By SULTAN SHAKIR
Over the past 30 years, LGBTQ youth have had a safe space to call home at SMYAL, an organization that opens its doors to provide a place where youth can feel supported, and more importantly, be empowered. The work at SMYAL has only been possible through hard work and the dedication of thousands of local leaders, volunteers and youth who give time, energy and resources to ensure that young people in our area have the support they need to thrive given the many obstacles that LGBTQ youth face.
As a community, we’re at a dynamic time in our history: one when we are hopeful that major struggles are on the cusp of resolution, where increasing numbers of elected officials are out and where opportunity is expanding for LGBTQ people across the country faster than it ever has before. It’s an exciting time to be a part of the movement and an important time to consider: “What’s next?”
As the new executive director of SMYAL, I feel honored to serve an organization that works with young leaders who are asking that question of the movement, as well as of themselves. Many youth we serve understand that progress is being made nationally, but when they consider their friend who was thrown out of their home for being lesbian or gay, they ask “What’s next?” And when they consider the youth who was being bullied in school earlier in the week for their gender expression, they ask, “What’s next?” At SMYAL, our job is to not just work with youth to ask the question, but to make sure they have the support and resources to implement the answer.
That support and empowerment starts with having a safe and welcoming learning environment at school. Over the past three years, SMYAL has worked to build and support more than 80 Gay-Straight Alliances in the D.C. metro area and, this year, is expanding that work to partner with homeless liaisons at local schools to ensure that the most vulnerable and at-risk youth, homeless youth, are supported and treated with respect and dignity based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, and are treated in ways that supports their integration back into school and society, rather than hurts it, creating further isolation.
That new partnership with the D.C. Public School System helps ensure that DCPS staff have the training and support they need to be true allies to LGBTQ youth. If the disproportionate number of homeless LGBTQ youth aren’t receiving the support they need at home, our goal is to ensure that they’re at least getting it at school.
In addition to shaping spaces for LGBTQ youth to thrive, we’re ensuring that young people are at the forefront of the effort to develop the solution to the challenges that youth face; making sure that youth can not only ask the question “What’s next?” but are also empowered to develop the answer. And, just as importantly, that our youth are equipped to successfully advance that answer in a way that is true and genuine to their needs and lived experiences. By putting the tools and resources to create lasting change in the hands of our youth, we can ensure that the leaders of tomorrow are being developed today.
Over the next year, SMYAL will work to highlight some of those young leaders and the answers they’ve developed to the struggles they and other LGBTQ youth are facing. We hope you’ll consider their voices in your own personal or organizational answer to “What’s next?”
Sultan Shakir is executive director of SMYAL.