Cali Leonard, a Falmouth High School senior who was raised by a single mother, said she first became empowered by her mom’s independence.

But the outcome of the 2016 presidential election sparked Leonard’s interest in community activism and, in turn, Hardy Girls Healthy Women.

Leonard is serving her first year on the the organization’s advisory board, a branch of Hardy G*rls Healthy Wom*n, comprised of Maine high school girls and gender-expansive youth.

“I started to realize that I didn’t have the same equal opportunities because I’m of color, I’m a woman and I’m an immigrant,” Leonard said. “To realize that when you’re 13 is horrible.” 

The Maine-based nonprofit, recently launched Ruckus Roundtable, a virtual discussion series, to bring together girls, women and gender-expansive people who are actively involved in social justice.

Asterisks were added to Healthy Girls Healthy Women in late 2018-early 2019, when members of the advisory board pointed out that the organization’s name suggests exclusivity when, in practice, they serve self-identifying girls and gender expansive youth. Drawing on resources in the transgender and non-binary community to find a way to present themselves as more inclusive without completely changing the name, the nonprofit adopted asterisks. 

The first Ruckus Roundtable was held Oct. 20, when five panelists talked about civic engagement and 50 people logged on to listen and learn. 

Upcoming Ruckus Roundtable events will include discussions on the culture of sexualization and harassment (Nov. 17), gender and race (Feb. 17), wom*n in STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics – (March 16) and the linguistics of gender expression (April 21).

The roundtable model allows youth activists to engage with experienced adults in similar fields of activism as equals in the fight towards equality. Each member of the panel, made up of two high school students, one college student and two adults, shared their unique experiences and insight regarding civic engagement.  

Hardy G*rls Healthy Wom*n Executive Director Kelli McCannell at Ruckus Roundtable, Oct. 20

“We want to elevate and amplify the voices of these young activists,” said Kelli McCannell, executive director of Hardy G*rls Healthy Wom*n. Building coalitions with other organizations and community partners is another big part of the work Hardy G*rls Healthy Wom*n does, McCannell said 

McCannell says featuring women and gender expansive people from Maine specifically is an important representation for local young activists to witness.  

Gender expansive refers to individuals who do “not identify with traditional gender roles, but were otherwise not confined to one gender narrative or experience,” according to the Human Rights Campaign website.

A study by UCLA School of Law, published in April 2020, found the total LGBTQ population in Maine of those 13 or older is 60,000.

Anna Kellar (they/them) of Falmouth and executive director of League of Women Voters of Maine, participated in the first roundtable discussion, and described a similar coming-of-age experience to Leonard’s.

Kellar was in middle school when protests for the Iraq war were happening across the country. They decided to participate in their own way, by showing up to school wearing a peace-sign shirt and body paint with messages calling for the end of the war.

“I remember thinking so clearly: I’m 13 and it’s obvious to me that they are lying about the real reasons for going to war,” Kellar said. “What’s wrong with the politicians who appear to be taking this information at face value?”

Kellar took their interest in international relations and conflict resolution and started looking at the flaws within their own country. Kellar moved back to Maine six years ago and since then has been working on local democracy reform.

Now in its 20th anniversary year, the organization continues to provide new programming to uplift and empower Maine youth.

“Our programming is really responsive, so it always looks different to the participant, but technically in grants it’s the same,” McCannell said. “People are like, ‘Aren’t you going to change’? Not until the culture changes.”

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