My infant daughter is still getting the hang of gripping furniture with her chubby fingers and pulling herself up to a standing position. At first I tried to help, until my spouse reminded me that she could do it herself. Ultimately, it isn’t in her best interest for me to help her stand up. I know this to be true of any age. We learn by doing.
In the church, we often contemplate how best to empower people to grow their leadership wings. Parenthood informs my work, as does the practice of observing others in church and society that are learning leadership “on the job”.
Recently I was inspired by teenagers who challenged the photoshopping practices of teen magazines. Julia Bluhm, age 14, challenged Seventeen Magazine to post one unaltered photo spread monthly. In her petition* on Change.org, Bluhm wrote, “For the sake of all the struggling girls all over America, who read Seventeen and think these fake images are what they should be, I’m stepping up.”
The response was immediate and overwhelming. Bluhm and her collaborators soon presented over 84,000 signatures to the magazine’s editor. Having won the cooperation of Seventeen Magazine, their sights – spearheaded by two other teens - are now set on Teen Vogue. Their leadership was supported by SPARK (Sexualization Protest, Action, Resistance and Knowledge) Summit, a “girl-fueled activist movement to demand an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media.”
In our efforts to grow social justice leaders, we benefit from paying attention to stories like this. They reveal lessons about what cultivates leadership:
- Passion. Personal investment in a vision can prompt action and sustain us when the going gets tough. We cannot dictate what people are passionate about. But we can help them identify their passion and connect them to resources and opportunities that will equip them to address what they care about.
- Knowledge. Issue education and awareness-raising are vital pieces of leadership formation. These teen activists were connected with a movement that informed their efforts. For countless teens impacted by hyper-sexualized female images in the media, this petition offers empowering knowledge. It names their experience, affirms their inherent worth, and invites them to change the problem.
- Collaboration. Although a few individuals created online petitions, larger groups convened to protest and the SPARK Summit movement gave behind-the-scenes support. If we surrender the “Lone Ranger” approach and resist the temptation to be personally glorified, we have much to gain from collaborating with those who share our vision.
- Mentorship. There would have been no leadership lesson if this story was about the adults petitioning on behalf of teens. Good mentors are role models, teachers, cheerleaders and allies. They help create or identify opportunities for leadership, but don’t do the leading themselves.
Perhaps half the battle of empowering leaders is to more intentionally connect their passion with opportunities to act, then get out of the way and cheer them on. After all, we learn by doing. Lesson learned.
*www.change.org petition, Teen Vogue: Give Us Images of Real Girls!
The United Church of Christ has 5,194 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.