Women Who Inspire Change: Barbara Owens

Kelly Castagnaro, Senior Communications Officer

Inspiring a love of reading, writing, and journalism is a difficult task for any 10th grade English teacher, but it's especially difficult for a woman who—at 5 feet tall—is smaller than most of her students. I don't think I fully understood at the time what Barbara Owens was up against.

Ms. Owens had a warm smile, bright red hair, and a sharp wit. In addition to teaching English, she was charged with overseeing the production of my high school's monthly newspaper. Like most newspapers that are run by a bunch of teens, we reported on basketball games, school politics, and the antics of our art teacher. But Ms. Owens treated us as if we were the Woodwards and Bernsteins of our generation.

She was one of the first people who encouraged my passion for writing and language, and in the male-dominated profession of journalism, this small-statured woman was a welcome role model. More importantly, Ms. Owens is the woman who first taught me what it meant for people to have rights in a way that resonated beyond the desire to get an 'A' in Civics.

When I was in the tenth grade, I had heard a rumor that the school administration was planning to conduct searches of students prior to our attending a school-wide dance on a boat that would circle the San Francisco Bay. I found this planned search an outrageous injustice against me and my fellow students—what was the basis for this policy? Did they have the right to search us? Not only did Ms. Owens encourage me to investigate and report on this story, she suggested I call the ACLU to find out if this was a violation of students' rights.

While other teachers would have squashed my curiosity in an effort to curry favor with the administration, Ms. Owens helped me find out how to hold them accountable. But most importantly, she listened to what I cared about and helped me find my voice.

I was not the only student who received Ms. Owens' respectful attention. Through the years, many of my friends went to talk to her about unintended pregnancies, drugs, and other issues. She was always there to offer advice, information, support, and encouragement—without ever passing judgment. During an age when we’re often seen but not heard, a trusted adult can make all the difference in the world.

Photo credit: Nina Matthews

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