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'Bigger than city lines': Simone Stevens, the high school senior behind 'Free the Nipple' proposal in Berkeley

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OCTOBER 29, 2017

In the past two months, the Berkeley City Council agenda saw two proposals that grabbed the community’s attention — one to prohibit the use of fish as carnival prizes and another to legalize the display of female breasts — both devised by one high school student. 

High school senior Simone Stevens, the mind behind these two bills, doubles as a student at Head-Royce School in Oakland and an intern for Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

While the bill to legalize female toplessness was tabled in early September, the council passed Stevens’ proposal to ban fish as prizes at carnivals and fairs in Berkeley.

Stevens, who is passionate about gender equality and animal rights, began working for the internship program over the summer and has continued into the school year.

“I actually live in San Leandro, go to school in Oakland and do (California YMCA Youth and Government) and my internship in Berkeley. So for me, civic engagement isn’t geolocated,” Stevens said. “If it’s as big a movement as animal rights or gender equality … it’s bigger than city lines.”

Stevens has been involved with politics throughout high school, as a part of California YMCA Youth and Government, a model government and legislature program. She has also worked on various campaigns, including the campaign for California State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. She said she applied to work with Councilmember Worthington because she wanted to work with an established politician. Over the summer, she worked in his office five days a week, and Stevens recounted that each day was different.

“We’re so lucky in Berkeley that we have brilliant, genius college students, and we have super-smart high school students,” Worthington said. “If you’re an intern this semester, you’re going to be exposed to all those different topics and participation in discussion related to those topics. … It’s very much we’re all here to help each other, so it’s not just you’re here to do your own project.”

Worthington added that the office has interns working on a large variety of issues, including affordable housing, transgender rights and Police Review Commission reform. When Stevens began the internship, she collaborated with other interns to increase protection for taxi drivers from competition generated by ride-share companies. From there, she said she slowly began to pursue her own ideas.

Nathan Dahl, community development project coordinator for Berkeley, has advised and worked with Stevens as a part of California YMCA Youth and Government. Dahl said he encourages students to transcend the model government program and work on policy in the real world.

“This was really I think a turning point in that (Stevens) was able to just have more influence and just be around the process and have the opportunity to present some real ideas,” Dahl said. “She’s really just found this opportunity and was able to capitalize by just being ambitious, concerned and knowing that even though she’s young, she can still make a change in the world.”

Stevens said she was particularly disappointed that the proposal for female toplessness was tabled. The Free the Nipple Movement was a large part of Stevens’ middle school and early high school years, as she saw #FreeTheNipple on social media, but she never had the agency to change anything until this past summer.

“Toplessness should not be a big deal. … The fact that women’s bodies are illegal where men’s are not, like that’s the big deal,” Stevens said. “When you’re creating an arbitrarily sexist law for no good reason … you’re defending a patriarchy in which women are told that they’re inherently more sexual and deviant than men are, and that’s something that we should not be teaching young people like me.”

Currently, Stevens is busy with school and college applications, but she said she is far from finished with her political work.

In the spring, Stevens hopes to have more time to dedicate to legalizing toplessness. She already started a coalition of individuals to bring back the proposal and get it passed in Berkeley.

“Even when youth try to get involved in something, they’re told that their efforts are invalidated because of their age,” Stevens said. “I’ve seen how powerful and potent youth can be, and that gives me the confidence that you know youth’s voice do matter. … We do bring a new perspective that can be really meaningful and really powerful in today’s political climate.”

Malini Ramaiyer is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @malinisramaiyer.

OCTOBER 30, 2017