The series of events that contributed to the global economic downturn served as a critical lesson for many in corporate America. A smart and talented workforce has become a critical tool for corporations to weather difficult economic times and build for the future by cultivating new leadership.
My colleagues and I at GLSEN have been faced with a similar question ever since we opened our doors in 1990 to create educational environments where every member of every school community is valued and respected, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. How can we identify and support talented young leaders in order to advance our common goal?
Our mandate is to improve the school experience for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students despite the many inclement conditions that can impact their ability to learn and succeed. Since our founding, GLSEN has served as a resource for schools, equipping them to be a safe space for LGBT students by preparing educators to teach the fundamentals, including respect for all. Our goal is to make sure that our nation’s youth are set up for success from the very moment a student enters kindergarten until they graduate from high school and set off to pursue their own hopes and dreams. The end result is a new generation of future leaders—LGBT-identified or otherwise—ready to address the issues of their time.
Yet sadly, LGBT students have shouldered the burden of making sure they can learn and grow despite being at heightened risk of facing incidents of victimization and hostility. A majority of LGBT students in the country have reported experiences of hearing homophobic remarks or even being physically harassed in school simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. And through more than a decade of research, we know that when an LGBT student feels unsafe in school, they are more likely to skip class, perform poorer in school and say they are less likely to pursue post-secondary education. Instead of worrying about a down economy, GLSEN has been confronted with the disparity in educational opportunities for LGBT students and their allies.
Student leaders were among the brave trailblazers who founded GLSEN, and student leadership has always been at the core of the programs and advocacy designed to address this disparity. Ten years ago, GLSEN decided to invest in supporting student-leadership development in and of itself, and we established a series of student-leadership programs designed to support student-driven efforts that would ensure schools were safe and free from the harmful disruptions of anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment. In doing so, we believed the very students experiencing these incidents of victimization would be empowered to not only create change in their schools but also transform their own lives into something more hopeful.
One of the first students that GLSEN partnered with was Nathan from Michigan. Nathan was assaulted in school during his freshman year because he was perceived to be gay. And Nathan wanted to make sure LGBT students and straight allies—like himself—would not have to go through what he did. Nathan decided to join GLSEN as a student organizer where he and dozens of other LGBT and allied students from across the country received skills-building training, resources and individualized support throughout the year to make an impact in their school and communities. In turn, Nathan coordinated GLSEN’s Day of Silence in his community, helping to organize nearly 400 student participants from six high schools and two colleges to raise awareness about anti-LGBT behavior in school. He even went on to found his high school’s gay-straight alliance to support LGBT and allied students, and he lobbied the board of education to include protections for LGBT students within district policies.
Fast forward to the present and I can’t begin to share all of Nathan’s achievements. This remarkable young man graduated from high school and studied public policy at the University of Michigan. Soon after, he decided to put his education and community involvement to work by successfully running for a seat on East Lansing’s city council. And it’s worth noting that Nathan remained actively engaged with GLSEN’s work by serving on our national board of directors.
Nathan’s story isn’t a fluke. In fact, it has become an increasingly common and gratifying experience for me to hear of more students involved with our safe-schools work to excel in the classroom and accomplish tremendous things at such an incredibly young age. And research has shown that GLSEN’s student programs help LGBT and ally youth learn vital leadership skills and increase their engagement in community organizing and activism.
Take, for example, Jeremy, who is a current GLSEN student leader and high-school sophomore in Fargo, N.D. Jeremy recently traveled to Washington, D.C., where he secured Sen. Kent Conrad’s support for the federal Safe Schools Improvement Act. Or I can point to GLSEN student leader Tiffani from Arlington, Va., who recently met with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to share how the U.S. Department of Education could better serve LGBT students experiencing bullying and harassment in school. These are just a couple of the growing examples of student leadership that GLSEN and our 36 local chapters across the country continue to cultivate and nurture.
GLSEN understands the many benefits of cultivating young leadership while encouraging their academic potential to succeed. And our perspective on how student leadership can improve school climate mirrors a similar understanding on talent management found within the corporate workplace. In order to maximize business performance, corporations must invest in leadership- and talent-development opportunities for their workforce. For GLSEN, we empower LGBT youth and their allies with tools and support to create a safer school climate where every student is able to succeed. And we know these leadership skills and experiences follow a student well beyond school and into the workplace when they successfully apply for their first job and their career begins to unfold.
The student-leadership model that GLSEN continues to build upon demonstrates how we can successfully address systemic challenges like anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in school. But it has also shown its astonishing value in transforming the lives of young people everywhere.
I remain in touch with Nathan, but I now receive a growing amount of emails from former students filled with news about their latest achievements at college or work. When I read these heartwarming notes, I am reminded that they and other young adults will be the next dynamic leaders in business, politics, education, media and social entrepreneurship. And I can say with confidence that our world will be in capable hands when the next generation is ready to lead.
By Dr. Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN. DiversityInc Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Barbara Frankel is a member of the GLSEN National Board of Directors.