LGBTQ Community Initiative managing director Tim'm West reflects on Pride Month and not only what TFA has done to help keep our schools safe and ensure voices are heard, but also what the initiative has planned for the road ahead.
June 1, 2015
“So, why are you with Teach For America?”
The question has come up more than once since I came on board to lead the LGBTQ Community Initiative last summer, just days after my 42nd birthday. I’d taught for more than a decade in high school classrooms and had even more experience doing LGBTQ youth advocacy. In that time I’d seen so many educators who were too cautious, too clueless, too afraid to imagine that educational justice would consider kids at the intersection of LGBTQ identity, poverty, and racism.
Just a few weeks prior I’d stewed in my seat at a summit geared toward kids of color and the effects of poverty and racism on their lives. There was not one mention of LGBTQ kids. The school's people lauded as “successful” for black and brown boys were the same places youth at the center where I directed youth programs reported daily trauma, and sometimes physical and emotional assault, not just by peers but also by teachers and staff.
I knew I had to do more to challenge the abuse many LGBTQ kids face in public education. But for all of my urgency to create brave spaces over safe spaces, I began at Teach For America by listening—hearing from students, teachers, alumni, staff, and people across so many communities.
In my first months, I heard stories of resilience. Stories of people deeply committed to our movement, even when support for their identities while corps members or alumni was left to their own organizing: regional affinity groups, staff resource groups, and alliances with community organizations who, too, believed educational equity is an LGBTQ advocacy issue.
I heard stories of teachers told “never to talk about [their sexuality] at our school,” critiqued because their gender expression was seen as a distraction to good teaching, and yet they stayed in the classroom—sometimes biting their tongues and compromising their dignity—because they fell in love with their kids and communities. These are some of our most brave and resilient educators—people who are working tirelessly (and sometimes silently) to ensure that we as an organization live up to our aspirations.
But we cannot do this alone. As I began a 12-city listening tour to engage LGBTQ community members, largely unaffiliated with TFA, I prepared myself for a good bit of criticism. Remember the question: “Why are you with TFA?” It was the heart of many conversations and marked a delicate dance between honoring their challenges and owning not just our lessons from the criticisms, but evidence of how we are doing work differently. I learned that when you genuinely listen to people who are committed to social justice, and when you identify ways to support their objectives and honor their expertise, it’s much easier to bring people to the table to do work supporting LGBTQ kids, educators, and the communities that bind them.
The Initiative Taking Hold
This Conversation Series yielded a host of recommendations, which fall into five categories that will guide the work of the LGBTQ Community Initiative going forward:
- Direct Student Support
- Family and Community
- Policy and Advocacy
- School Culture and Climate
- Teacher Preparation
Our engagement with the community also led to many immediate developments. Applicants to the corps now have the opportunity to identify as LGBTQ on our application. Summer Institutes are working to ensure our diversity and inclusiveness training are more LGBTQ-inclusive. We’ve publicly supported LGBTQ-affirming policies such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act. We’ve created platforms to empower our LGBTQ and allied corps members and alumni through advisory boards that honor their insight and experiences as we advance the Initiative. We close out the initiative’s first year with LGBTQ leaders outside of TFA who are curious or even invested in working with Teach For America to advance educational equity, not just for LGBTQ kids but for everyone.
I also realize there’s so much work to be done. While the LGBTQ Community Initiative’s data suggests higher acceptance and confirmation rates among LGBTQ applicants compared to the general population, it means little if we aren’t working to improve the quality of experience for our corps members. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the ability to recruit good talent and the ability to nurture and support positive experiences of the talent you already have.
A recent survey to corps members last year showed that while LGBTQ corps members represent the fourth-largest minority demographic (after low-income, African American, and Latino) their satisfaction rates suggest that far fewer are “proud to be a part of Teach for America” compared to their straight counterparts. Our trans and gender on board corps members experience even greater challenges than cisgender corps members who often “pass” as straight and can avoid some of the more blatant homophobia in schools. When we think about celebrating LGBTQ Pride, one of the aims of our initiative is to ensure that this pride resonates among our corps members, not just at momentous parades and celebrations throughout June, but is internalized as part of what makes them awesome classroom leaders.
On the Horizon
I’m optimistic and more charged than ever about the road ahead. I’m grateful that we’ve formalized many critical partnerships with LGBTQ organizations who believe that educational equity is the key to addressing many other issues our community has identified: from youth homelessness or employment to supporting transgender rights or comprehensive sexual health education for black and brown queer boys in high schools.
I’ve learned that compromise is not easy but sometimes needed, because the need to be present and provide great talent to our schools is school's complex. LGBTQ rights continue to be a defining political issue that can threaten the access that thousands of the kids we serve have to the quality education they deserve. In a queer culture where we are often taught—in the words of lesbian and feminist icon Audre Lorde—that “your silence will not protect you,” our corps members and many kids we serve are faced with uncomfortable reality that speaking out is, often, still a luxury.
Sometimes silence protects long enough to muster the courage to patiently change minds through being excellent, compassionate, thoughtful educators. Sometimes it’s braver to listen and bite your tongue than scream for the frustration that things aren’t happening quickly enough for all the urgency you feel. And sometimes you speak out anyway, with resolve for the justice of your convictions, for its alignment with our vision for kids and our communities. Sometimes, even though you’ve said the same thing over and over again, you steel yourself and answer proudly: “Here is why I’m with TFA...”