“I learned a lot about standing up for myself.”

In high school, Shaneen Cotterell signed up for ReAct: Respect in Action, a violence prevention program that stoked her interest in social justice. As told to Jessica Howard in the Spring 2016 issue of SHE magazine.

IN GRADE 11, my social science teacher suggested I try the ReAct after-school program, because she knew I was interested in the issues it covered. When I saw that the program talked about things like oppression, gender stereotypes, abuse, and healthy relationships, I signed up and stayed involved through Grades 11 and 12.

I always remember one session where I began to understand how various systems uphold oppression, whether it’s based on race or gender. It was a wake-up call, and I was feeling a bit hopeless. I was thinking, “How do we change that? How do we challenge an entire system?” Our facilitator talked about how we can start by dismantling stereotypes and trying to raise awareness. I learned a lot about standing up for myself and not following stereotypes.
Just be who you are: you can love makeup, but you can also love dirt-bike riding. It doesn’t really matter.

We didn’t only talk about gender stereotypes for women; we also talked about hyper-masculinity and how it’s traditionally not OK for boys to show emotion, love, or affection. There were boys in the program who would say, “Yeah, it’s true, I have friends who feel they need to react in an aggressive way in certain situations,” or that they were afraid of being called certain names. They agreed that stereotypes exist for men as well, and that was kind of amazing to hear.

I think one of the reasons the ReAct program is effective is because it’s interactive. Every week, we would do something different: write poems, or maybe watch a video, or have a debate. When we discussed healthy relationships, we watched two music videos that depicted what an abusive relationship looks like, and that really helped us get into the conversation.

After two years in the program, my interest in social justice issues grew even stronger. I ended up getting a summer job with ReAct, doing research for workshops and other tasks. The experience helped me come out of my shell, learn more about how to facilitate, and how to be a leader.

I got to see how the program works from behind the scenes, observe how youth can interact positively, and how the program opens their eyes to things—the same way my eyes were opened when I was in ReAct. It’s one thing to experience it for yourself, but then to watch it happening with others is really cool.

While I was working there, I also got to talk to many different people who are making the world a better place. It made me think more about choosing a career path down this line—maybe social work or sociology. It’s been a huge learning experience for me.

ReAct: Respect in Action is delivered by METRAC (Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children) and has received funding from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.