Within a year of launching a nationwide LGBTQ community initiative during 2014's Coming Out Day, the K-12 teacher recruitment nonprofit giant Teach for America ( TFA ) announced four education summits in Washington DC, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Each of the events are designed to enhance the initiative's missionaccording to its websiteto "support LGBTQ students and create safe classrooms for them to learn; bring educational equity to the forefront of conversations within the LGBTQ community; expand the impact of LGBTQ students, [Teach for America] corps members, alumni, and staff; and help demonstrate teaching in high-need schools as a career pathway for those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning."
The summits are open to all community members and allies including students and educators.
Chicago's will take place on Nov. 7-8 beginning at the Center on Halsted ( "the Center" ). So far, around 200 educators and students from across the Midwest region will attend but there is room for more.
The keynote speaker will be Chicago native L. Michael Gipson who went from being thrown out of his home at the age of 16 to forming Cleveland Ohio's first LGBTQ youth Center.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, will be making an appearance, as will U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, via a video message.
For TFA LGBTQ Community Initiative's senior managing director, Tim'm T. West, the Chicago event is, in part, another opportunity to come home having left a position as Director of Youth Programs at the Center on Halsted last year.
"All the problems that the youth came to me with at the Center were connected to their experiences at school," West told Windy City Times. "So TFA really put me in a great position to not just deal with the trauma of a single student but to impact overarching systems that can advance safer classrooms for LGBTQ students."
To that end, West helped form the genesis of the LGBTQ community initiative. "There were a number of people in the organization, from alumni to board members to staff, who felt that as a part of Teach for America's commitment to diversity, there wasn't enough discussion about the LGBTQ community in the educational arena," West said. "Ironically education has not been very receptive to talking about queer people as teachers or supporting students. We had to acknowledge that a lot of our teachers come to us who identify as LGBTQ, that they're leaders in their schools around that identity and that they deserve opportunities."
Within a month of its inception, the community initiative began holding national conversations centered around "The State of Education in LGBTQ America." West served as host for the Nov. 12, 2014, program held at the Center.
The number of partnerships that have since been created with Chicago allies like Affinity, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) and the Center is a source of great pride for West.
"As a person who came from a community-based organization space it was really important for me," West said. "For me the work is not about institutional politics but creating safe spaces for kids."
The idea for the summits evolved organically from what was originally designed to be a TFA State of Education event in Little Rock, Ark where West went to elementary school.
"We held it as a response to everything our educators are going through in Southern states where it's particularly challenging to talk about LGBTQ issues," West said. "People from Mississippi and Alabama called because they were really struggling with these issues. Some of them were willing to come to Little Rock for a two-hour panel. So I thought about building a host of other conversations around the panel and professional leadership development workshops so teachers could come from other states and get a lot more support."
The Deep South summit proved to be a tremendous successattended by teachers from across the spectrum of race, gender, orientation and identity. In a promotional video, educator Allecyn Gay said "I am here as a black lesbian from the South and it is important for me to be a face for the students who might identify as LGBTQ but in a positive light."
According to West, holding similar events in the Midwest cities is just as critical.
"One of the things we find in particular in progressive places like Chicago is that there can often be a disjunction between the policies that are on the books and the ability to enforce those policies or hold people accountable," West said. "You have principals on the Southside of Chicago who say things like 'I don't have [LGBTQ] kids in my school' and you have educators on the Westside ask what LGBTQ stands for. We can lose sight of the fact that a lot of people still need a basic LGBTQ 101 education. If they don't have that, how can they be affirming, inclusive and supportive of their LGBTQ students?"
So West asserted that among the goals of the professional development workshops and other activities held at the Chicago summit will be to mobilize a more universal educational community around the issues facing LGBTQ students and their teachers.
"A lot of educators have never been in the same space with not just LGBTQ teachers but principals, counselors, social workers, community-based organizations and youth advocates to talk about what it means to have a safe school," West said. "We use that term a lot but we must define it in ways that are instructive to schools on how to build that climate and environment. As someone who taught over the course of 15-years before my experience with the Center, no one taught me how to be out as a teacher and support LGBTQ students. I certainly wasn't taught that, if I was in a space where I couldn't be out, how to still support them. There's a lot of tough questions. How do you have a conversation with your principal or school leader? How do you engage parents if you are out in ways that protect you and acknowledge and affirm your identity as an LGBTQ educator?"
West wants youth to be just as integral a part of finding those answers at the event as their teachers. "It's going to be a place where youth themselves can come and be a part of defining what safe spaces are. We will see the homeless population of LGBTQ youth go down if we have more competent educators who can support these students."
The summit will also include a Campus Pride Fair at the Center. "It's not just all about TFA," West said, "I think the fact that there are LGBTQ educators is one of the big elephants in the room. It's about communities, students and how we are one piece in the puzzle of fixing our schools so that they can be the safe places that out students deserve."
For West, coming back to the Center is part of a journey that began with dealing with the symptoms of educational inequality and led to a job that now addresses the cause.
"I can't tell you how many times I saw a student in the Center at 2:30," West said. "It was because they couldn't bear to be in a school where they weren't supported. I had a student come to me in tears from a school on the Southside whose principal told them that if they didn't act like a girl, they wouldn't be picked or bullied. It was quite often the educators who were perpetuating the violence."
"If teachers and administrators are saying things that are abusive to LGBTQ students then it is creating an environment where LGBTQ teachers and students don't feel safe," West added. "We have a lot of work to do even in Chicago. This is an opportunity to come back to a place that I consider home and to have an impact for students to have dignity in their classrooms. This is not just an LGBTQ or identity issue, this is an educational equity issue."
For more information about the summit and to register, visit: www.teachforamerica.org/about-us/our-initiatives/lgbtq-initiative .