June 20 2016

As the RYSE Center’s Lead Community Health Coordinator, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth and seeing their work create change in Richmond, California.

Four years ago a group of LGBTQ youth went to Richmond City Council’s Pride Month proclamation. Richmond’s mayor recognized RYSE Center youth for helping create a safer city for LGBTQ youth. However, the youth were met by a hostile audience who berated them with dehumanizing hate speech.  The experience was so violent and disparaging that the young people and RYSE Staff decided not to return the following year. The youth instead, rallied elsewhere: they demanded that the city’s Human Rights and Human Relations commission issue a statement urging public spaces to be welcoming, inclusive, and free of hate speech. Soon after, the San Jose Mercury news reported that “The commission voted to craft a public statement defining and condemning “hate speech” and calling for greater tolerance toward the local gay community.” Change manifested.

Last week I watched youth return to city council. This time they spoke passionately at the pride proclamation, declaring “pride month is about being comfortable with who you are,” and “It makes me feel like my city supports me when I see the rainbow flag being flown.” Gone were the jeers and derision; the youth were instead met with warm applause and loving support. Whenever I think about Pride Month, I think about how these fierce young people are leading the way and shifting the narrative of what it means to be an LGBTQ young person of color in their community. They’ve been organizing and taking action to become more visible and create real systems change. This is what Pride Month is about.

Last fall, three young people represented Richmond at the Building Healthy Communities Free Our Dreams: Queer and Trans Youth Summit. During the summit they devised  local and statewide recommendations to improve health and wellness outcomes for all youth. As a result of the summit one of our participants decided to integrate a greater gender-justice lens to her writing workshops. Another wanted to start a support group for parents with LGBTQ children. Programs like the summit and spaces like RYSE help youth build their capacity to lead. It is important that we fight for and invest in safe and affirming spaces for all youth.

Right now at Richmond High School a group of LGBTQ young people are conducting a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) Project to examine school safety and climate. They aim to influence institutional policies, investigate what types of interpersonal violence are directed toward LGBTQ youth, and understand how their overall experience within the school system affects them internally. They continue to work diligently to finish the project despite the school year coming to an end, and hope their research will help create a safer and more inclusive culture for LGBTQ students. Even graduating seniors, who understand that they won’t directly benefit from potential changes, have committed themselves to the project so that incoming students will have better experiences. They realize YPAR is not just a research project or tool, but a transformative process.

In Richmond, the City of Pride and Purpose, these LGBTQ students are prime examples of what it means to live with pride and purpose.