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Schooling Little Monsters 

Colorado Springs seems like an odd home base for a prominent anti-bullying advocate like C.J. Pascoe, who's now helping the cause on behalf of Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation.

Consider: On April 20, schoolkids across the nation shut their traps in observation of the National Day of Silence to acknowledge the harmful effects of bullying. But in Colorado Springs, the day is rejected by Christian conservatives who say it's meant to "promote the homosexual lifestyle." Thus, children of Springs right-wingers instead celebrate a "Day of Dialogue" — by encouraging other students to follow a straight, ahem, and narrow path.

But if the charged environment has slowed 38-year-old Pascoe's stride, it certainly doesn't show. The Colorado College assistant professor of sociology and author of two books was recently named to the seven-member Born This Way Foundation research advisory board, where she's working with others to encourage youth activism and reduce problems like bullying. The Foundation was founded in 2011 by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, and the board includes experts from around the country.

In addition to her foundation work, Pascoe is keeping up a busy schedule at CC, teaching classes on sexuality, deviance, social psychology and masculinity. Pascoe says teaching has kept her current — she's learning from her students, and applying their knowledge and her own to Born This Way's hands-on work.

"What [the foundation] does is it allows me to take all this research that I've done, and read about, and incorporate it into social activism," she says.

The Independent talked with Pascoe about the foundation, her books, teaching, and the new world that youths are creating.

Indy: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to be doing this?

Pascoe: My research background is sort of looking at three things: kids, adolescents, young people and homophobia and the role masculinity plays in homophobia; the way kids use new media; and online pro-eating disorder communities. So because of those three things ... I was invited to be a part of the launch of the Born This Way Foundation in [early 2011] at Harvard [University].

And what they did was bring together a whole host of scholars who looked at different facets of young people's lives ... to do a collective brain dump if you will, to sort of map out the current state of the field on youth culture. Because the question the foundation wants to ask, which I really appreciate is, not just "How can we stop kids from bullying each other?" but "How can we sort of set up a world in which kids can do great things?"

Indy: How many researchers were there?

Pascoe: Oh my goodness ... definitely hundreds of people.

Indy: So you stood out, apparently.

Pascoe: Well, I've worked with the MacArthur Foundation before. So there are several organizations that are partners with the Born This Way Foundation — the Berkman Center [for Internet and Society] at Harvard, the MacArthur Foundation, and the California Endowment. And I had worked on a project with the MacArthur Foundation looking at kids' new media use.

Indy: We have to ask: Have you gotten to meet Lady Gaga?

Pascoe: Sadly, no [laughs]. I have not gotten to meet Lady Gaga yet. I hope to at some point. Her mother is really the point person for the foundation. She is the head of the foundation and she's the one who leads research advisory board phone calls and she's wonderful. She's just a wonderful engaging lady, as you'd imagine Lady Gaga's mother would be.

Indy: So, what is your goal right now; what is the goal of the board?

Pascoe: One of the things we've been doing is gathering research on what factors lead to youth activism, youth resiliency. So from a psychological perspective, from a sociological perspective, what factors lead to the ability of young people to make positive decisions for themselves and positive change in their own world? ...

We've also been helping to build a library of resources that will eventually be a part of the Born This Way Foundation website — resources that are about the sort of empowerment and activism that would speak to young people. ...

The third is putting together a list of resources for young people that are in crisis, and that's now up on the Born This Way Foundation website. ... The fourth thing we've been doing is designing a project which will evaluate the success of the Born Brave Nation Project, which is a project that will be going around the country to different communities to help inspire young people to create social change in their own communities.

Indy: Tell me about your books.

Pascoe: So the first book is Dude You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. In that book, I spent a year and a half doing ethnography, or sort of hanging out with teenagers at a working class high school in Northern California. And the main question I wanted to ask in that book is: "After three waves of feminist activism, and this popular notion of 'girl power,' how is it that boys think of themselves as masculine? How do they define masculinity, given that so much has changed for girls?"

And what I found when I did this research was that boys weren't defining or thinking of themselves as masculine in terms of "they weren't girls." Instead, what they did is use homophobic epithets, not to [suggest] a boy was gay, but to indicate that he was not masculine. And thus the title of the book, Dude You're a Fag.

