Lake Harriet 8th graders produce documentary about landmark sexual harassment case
Lois Jenson, who spearheaded a famous sexual harassment case in 1988, drove four hours to see a student-produced History Day project at the Lake Harriet Community School in March.
Twin sisters Anne and Jane Lee, and Rebecca Wasserman-Olin, 8th-graders, produced a 10-minute documentary about the landmark lawsuit Jenson waged against northern Minnesota's Eveleth Mines, the basis of the recent movie, “North Country.” The movie inspired the 14-year-old girls, especially since the events unfolded so close to home.
Jenson, 58, was awed by the girls' determination and sheer legwork in their documentary entitled “Lois Jenson: Her Fight Against Sexual Harassment in the Workforce.”
The theme of this year's History Day - a nationwide initiative to teach kids about a profound moment or influential person in time is “Taking a Stand in History: People, Ideas, Events.”
Lake Harriet social studies teacher Debra Krawetz, who helped organize the school's event, was also impressed. She said their documentary went far beyond History Day criterion. Plus, it came together in less than three months.
“The girls did an outstanding job,” she said. “I think the real story behind the story is how Anne, Jane and Rebecca got so inspired by Lois' story and their topic, that all the people they contacted could not say no to speaking with them,” Krawetz said.
The teens interviewed Jenson, other former mineworkers, judges and attorneys who were involved in the case. “I'm amazed that young kids are interested in this material,” Jenson said, looking closely at the display board on top of a bookshelf in the library. It showed cutouts of her face and her quotes. “It's so cool. It's an honor.”
Jenson admitted though, that the case stirs uncomfortable conversation. “Some stuff is so still so graphic. To see these words and see these scenes is a little awkward. But maybe they'll go to college fully educated about sexual harassment,” she said.
Jenson posed for photos with the girls and took clips from their project to include in the scrapbook she's creating for her grandchildren. She's also helping the 8th-graders tweak it for the state-level competition that takes place April 30. If they earn a high enough score, the middle schoolers will move on to the national competition in Washington, D.C.
The teens were surprised that Jenson was willing to talk with them on the phone. Of course, “Meeting her was an amazing experience. It was like a dream,” said Wasserman-Olin, who hopes to be a reporter for her high school's newspaper next year.
Anne and Jane are also aspiring writers. “Everyone sees what you write,” said Jane.
“But not everyone will like it,” Wasserman-Olin added.
“It's intense,” Anne said.
Researching the story
Jenson was one of the first four women to work at the northern iron mine in 1975. She and other women endured horrific acts committed by some male employees. Furthermore, the mines paid them less than they did men.
After Jenson complained to the company, employee union and state Department of Human Rights, she became the lead witness in the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit. It took 11 years to reach a conclusive verdict.
The ruling favored Jenson and it changed the law. “We learned a lot about how hard it was for the women who wanted to be paid the same amount of money as the men. Back then, jobs were dominated by men who harassed them,” Wasserman-Olin said.
The teens conducted most of their research outside of school. They divided the workload equally and tried not to duplicate each other's efforts, they said. They met sources on-site and even traveled as far as St. Cloud to tape an interview with a woman in her living room, who formerly worked alongside Jenson.
Anne, Jane and Wasserman-Olin tracked down 30 mineworkers. All but one refused to talk. Since many of the employees' phone numbers were unlisted, the girls relied on the investigation itself to lead to additional sources. One person would lead to another and would have a phone number, Wasserman-Olin said.
During interviews, they worked as a team. While one asked questions, another took notes. The third typed them. They rotated roles.
The budding journalists brought the camera that they borrowed from Wasserman-Olin's father into two Downtown courtrooms.
They spoke with federal Chief District Judge James Rosenbaum who presided over the court proceedings and the prosecutor on the case, Paul Sprenger.
As they delved into the case, they learned some of the facts that “North Country” left out. For example, they didn't know that some male mineworkers actually testified in favor of the women. Additionally, many of the acts the movie portrayed had been fictionalized.
“Most of the harassment in the movie was made up,” Jane said she was surprised to find out. However, not everything was dramatized. “Some stuff that was true was unbelievable.”
Afterwards, they drafted a script based on their findings. While they composed it, they tried to be fair by qualifying statements about how the women were treated at the mine by some men, not all.
“It was hard because they didn't want to talk to us,” said Jane.
They produced and edited it on Wasserman-Olin's home computer with the Mac program, iMovie. Since the film was a minute and a half too long, they cut some of Jenson's personal anecdotes.
Their resulting documentary includes narratives from the girls, a voiceover from Jenson along with still shots of her, an on-site interview with a former mineworker, courtroom scenes and more.
Susan Spray, Anne and Jane's mother, said she was proud of their work. “I told them, this is good practice for their thesis. They spent a lot of hours getting information and editing it. They developed all of their own questions. The fact that these people were alive and accessible 20 years after the fact, that's the other remarkable thing.”