out a strategy, a former student from the MHS Institute offered: “Go to change.org and start a petition.”
With a big smile, Sammi says, “We got together and looked at the website. We each wrote a personal story as to why we wanted people to sign our petition.”
Elena adds, “We had to explain the issue and hoped people would sign on.”
Once they submitted the petition, signers grew from 10,000 to over 180,000. “We kept refreshing our phones after class to see how many new signatures we had received. It was a cool experience,” they say, beaming with pride over their achievement.
However, there was one bitter moment in their fight for change. After their large online following, they traveled to Washington, D.C., with boxes in hand to deliver the signed petitions directly to the federal Commission on Presidential Debates. They were turned away at the door because they did not have an appointment. Still, within days, the commission announced that not just one woman would moderate, but two: Candy Crowley of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News.
“Women are also underrepresented in the mathematics field,” says Sammi. For her, this is about more than just politics. “I saw that other female classmates weren’t doing well in math class, so I kept up with schoolwork to make sure I didn’t slip in this subject. I look to other women for inspiration and regard them as role models.”
Elena’s experience in the Girls Leadership Institute shaped her sense of empowering girls. “I heard many stories of victims facing sexual harassment, abuse and low self-esteem. I realized that, as young women, we need to be confident. There are so many girls out there who have been taught to hide behind men and to shy away from power and authority. We need to take a stand and become as well-informed as possible. This is what inspired me to go to change.org.”
As for Emma, “How could I not do something?” she says. “If my grandmother, who is an unassuming, complacent woman who is happy with what she has in life yet was able to protest in the 70s for ERA – which wasn’t passed – then how could I not be a part of change? There isn’t such a strong movement for women now because men think we’re equal to them, but we’re not.”
The girls are now hailed as new local celebs. They’ve been interviewed by CNN, FOX, NPR, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The L.A. Times, “even The Korean Sun,” chimes in Sammi, who says, “My father found our picture on the front page when he searched us online.”
“No way!” the other girls exclaimed at the news.
Their high school is planning their own debates, with an expected attendance of about 200 students. And there’s no surprise about who the moderators will be: Emma, Elena and Sammi will each take part.
I asked these 16-year-old leaders if they plan to enter politics and they answer collectively, “Maybe. Especially after this.” Recently, they were honored by the NJ State League of Women Voters as well as by the local League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area. Fitting as the League institutionalized the televised presidential debates for years.
Tonight, Oct. 3., is the first debate. The girls are planning viewing parties at each other’s homes, and have invited classmates and teachers.
“Everyone should tune in because what’s happening affects all of us,” Elena urges. “It’s going to be great to see a woman moderate two powerful men running for president.”
Next on the agenda? Well, Elena notes, “There are no moderators of color this year.”