GSA Coalition Leadership Conference Inspires Activism & Youth Leadership in RI

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By: Ashley Mark/TRT Reporter–

Youth Pride Inc. will be hosting its 8th annual GSA Coalition Leadership Conference in March in Providence, R.I. The conference brings LGBTQ youth, their allies and supportive educators together to network and learn from each other, according to one of the officials for youth Pride Inc.

“For some, the conference may be the first opportunity they have to meet youth from other school communities who are having similar educational experiences,” said Elana Rosenberg, GSA Network and Programming Coordinator for Youth Pride Inc. “For others, it may be an opportunity or the inspiration to take their activism or leadership to the next level.”

The conference is open to youth between 13 and 23, and interested educators, according to the website. Rosenberg is expecting 50 to 75 participants this year, mostly high school students from Rhode Island. “We often have college age students and adult supporters who attend, as well, from Rhode Island and neighboring areas of Massachusetts,” said Rosenberg.

The GSA Coalition is a project of Youth Pride Inc., an organization that seeks to improve the lives of LGBTQQ youth and inspire social change.

“Youth Pride Inc.’s mission is to meet the unique and ongoing needs of youth and young adults impacted by sexual orientation and gender identity/expression through advocacy, support and empowerment,” stated Executive Director Kerri Kanelos.

The organization started in 1992 as a support group for LGBTQQ youth, according to Kanelos, but has grown into an organization that offers a variety of services to Rhode Island LGBTQQ youth. “We offer a drop-in center that offers a safe space for youth to meet other peers, leadership development, one-on-one counseling, support groups, a food pantry, and wellness programming,” Kanelos explained.

Youth Pride Inc. has identified several issues in the local LGBT community that it works to address and resolve through its programming. “Some of the issues that make up the core of our work include transgender rights, HIV prevention and comprehensive sexual health, bullying prevention and marriage equality,” said Kanelos. The GSA Coalition plays a crucial role in addressing some of these issues.

According to Rosenberg, the GSA Coalition functions as a statewide GSA, providing support, a social outlet and educational opportunities to members. The annual leadership conference is an important event hosted by the Coalition because it helps further the mission of the project.

Noel Puello, a participant at a GSA Coalition Leadership Conference, attended the conference to learn from other Rhode Island GSAs. She was interested in understanding how the other GSAs were feeling within the school environment and what was working for their groups, she said. “

“Having a GSA in any school brings some sort of controversy as to what the students will be talking about, since it is a club that brings students together based on their sexual orientation,” Puello said. She expressed concern about questions from faculty and harassment from the student body towards the GSA.

“For me, coming together to find ways to either stop the questioning and harassment or find ways to make everyone within the student body comfortable was very helpful,” Puello commented about the conference.

The organization’s website states that the Coalition strives to bring Rhode Island GSA students together and connect them with valuable community resources. The leadership conference is an opportunity for participants to discuss current social issues they are facing, and network with other GSA members.

Michi Olivo, who also participated in a previous conference, learned valuable information about GSAs and advocacy at the conference. “I received so much information from the exciting workshops that was beneficial not only for my GSA, but also for self-advocacy and advocacy for others in the LGBT community,” Olivo said.

This year’s conference will address a range of issues through workshops and sessions. “We will have workshops covering topics such as queer pop culture, including the transgender community in GSA work, healthy relationships and LGBT-focused safer sex, GSA troubleshooting, youth/adult partnerships and working with teachers and creating allies,” Rosenberg explained. She also added that the opening and closing sessions will focus on networking and sharing best practices between GSA members.

In addition to its annual conference, the Coalition holds meetings that are open to all youth enrolled in high school or college.

“We meet about every 6 weeks,” said Rosenberg. “The structure and activities in the meetings are intended to offer examples of possible GSA meetings, and can often be replicated within the school GSA.”

The Coalition’s members also help plan for the leadership conference and organize common GSA events, like a Day of Silence or Ally Week. “In the spring, the focus is more on transitioning leadership, evaluating the successes and challenges of the year and setting the GSAs up to be successful in the following academic year,” Rosenberg explained.

Rosenberg believes in the importance of GSAs, both to group members and the community. “Many GSAs take on the task of intentionally and actively educating the school community on LGBT people, bullying and discrimination,” said Rosenberg. “This type of education and activism within the school community improves the school climate for the entire community, not just the LGBTQ youth and their allies.”

In addition to the education efforts of GSAs, these groups also provide a safe space for LGBTQ youth and their allies to gather. “It is an opportunity to address the isolation that many of them may feel at school,” said Rosenberg. “The groups offer solidarity, ally identification and development and an outlet for those interested in activism.”

According to Rosenberg, members of the Coalition looking to develop their leadership skills can join the Leadership Conference Planning Committee and help determine the conference theme and workshops. Including more youth input in the conference planning is an aspect that Rosenberg felt was important to the event. Since she started at Youth Pride Inc., Rosenberg has “worked to incorporate more youth voice and participation in the planning and running of the conference, increasing the opportunity for youth to actually lead in preparation for, as well as, at the conference.”

The GSA Coalition Leadership Conference will be held on March 16th. For more information, visit www.youthprideri.org.