In Profile: Dana Edell, PhD — Educational Consultant to Moving Traditions

Dana EdellDana Edell is an activist-scholar-artist and the executive director of SPARK Movement, an intergenerational girls’ activist organization that provides tools and resources to ignite a global online and on-the-ground young feminist movement. She has directed more than 70 new plays written and performed by girls about the issues that impact their lives and communities, produced seven albums of original music, and published dozens of academic articles, book chapters, curricula and resource guidebooks related to girls’ arts and activism. Dana was co-chair of the Girls’ Participation Task Force at the United Nations, where she trained and supported girl advocates to use theatre to speak out about global girls’ issues. She teaches theatre and activism at NYU and CUNY. Dana has a BA in Classics/Ancient Greek from Brown, an MFA in Theatre Directing from Columbia and a PhD in Educational Theatre from NYU.

Dr. Edell consulted with Moving Traditions on its Healthy Sexuality project, in which we piloted new curriculum that engages older teens in activities and discussions about sexuality, consent, sexualization of women and men in the media, and other topics. Moving Traditions recently talked with Dr. Edell at the conclusion of her project with us.

Is there a specific story or two you could share about what you learned from the teens you met while working with Moving Traditions?

I have consistently been so inspired by the teenagers I have met in Moving Traditions’ programs. I remember on one of our Teen Advisory Board video chats, I learned a lot about who teens today are (and aren’t) talking with about sex. Most teens are not comfortable talking with their parents or teachers or other adults and they mostly get their information from their friends, the internet and slightly older teens like camp counselors. It reminded me how important it is to train and support the Rosh Hodesh and Shevet Achim group leaders to initiate these conversations because they are often truly trusted adults—rare in the lives of the teens. In fact, much of the feedback we got from teens in the pilot sessions was how they felt so comfortable having these conversations with their group leaders.

I believe it is so important for group leaders to be their authentic selves because teens see through the bullsh*t!

What have you seen change about these teens over the time you worked with them?

I observed one of the Rosh Hodesh sessions and witnessed an amazing transformation among the teens just during this one session. At the beginning of the session, during one of the activities when the participants were invited to think about where pleasure and desire lives in their bodies, the teen girls giggled and cracked some jokes. But as the amazing group leader led the session deeper and deeper, the tone shifted. The girls definitely trusted her—and each other—and by the end of the session they felt comfortable and curious enough to ask lots of detailed questions about sex, relationships and their bodies.

What were the challenges of developing a curriculum to get teen boys to think about objectification and consent?

The sexualization of women has become so normalized that we don’t see it as an issue. So many people say, “well, sex sells and there’s nothing we can do about it.” It was challenging to break through all the media messaging and develop activities and discussion guides to help teen boys see that objectification is a real issue, rooted in a long history of misogyny and patriarchy, and is on one end of a spectrum that leads to violence against women.

We also knew that boys definitely care about having healthy, intimate, consensual relationships but that they get so many mixed messages from movies, television, advertising and general “bro culture” that perpetuate really dangerous ideas about masculinity. We had to find ways to cut through this. We specifically created activities where boys were analyzing messages from the media and then discussing how they were related to their lives and relationships. We showed them humorous videos about consent that illuminated the absurdity of doing or taking things without getting prior permission. We have been really thrilled to hear from Shevet Achim group leaders that these sessions have been incredibly successful and have inspired really necessary and powerful discussions among the boys about sex and consent.

Having been to our training and observed some Rosh Hodesh groups, what most excites you about our programs?

I am always so moved by the close relationships among the teens and between the group leaders and the teens. There is a deep sense of love and trust that feels like a combination of a spiritual Jewish connection and the intimacy that comes from sharing personal experiences and questions about the world. I’ve also been excited to witness the fun and laughter during the sessions. Even during sessions with intense and serious topics, there is still an energy of playfulness and lots of laughing. It’s also really exciting to see a Jewish space that includes ritual and spirituality but is also deeply relevant to young people’s lives.

We know boys care about having healthy, consensual relationships but they get mixed messages from “bro culture” that perpetuate ideas about masculinity. We had to find ways to cut through this.

Could you offer some perspective on what it takes to be effective in working as a group leader or facilitator of teens?

I believe it is so important for group leaders to be their authentic selves because teens see through the bullsh*t! They need to find the ways they want to engage with the young people that is true to their personality, ethics and beliefs. It’s also vital for facilitators to truly listen to teens with an open heart and an open mind. To take the time to ask real questions and to actually listen to their responses, they must attempt to replace judgment with curiosity. Instead of being outraged by teens’ behaviors (even if you try to hide it, teens will know!), ask the deeper questions about why they might be engaging in whatever you witnessed or heard about. Yes, it’s important to make sure the teens are being as safe as possible, but it’s more important that they feel you trust them and that you will always be there to listen to them. If they think that by sharing a certain story with you, you’ll make a comment that implies they are irresponsible or reckless, then they’ll just stop sharing stories with you.

It’s also important for group leaders to really understand the diversity within their groups and how to best engage each teen. Not every teen fits into our traditional way of talking about boys and girls. And not every teen wants to speak up all the time, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. Group leaders should have lots of tools and strategies for making sure everyone in the group feels respected and heard.