July 17, 2013
Earlier this year, the YWCA Central Alabama hosted 100 students and educators from 23 schools across the Birmingham area to participate in the Make A Change Leadership Institute. The theme of this year’s event focused on sexual minority youth at school. Sexual minority youth are young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or are uncertain of their sexual identity. The program was facilitated by student leaders who have attended Anytown Alabama, a social justice leadership camp sponsored by the YWCA and the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ).
Make A Change provided a unique opportunity for students and educators to learn about this social justice issue through activities, games and conversation. They participated in a visualization activity as well as a simulation designed to understand the struggles that sexual minority youth face when coming out, but the highlight of the event was the panel discussion by students who identify as sexual minority. Though the topic was serious, students had fun getting to know one another and enjoying refreshments provided by EarthFare.
A survey by Alabama Safe Schools Coalition found that 60 percent of sexual minority youth in Alabama report being unable to concentrate in class, and 36 percent report lower grades because of anti-sexual minority harassment. This statistic is consistent with what the YWCA’s Social Justice department finds in anecdotal stories when they take the Heritage Panel program into area schools.
“Unfortunately harassment of sexual minority youth is socially acceptable in many area schools. The harassment, coupled with most school systems’ unwillingness to adopt harassment policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity, causes many Alabama students to be marginalized,” said Joan Witherspoon-Norris, Director of Social Justice. “Students at Make A Change were open and receptive to learning from each other about ways to stand up for students at their schools who need allies.”
Make A Change strives to motivate students and educators to make changes that will result in schools that are safer and more conducive to learning. As a result of this training, students reported that they learned ways to be allies for students who are being teased or bullied at school because they identify as sexual minority or because they are suspected by their peers to be sexual minority youth.
One high school student commented, “I don’t usually like talking about this topic. I’m straight and this topic is usually awkward, but it was presented well and really helped me understand the issue.”
The safe and comfortable atmosphere of Make A Change allowed students to participate in dialogue about how to make their schools more inclusive for all students. When asked, “What is the most important thing you learned from today’s program?” another high school student answered, “I learned that not all schools are accepting, and it is important to speak out against bullying based on sexual orientation.”
Only four Birmingham area schools currently have harassment policies which protect sexual minority students. Information was provided to students about how to advocate for inclusive harassment policies at their school. For more information about school harassment policies in Alabama, click here.
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