Four years ago, when Hopkins High School student Jessica Melnik was in 7th grade, male classmates in a science class referred to the girls as “sandwich makers.” She recalls, “That’s what we were supposed to do for them.”
The sexist comment sparked a reading club. Girls read about media representations of women, gender inequality, and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The club grew into a formalized group, called Girls United MN.
Now a high school junior, Melnik has emerged as a political force, helping to lead the team into action at the state legislative level. The group has helped develop and promote legislation that encourages public schools to offer curriculum about what sex trafficking is, and how traffickers recruit young people.
Propelled Into Political Action
The team’s evolution has been swift and expansive. On a monthly basis, sometimes with guest speakers, the girls have discussed gender issues such as women in sports, body image, rape culture, and female rivalry. As high school freshmen, the group planned a STEM day for elementary school girls, to inspire interests in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Girls United MN hosted a job fair to offer ideas about career options to 8th and 9th grade girls.
Recently group members invited girls in 5th and 6th grade to pick out inspirational quotes and paint them on canvases to be hung in school bathrooms. Working with a Leaders in Training program for middle school students, Girls United MN recently hosted another STEM day for girls.
Melnik is the daughter of immigrants from Belarus. Her parents work in STEM fields and have become naturalized citizens who vote in every election, but are not otherwise politically active.
Working in partnership with women’s advocacy groups, as well as both Republican and Democratic legislators, the bill prepared by Girls United MN supports trafficking prevention for both boys and girls. The legislation is aimed at building awareness of the trafficking industry among classmates and teachers. It would offer resources to help young students recognize that an older “boyfriend” who asks for sexual “favors” for “friends” — and the money involved with that trade — is not healthy or legal.
Addressing the education of men and boys is an important part of the prevention curriculum. “It is aimed at getting rid of the demand as well,” Melnik says. “Sex trafficking isn’t going to stop [even] if all the women in the world say we don’t want it anymore.”
It was a researcher from the University of Minnesota who gave a talk at their high school that made the Girls United MN group aware of the prevalence of trafficking in Minnesota. “It was shocking that we had never heard about it before,” Melnik says.
The girls talked to their health teachers about offering curriculum about awareness and warning signs. “They said it was really difficult for any school district to put something like that into their health curriculum,” Melnik says, largely because of the potential backlash from parents.
The high school group met with two local legislators — Rep. Randy Jessup, a Republican, and Rep. Laurie Pryor, a Democrat. “I don’t think it is a partisan issue,” Melnik says.
State senator Sandy Pappas, also met with the Girls United MN group. “Jessica did her homework,” Pappas said. “She knew that I’ve been doing trafficking bills for the last decade.” At press time, the proposed legislation was part of an omnibus bill that will potentially be discussed this spring.
Developing a Coalition
One of the strengths Melnik seems to have is building a coalition of support through determination, the ability to articulate issues and solutions, and recognition of the value of networks with students, men, women, politicians, and organizations.
Her high school principal and the superintendent of her district have been supportive of her initiatives. Her 7th grade science teacher has been an ongoing mentor since the initial “sandwich maker” comment that prompted the group to form.
Girls United MN has hosted speakers from The Link and Breaking Free to talk about the issue at Hopkins High School, in order to gather support among students. The group hosted two events to write and mail postcards to legislators in support of the bill, and make blankets that were donated to local shelters for sexually exploited youth.
Caroline Palmer is the public and legal affairs manager at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA). Melnik approached MNCASA, among other local nonprofits, to get feedback and support as the bill language was being drafted. Of Melnik, Palmer says, “She’s impressive and has pretty much lined up all of her legislative strategy, ready to go. She’s doing better than a lot of us adult lobbyists right now.”
In fact, Melnik has dreams of one day running for public office herself. “I tell everyone I want to be president one day,” she says.
Maybe she’ll have some of the boys from her 7th grade class making sandwiches in the White House kitchen.
According to Senator Sandy Pappas, if the bill is passed into law, people can spread the word to their local schools. “Give school districts a heads up to make sure they are aware that they need to integrate this into their health classes,” she said.