I heard that insult — particularly fag ... When I would ask boys why they use it, I'd say, 'Why do you use it? ... Is this because you don't like gay guys?" And they'd say, "Oh, no, no, no, no, this has nothing to do with being gay." And I'd think, "Why does this have nothing to do with being gay?" And they'd say, "No, it means you're not a man. And it means you're not masculine." And they would repeatedly tell me that to call someone that was the worst thing you could call someone because as one boy told me, "It means you're nothing."

Indy: And the second book?

Pascoe: The second book was a book I co-authored with a bunch of researchers from the MacArthur Foundation called Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out. And in that book we conducted the largest qualitative analysis of young people's media use to date — so how they use cell phones and computers and Facebook and MySpace and all that sort of stuff.

And what we found was that kids had quickly incorporated new media use into their everyday lives, such that they didn't have the sense that there was some sort of offline world and an online world, but they moved fluidly between them. And we also found that their online lives sort of reflected their offline lives; so they weren't going online to sort of meet strangers or engaging in these dangerous practices we often hear about in the media. Instead, what we saw was their online practices were the same sort of mundane stuff we saw in their offline practices: hanging out with friends, flirting, communicating with boyfriends and girlfriends.

The one thing we did see that was sort of new and interesting was the amount of learning that was happening in these online spaces. That is, kids were engaging in these technical practices that they would learn from, if that makes sense. So kids writing, for instance, fan fiction, and peer editing each other's fan fiction. Kids were going online in their own time and writing for fun in a way that teachers and many adults would never expect.

Indy: Interesting. Going back to Lady Gaga, are you a fan of her music?

Pascoe: [Laughs.] Yes, I absolutely am a fan of Lady Gaga's music. Actually, I'm writing a talk right now and she is on the playlist that I'm listening to. So, yes.

Indy: Does a big star approaching these issues seem new to you? Or the way that she's approaching it, does that seem new?

Pascoe: The first thing that comes to mind is, say, Bono from U2. What I think is unique about Lady Gaga's approach is that she thinks a lot of the change has to come from young people themselves. So instead of taking this top-down approach where "We're adults, we know what's best for you, here's what you need to do," the foundation turns to adults like me, say, for the research base, but turns to young people for the ideas ... [There's] the sense that young people should have a voice and they have original ideas. And so our task as adults is to help those ideas be heard and help them come to fruition.

Indy: Was there something personal in your life that got you started on all these subjects in the beginning?

Pascoe: I think what brought me into studying sort of young people and gender and homophobia and bullying is a background in feminism, if you will, and knowing, understanding, that I was a beneficiary of multiple waves of feminism that's allowed me to make decisions in my life that wouldn't have been possible several generations earlier ...

[But] while we've encouraged girls to be aggressive and dominant in all sorts of things, we haven't done the same sorts of things [for boys] in terms of "You can be emotional, and you can be connected, and sort of take on these sort of practices and identities and emotions that we've associated more with women." So I think that's what sort of got me interested in looking at how boys approach masculinity in the first place. This notion that I want boys to — I want to start thinking about ways we can change definitions of masculinity that would be better for boys and young men.

Indy: So you want to eliminate gender roles on both sides?

Pascoe: Right, right, or these restrictive gender roles. And then that led me down the path of looking at bullying and the way in which these gendered expectations are sort of part and parcel of this contemporary focus on bullying that we have.

Indy: Has it been explained to you why Lady Gaga chose this as her cause?

Pascoe: She did talk a lot about this. So from how I understand it ... she was hearing these stories from her fans and then seeing this spate of suicides across the country, you know when gay kids were talking about how they "couldn't handle this anymore" and so they were committing suicide because they felt so desperate and so alone.

So she realized that she had this money, she had this media presence, and she had this fan base, and she felt compelled to do something about that [the suicides]. So how could she use her stature to make this world a better place for young people — and young people who didn't necessarily fit in?

And she also shared with us that she had been bullied growing up, because she was different, right, she didn't quite fit in. You could see that with a lot of famous people who sort of push at the boundaries of social convention. You can see how growing up [being unusual] probably wouldn't be the easiest thing.

stanley@csindy.com

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