By Maggie Freleng
Monday, October 15, 2012
The three teens from New Jersey who started the Change.org petition to have a woman moderate a presidential debate say their motivation was ignited by a high-school civics class.
(WOMENSENEWS)-- When Candy Crowley, CNN chief political correspondent, moderates the second presidential debate Oct. 16, three New Jersey high school students doubt they'll be among those in the live audience.
So far, they haven't been invited even though the auditorium at Hofstra University is only miles away on Long Island.
"I can understand exactly why we are not invited. We are not the commission's favorite people," said Emma Axelrod, referring to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsors the debates. "We brought a lot of critical attention to how they make their decisions. I can understand why they don't want us there."
Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis are the student trio from Montclair High School, an affluent town in Northern Jersey, who started a Change.org online petition asking the commission to select a female presidential moderator this debate season. Crowley will be the second woman in 20 years to moderate a U.S. presidential debate.
The petitioners were too busy to get together as a group for one Skype video conference call, so they spoke with Women's eNews in separate phone interviews.
After watching the Oct. 3 debate together, Siegel said the petitioners and other classmates are all aware now how difficult it must be to be moderator, male or female.
"During the debate we focused mostly on Jim Lehrer and the confidence it takes to be a moderator," she said, referring to former news anchor for PBS NewsHour. "It was really an important job to keep [the candidates] on track. It is difficult to be a moderator. A lot more difficult than people think."
Although the teens have no proof their petition led directly to Crowley's selection, Axelrod said there is no doubt they drew national attention to the issue.
"If we did have anything to do with the selection it was because we raised a lot of awareness on this issue. A lot of people were really upset when they heard about [a woman not being represented for 20 years]. They were really surprised and that created a lot of want to make change."
Axelrod added they were able to attract media attention because the story of three female teens delivering boxes of petitions to the Commission on Presidential Debates in Washington, D.C., gave the media a good visual focal point.
She said their first media break came about week after their petition went up on Change.org and a regional newspaper, New Jersey's Star Ledger, called them to do a story.
"I hope [other girls] see it is so totally possible and doable to do something like this," said Axelrod. "We worked hard to make it happen but it is also possible to make it happen. I hope that is what they take away."
Tsemberis said they're all happy about Crowley but hadn't given much thought to an individual selection.
"A lot of people were asking us who we wanted to be the moderator," Tsemberis said. "There was a consistent group of names like Rachel Maddow, Diane Sawyer, and Katie Couric. We hadn't really thought much about anyone other than the names that were continually thrown at us."
Tsemberis, a track and cross-country runner, lifeguard, soccer referee and babysitter, said her own interest in women's issues began at the Girls Leadership Institute, a group based in Oakland, Calif., that runs programs across the country.
Tsemberis said she and other participants worked on power relationships, ending and healing sexual assault and bullying, and improving young women's body images. "I saw the effects of what happens when girls don't have strong role models. Girls are taught to feel inferior to men. It can be extremely detrimental."
Unless a last-minute invitation comes their way, the young women expect to be watching the second debate together at the home of one of their classmates from Civics and Government Institute, a small learning community at Montclair High School that focuses on citizenship, government and society and is open to students after freshman year.
If the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 is any guide, the petitioners will barely touch the pretzels and chips at the next debate. They'll be too glued to the screen.
Axelrod is restraining her expectations about Crowley's performance, given the difficulties that Lehrer had keeping the speakers on track.
"Even if [Crowley] doesn't gain control during the debates it's not because she is a woman it's because it is a hard job. Jim Lehrer proved that the other night. It will be interesting to see how the candidates respond to her."
The petitioners said they got the idea for the Change.org petition after they were outraged to discover in their civics class that a woman hadn't moderated a U.S. general election presidential debate since 1992.
"It was actually pretty amazing how it happened," said Siegel, a varsity fencer and an administrator of Key Club, a student-led community service organization affiliated with Kiwanis International, based in Indianapolis, Ind. "We wrote the petition, put it up on Change.org, and it gained 100,000 signatures with no press support. It just spread and is amazing."
Siegel said it's been good to provide inspiration to girls and women across the country. "Other girls think it is amazing what we've done and wish they had the opportunity. I think they're inspired and are looking less at reality TV for role models and more to people like themselves."
As sources of inspiration, the teens point to role models such as Gloria Steinem, Michelle Obama and Shelby Knox, director of women's rights organizing at Change.org who pushed for sex education and gay rights as a teen activist in her Southern Baptist community.
All three young women also give major credit to their school's Civics and Government Institute, which has been run by teachers at the school since 1997 and has partnerships with the United Nations Association and the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.
Siegel called the classes she took at the institute a turning point in her life. She's always been interested in math, but now she would consider some type of career in politics.
Axelrod, a track and cross country runner, Spanish tutor, and Model Congress member, said that when she was a little girl she noticed discrepancies between men and women when she watched the news.
She asked her mother why all the women looked like models and the men did not, to which her mother responded that that was the way media worked, "Women were there to look pretty," said Axelrod.
"Gender discrepancies have always bothered me but I never really saw it as something I can directly impact," she said. "CGI made me realize I had the power to make a change."
Before the petition became a media sensation Axelrod wanted to be a lawyer for death penalty cases, but now she is considering jobs in the media and government.
"There needs to be more positive female role models and I want to be one of them."
Axelrod believes a lot of people her age do care about the world around them, but they express it on a smaller scale by raising money for charities and volunteering for community service organizations.
She thinks this is mainly because many young people assume there is more gender parity than actually exists. "I certainly don't think [our peers] would have thought that a woman hadn't moderated the debates in 20 years."
Maggie Freleng is an editorial assistant for WeNews; she lives in Brooklyn.
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