Celebrating Joy and Working Towards Liberation (Interview with Outright Vermont’s Dana Kaplan Part…

Celebrating Joy and Working Towards Liberation (Interview with Outright Vermont’s Dana Kaplan Part Four)

We got the chance to talk to Dana Kaplan, Executive Director of Outright Vermont, an LGBTQ+ youth-facing organization, about the history of Outright, the current programs and events the organization is running, and the importance of centering youth and intersectionality in social justice work. This installment delves into more of Outright’s anti-racism work and goals for the future. This is part four of a four-part interview series about Outright. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

We’re in a moment where movements for anti-racism are in the national spotlight. How has this current moment affected Outright Vermont’s work?

What’s true is that we know this is not new work, these are certainly not new needs, and these are not new conversations for black and brown folks and for our social justice movement work. The amplification and national spotlight has created a different level of opportunity, accountability, and inability to turn away. I think that’s primarily what has shifted. There are lots of ways youth are doing their own work and leading at some of the intersections of creating an anti-racist, anti-transphobic community, school system, and GSA. Some of these efforts are happening around School Resource Officers in schools, work Outright’s youth organizers are choosing to be part of organizing in their local communities and towns. Vermont is unique in that even though we are a small state, schools and communities are at really different starting places of progress, based most often on the level of community backlash and conservative politics they are navigating. Some youth are organizing to have the Black Lives Matter flag raised, while others are intentionally bringing in conversations around implicit bias and white supremacy. But it’s important to note that based on the previous administrations’ active emboldening of racism and hate, the level of backlash and threat is pretty shocking. The insurrection at the Capital brought to light just where we are as a country. It feels like we are at a tipping point, and it’s on all of us to show up for this work right now. Black and Brown folks have been erased, ostracized, and pushed out for way too long. It’s on all of us to wrestle with the questions and really ask what shifts people are making in this moment. It’s not a time to be comfortable. That’s never when change happens. As LGBTQ+ folks, with experiences of coming out and transitioning, we can tap into our lived experiences with transformation to know that liberation isn’t comfortable, but it’s necessary.

What are some goals that Outright Vermont has, both short-term and long-term?

Some of the work we’re up to is deeply internal — tuning our organizational capacity to be right-sized so as to set a strong foundation for the years to come. Some of that is about systems attunement, from fundraising and evaluation, to program growth and communications. Some of it is about accountability to our commitments as a staff and board to keep an anti-racism practice front and center, so we can make sure not to move from places of white supremacy, and can course correct when we do. You know, there has long been a sense for many non-profits that we have to work from a scarcity model — as an LGBTQ+ organization that inherently moves through a landscape wherein we are not the majority, I think we may get that burden of expectation to stay small more than many. So part of our work as a radical and transformative organization is to say “we get to take up space, we get to be here, we get to have the things that we need in order to be healthy and sustainable and thriving for years to come.”

One of our programmatic goals is to grow Camp Outright, starting with doubling the number of sessions we hold. Our organizational strategic plan really centers outreach and access to the most marginalized of youth, so that all LGBTQ+ youth throughout Vermont have hope, equity, and power. We are prioritizing efforts of care and mentorship with QTBIPOC youth, and being intentional about how we spend time and attention showing up for our partner orgs in this work together.

It’s not missed on anyone that it’s been a really hard and devastating year; when we’re talking about a population of folks who were already five times more likely than their cis/het peers to have attempted suicide in the past year (2019), who are already feeling disconnected and isolated and struggling to feel like they matter in their communities, adding the pandemic to that landscape has been really challenging. We will continue our work to make sure that youth know there’s always somebody who has their back, and we will continue to work structural and systems change so we can see a different tomorrow. Some of the programs we offer will always continue to have their place in the form they are now, and other pieces will continue to expand so that we’re more effectively having impact for those that need us most.

For a small, Vermont non-profit to have secure funding beyond one year out is a pretty radical accomplishment in and of itself, and something we’ve been working hard to cultivate over time. To have that backing in the form of multi-year grants from folks like Nellie Mae and other foundations who recognize the importance of saying ‘here’s a little breathing room, we believe in the work you’re doing and we trust you to use the money where you need it in order to keep moving forward in your mission’… That’s a massive gift!

Another interesting and really important thing happening in the world of philanthropy right now is more conversations about what it means re-distribute wealth and engage in direct reckoning of the ways money is tied to race and racism. Having transparent and explicit exchanges around how people have even gotten access to their wealth and what it looks like to really shift dynamics is something we are invested in organizationally. This isn’t just a conversation to have at the program level; it’s a conversation that needs to happen in the board room, with donors, and with youth. We really appreciate collaborating with foundations like Nellie Mae — so clear in your vision and commitments to creating equitable educational spaces. It’s truly an honor for Outright to be part of your orbit.

Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about you’d like to mention?

One thing that doesn’t get talked about that much, but feels really important, is the joy and beauty of being LGBTQ+, of being a trans person, and youth getting to celebrate that part of themselves and their identity that’s often the basis of hurt and harm in other spaces. Media coverage tends to focus on the disproportionate health outcomes that exist — the bullying, the self-harm, the suicide, and the very real and serious health equity considerations that deserve our attention. But we also need to create spaces for joy, so that queer and trans people can honor and celebrate those special parts of ourselves, because there is something very beautiful about our identities, and too often the focus is on stories of tragedy and harm. Working towards liberation and justice for LGBTQ+ people ultimately makes the world better for all of us. Working for a world that is free of racism makes the world better for all of us. As much we have to talk about the harm, it’s also really important that we make space for the joy and the celebration. There is hopefulness that comes when we all have the chance to be our true selves, with the love and care and resources we need to do just that.

Celebrating Joy and Working Towards Liberation (Interview with Outright Vermont’s Dana Kaplan Part… was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.