Project Update: I’m With You: Empowering Young AAPI Women to Stop Sexual Violence

As projects funded from the U.S. Alumni TIES in Atlanta,“The New Frontiers of Global Public Health,” continue to develop across the U.S., Benjamin A. Gilman alumna Amy Tran shares her lessons learned so far in embracing the unexpected. Her reflection shines light on the successes and challenges of her project, which brings young Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) women together to combat sexual violence in the community and foster young women leaders.

Amy is joined by her team member Kim Walsh-Childers, a Fulbright U.S. Scholar alumna and fellow U.S. Alumni TIES participant. You can read more about her project and other U.S. Alumni TIES Small Grant winners in our previous post here.

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5 Lessons I Learned While Planning & Implementing the AAPI Teen Retreat

The 2017 “I’m With You: Empowering Young AAPI Women to Stop Sexual Violence” teen retreat is officially over, but the memories we created live on in the 18 Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) girls, three Girl Scouts counselors, and eight committee members who joined us at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) in St. Cloud, Minnesota from June 23 to June 25, 2017. The focus of the retreat was threefold: sexual health and education, sexual violence prevention, and women’s leadership development. The workshops focused on topics like sexual health, racial and gender stereotypes, healthy relationships, core understanding of the LGBTQ community, and sexual violence in the media.

From the initial conception of the retreat’s focus, to the hours of securing relevant workshops and culturally-sensitive facilitators, and even more hours ensuring the logistical details lined up, to the weekend of the retreat, I have learned more than my fair share about planning, organizing, and leading a weekend-long event.

But in the blissful quiet of the aftermath of the event, I would like to reflect on the lessons I learned throughout this hectic but rewarding journey.

  1. “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
Practicing morning Qigong in SCSU plaza.

I consider myself a meticulous planner, an organizer with a large amount of event-planning experience. And yet, all of my previous experiences did not prepare me for the sheer number of plans that changed during implementation of this retreat. If the retreat has taught me anything, it’s to always have a backup plan (or two) and, more importantly, to “go with the flow.” It was unrealistic of me to expect everything to go according to plan. Here’s a small taste of what I expected to happen versus what actually happened:

  • Expectation: All of our meals would be taken care of by the on-campus dining services.
  • Reality: Dining services were unavailable due to lack of events (and people) on-campus that weekend. We were notified two weeks prior to the event.

While it would have been nice to not have to worry about meals, this small hiccup actually opened up an opportunity for us to work with two local, Asian-owned businesses in St. Cloud. This leads me to the second lesson I learned.

2. Do not underestimate the power of food.

Prepping for the picnic — and snacking in-between.
Rainy weather didn’t stop our hungry crew during the picnic. The sun came out shortly after!

I sincerely believe good food invites good company; the girls were able to use meal times to make connections with each other and all of the counselors and committee members. This time is especially important for the girls, as many of them came from different Girl Scouts troops and did not necessarily know each other before this weekend. Meal times provided opportunities for the girls to connect with the older AAPI counselors and committee members on a variety of topics, ranging from college advice to different interests of theirs, like theater or the nursing profession. I believe the girls will be able to keep these connections alive long after the retreat.

The girls also commented extensively throughout the retreat how wonderful the meals were, and I have to agree. Sawatdee in St. Cloud catered an excellent spread featuring dishes like roast duck, papaya salad, chicken laab, and curry. For our picnic, we worked with Viet-Tien International Market & Deli, which provided the banh mi sandwiches for our picnic spread. It was a wonderful way to establish working relationships for future events like this one.

3. Teens know more than you think they do.

Adults often forget just how much teenagers know about sex, sexuality, abuse, racial and gender stereotypes, and other “taboo” topics. In hindsight, I would have asked them about their knowledge before planning the workshops for the retreat. For instance, had I known many girls had already been taught the basics of sexual health education, I would have asked Planned Parenthood, one of our partners for the retreat, to focus more on consent and healthy relationships.

However, there were some cases in which their knowledge of a specific topic increased their learning and level of engagement. July Vang, one of our Planned Parenthood facilitators, spoke passionately about domestic and sexual abuse in the Hmong community. Her narrative, which addressed the harmful ideals of the “perfect” daughter-in-law and the “protective” husband, deeply touched many of the girls, and proved to be one of the more powerful workshops during the retreat.

In another workshop, “On Transforming a Rape Culture,” Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center facilitator Rebecca Kotz engaged the girls in using their knowledge of sexual assault and violence to analyze various advertisements found in the media. The girls used their critical thinking skills to explain to each other why subtleties in various advertisements, like body positions and facial expressions, can play into the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Using and building upon the girls’ knowledge allowed the facilitators to encourage them to continue using their critical thinking skills after the conclusion of the retreat.

4. Take (more) breaks.

Bao Lee, front, and Alex Vang, behind, explain how to scream out phrases such as, “Go away!”
Ice-breakers help the girls get to know each other’s names and interests.

The retreat covered heavy topics throughout the whole weekend, so it was important that everyone took frequent breaks to refresh themselves. We had planned for five minute breaks after every workshop for the girls; however, we had feedback from the girls requesting even more breaks! Clearly, we will have to change up the plans for the September reunion meeting.

One memorable break occurred after deep discussion on racial and gender stereotypes. The workshop had wrapped up early, so the committee took the girls outside to the on-campus amphitheater. There, the girls practiced “using their voices” for situations in which they should not be silent. Often times, girls are scolded for being too loud or taking up too much space. The girls were encouraged to adopt a “strong” posture and to scream out different phrases, like “Go away!” or “Leave me alone!” It was a good way for the girls (and adults) to let out energy and stress.

5. Ask difficult questions, encourage thoughtful responses.

It was important to me that the girls continue to question themselves and each other about all of the topics covered during the retreat. Throughout the retreat, we stressed that there were no right or wrong statements and to have respect during discussions. However, the girls were still shy about sharing their thoughts, especially in large-group discussions.

To encourage more discussion, we split the girls into various small groups. This helped immensely, as girls were more comfortable speaking to only one or two other participants as opposed to the entire group. During the retreat-end reflection, the room was abuzz with conversation as girls shared their favorite moments, their least favorite moments, and other thoughts on the various activities. The general consensus? They wished the teen retreat was longer!

The teen retreat is officially over, but the memories we created live on as summer begins and the girls return to their respective communities. I will see them all again in September at the reunion meeting, in which my partner alumna, Kim Walsh-Childers, will be present with a few activities of her own.

Written and contributed by Amy Tran.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.