The Phoenix School For Girls

Early on an unseasonably cool, young September morning, a few firecrackers cut through the thick mist enveloping Xiaoshicun (Little Stone Village). Their call bounded along green rice fields and echoed against the nearby low hills. The Phoenix School for Girls was officially open. After a welcoming presentation, teachers led small groups of students on a brief tour of school facilities. By 9:30 AM, classes were underway.

These modest formalities masked the years of dedication, sacrifice, and hard work by countless supporters and volunteers that made this day possible, nor did they give any sense of the visionary nature of the school. However, for a school long supported by Quaker institutions and dedicated to practical education for those who need it most, the simplicity was fittingly appropriate.

The Phoenix School for Girls is a nonprofit, technical training school for girls who have completed at least a middle school education. Approximately half of the 23 students are 16 years old, having just graduated from local middle schools. The other half range mostly from 18 to 21 years old, and have either attended technical high schools and/or worked outside the home (usually in factories in Guangdong province). About half of the students board at the school, while the rest live nearby.

The school curriculum focuses on building practical skills in English, computers, and Chinese language, with physical education and art. Visiting lecturers teach classes on gender, women’s health, legal rights, business development, and related subjects. After one to two years, students will be placed in internships in office jobs or the service sector (such as hotel desk clerks or tourist guides) in nearby cities.

This dream, which began with Wu Na’s mother and aunt talking with us about the changing conditions for girls in the countryside in 1999, has become a reality. As we learned from Wu Na’s relatives in 1999, the educational equality that had existed between girls and boys, and young men and young women is rapidly disappearing. Attending high school has become expensive and rural families are only able to send one or two children to high school. Dependent upon sons to care for them in their old age, families tend to support boys’ education, while daughters either stay home to work in the fields or go into the cities to work as nannies or as assembly- line workers.

No longer are rural young women "holding up half the sky," as Mao Zedong had promised in the heady early days of the Chinese revolution. Instead rural young women have become the engine that drives the miraculous Chinese economic growth machine. Their cheap labor in dirty, dangerous factories makes possible the wealth of Shanghai and Beijing, generating owners’ profits as they send inexpensive products to markets around the world. The costs are heavy. As one of our students said in her self-introduction on the first day, "In the factories, I found out that we are the modern-day coolees" (literally "bitter labor").

Our dream of an all-girls school in Xiaoshicun, which would open up the path to another life for local girls, began when Wu Na’s mother and aunt took us to an old school building that had been abandoned when the school district consolidated. The building was available but needed a lot of work. We took this dream to Westfield (N.J.) Meeting in 2000. The meeting provided some seed money for us to start working on the building to make it habitable, and also supported our application to the Chace Fund and our request to Haddonfield Quarter for financial support.

The Chace Fund provided $5,000 in February 2001, which enabled us to build kitchen, shower, and bathroom facilities; repair the roof; and paint some of the rooms. We created one of the few modern composting toilets in rural China, and worked out a pipe system so that cooking facilities in the kitchen heated water for the showers. We realized that we could not do the required work by ourselves; so after talking with staff at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting we decided to create a workcamp that would rehabilitate the building. We met with staff and volunteers from the Young Friends Program and the Workcamp Program of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and we were able to attend the PYM International Workcamp to experience a workcamp firsthand.

In July 2001, 12 people from the United States, ranging in age from 17 to 40, signed up for the China Summer Workcamp. They came to rural Hunan Province, and along with 15 Chinese college students began working to fix up the school. Westfield Meeting and Haddonfield Quarter provided funds that allowed the Chinese students to participate. Many of the U.S. Quaker students received grants from International Outreach Granting Group and their own meetings. In addition to plastering, painting, weeding, planting gardens, and cleaning buildings, the volunteers also taught English and environmental issues to local middle school students (both boys and girls). The workcamp was a success—but the building needed more work.

After the first workcamp, we took up a position with American Friends Service Committee as the East Asia Quaker International Affairs Representatives. AFSC encouraged us to continue to work on the workcamp project, and to try to start a school for girls. In the summer of 2002, 14 people from the United States participated in the three-week China Summer Workcamp, along with 15 Chinese college students and 6 Korean university students. The participation of the Chinese students was again made possible by funds from Westfield Meeting and Haddonfield Quarter. A grant from the Bequests Granting Group of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting funded new floors, blackboards, and walls, and allowed the purchase of tables and chairs. The workcamp was becoming international and the building was becoming a school. Middle school students flocked to attend the "Summer Camp" where they learned English and studied environmental issues. The volunteer teachers learned about each other and each other’s cultures.

By 2003 the school building was ready, but the local bureaucracy was still uncertain about approving an all-girls school co-founded by foreigners and based in rural China. We continued meeting and talking with officials in China and kept the workcamp going. Again in 2003, 15 young people from the United States (mostly Quakers from the Philadelphia area), 15 Chinese college students, and 5 Korean college students went to rural China and taught English and Environmental Studies to middle school students. In 2004, the fourth China Summer Workcamp included participants from Japan along with Chinese, Korean, and U.S. volunteers, ranging in age from 17 to 65.

At this workcamp in late August, local officials suddenly approved our request to establish the school, recommending only that the name be changed to Phoenix School for Girls (from our original name of High Bridge). We readily agreed, and we hastily made preparations to begin classes. One of the China Summer participants agreed to stay on as the first English teacher. We quickly hired three other teachers, retained two local staff, recruited students, and readied the facilities. On September 6, classes got underway.

Naming the school Phoenix is, despite its origins, strikingly appropriate. As we told our students on the opening day, the phoenix in Chinese mythology symbolizes the empress, and so demonstrates our respect for women and what they may become. In Greek mythology, the phoenix lives for eternity, engulfing itself in fire only to rise anew from the ashes. Regardless of their pasts, we told our students, at this school they too can rediscover within themselves the strength and vision to reshape their own future.

The Phoenix School for Girls has become a reality thanks to the cooperation and support from the many above-named Quaker groups and organizations, and the many, many people involved with all of these organizations who have supported this dream with time, energy, ideas, and funding.

It also relied on the cooperation and support of the Chinese government, a number of Chinese universities, local government officials, and organizations throughout East Asia over the past five years. Most significantly, this dream could never have been realized without the support of the residents of Xiaoshicun who have allowed us to teach their children and live among them as neighbors, and who have taught us so much in return.

Despite all of this support and the recent success in opening the school, there is still much work to do. The job placement office has to become successful so that the graduates of the school obtain decent paying positions. We need to raise funds to keep tuition fees low enough to allow rural girls the opportunity to attend. We need to obtain textbooks and supplies. We are confident with the help and support of the groups that have supported this project for the past five years, we will meet these challenges.

Everyone who has been involved with this project in some fashion should realize that their support is making a significant change in young women’s lives in rural China. Meaningful social change always comes one step at a time. We have all taken such a step together. The next step will come during the first annual graduation of the Phoenix School for Girls, to be held in Xiaoshicun in June 2005. You are all cordially invited.

James Reilly

James Reilly and Wu Na are East Asian Quaker International Affairs Representatives for American Friends Service Committee. They are based in Dalian, China.