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Safe LGBT Spaces: What Schools Can Learn From Resource Groups

By Dr. Eliza Byard 

Dr. Eliza ByardWhen I began my work at GLSEN 10 years ago, I had no idea that I would have a courtside seat for the emergence of one of the most important new forces in workplace diversity and corporate philanthropy: the resource group. In corporate workplaces, it is now expected that ERGs will be included in any diversity and inclusion strategy. Read Effective Uses of Employee Resource Groups and Why Resource Groups Are Business-Resource Groups for best practices.

During that same period, I have also witnessed the explosion of activism among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students, and the proliferation of student clubs known as gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in high schools and even some middle schools nationwide. GLSEN partners with amazing student leaders from all across the country, supports the formation of GSAs and maintains contact with a national network of thousands of these student clubs.

Over time, resource groups have demonstrated their value for increasing employee satisfaction and connection to their workplace, particularly when there is strong and visible C-suite support.  Affinity groups for LGBT employees and their allies are especially critical sources of support for those who face an entrenched—and sometimes violent—form of social prejudice. By supporting LGBT-specific ERGs, corporations and their most senior leaders convey a particularly powerful message about the importance of diversity to the entire organization. Read more on the best practices for the engagement of LGBT employees.

The same is true for the interaction of school administrations with students who want to form GSAs to help make their schools more welcoming places for LGBT students. Take, for example, the experience of Richard Walsh, a former GLSEN Student Ambassador and current college student. Richard came out at an early age and faced relentless bullying. When he reached high school, Richard said, “I made the decision to stand up … I founded my school’s gay-straight alliance. It made my school community aware of the experiences that students like me endured on a regular basis. I soon noticed a difference in [my school’s] climate: more students and school staff intervened when incidents of bullying took place, a forum for discussion opened up and people no longer worried about their own sexual orientation or gender identity being called into question. They were more likely to speak out about harassment against their classmates.”

Richard and other club members began proactive efforts to change their school for the better. Members of the high-school administration had a simple but powerfully important response. They said yes.

Compare that to the experience of another openly gay student named Zach. This past October, Zach was brutally assaulted by a classmate simply because of his sexual orientation. Students watched the incident occur and did nothing to intervene. When GLSEN met with Zach and his family and offered support to students and administrators in the district, we learned that students at Zach’s school were denied the opportunity to start a GSA. Clearly, that decision by school administrators sent exactly the wrong message to the student body and deprived them of a critical source of support.

The benefits of GSAs are confirmed by more than anecdote. GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey, a biennial survey first launched in 1999 to document the school experiences of LGBT students nationally, found that LGBT students with a GSA were less likely to feel unsafe in school, experienced less victimization, were more able to identify supportive educators and felt more connected to the school community than students who did not have access to such a club. The study also found that the presence of GSAs and other forms of in-school support contributed to higher grade-point averages among students and a greater likelihood that students would plan to graduate and go on to college.

For LGBT students and their allies, GSAs provide invaluable peer support, promote safer school climates and encourage an overall feeling of inclusion within a school community. I am sure that those of you who have experienced the ERG revolution in the corporate workplace can identify many ways in which ERGs have had a similar impact on your individual experience.

But individual experience is not the only thing that has been transformed by GSAs and ERGs. These groups have also started to change the world by organizing individual energy for the greater good. For GSAs, this takes the form of outreach to peers with events like GLSEN’s Ally Week and Day of Silence, designed to promote positive change in schools, or work in coalition to bring the resources of the GSA to bear on the concerns of other student affinity groups.

Resource-group members—whatever characteristic brings them together—are similarly involved in a remarkable effort to transform workplace experience for themselves and others. They also prompt greater engagement by their employers in the issues and causes that they care about most. Indeed, corporate support—whether through resource-group volunteerism or resource-group-inspired corporate sponsorship—has contributed substantially to efforts to improve school climate for LGBT youth. Read about the Pride resource group at HP in The Business Benefits of Employee-Resource Groups.

One transformative movement supports another. One generation encourages another and is in turn inspired to do more itself. From where I sit, that definitely looks like a recipe for lasting change. 

Byard is the executive director of GLSEN. DiversityInc Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Barbara Frankel is a member of the GLSEN National Board of Directors.



 

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