Youth Leaders and Adult Allies (Interview with Outright Vermont’s Dana Kaplan Part Three)

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 explores Outright’s work with non-LGBTQ+ and adult allies as well as the importance of youth leadership. This is part three of a four-part interview series about Outright. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Can you speak about some of your work that is focused on allies who are not LGBTQ+, and how you balance that work with the work you do supporting queer youth?

We are here to change systems and culture, so that youth are validated in their identity and experiences when they’re with like-minded, LGBTQ+ folks, AND when they go back into their home environments. We need the dial moving forward! A huge part of our work is to bring folks along who might unintentionally — or sometimes intentionally — cause hurt and harm to our communities. There are folks on staff who spend the majority of their time working with adult allies. We are here first and foremost for youth, and we recognize that to make things better for youth, we need to look at the people and places of power with an ability to create change and help them do that work. Heterosexism and cissexism depend on cisgender and heterosexual folks not knowing their moments to show up differently. Just like it’s on white folks to recognize where white supremacy and racism harms us. It’s our responsibility to show up differently and do that work so folks of color have what they need and the space to be able to live their lives and dreams. It’s on all of us.

Allies need to have their own spaces to work their stuff out. We don’t want that to happen in such a way that youth are having to carry that burden — that’s why we have family programs and family spaces, because it’s not the responsibility of youth to have to do that educating. But yeah, we have some spaces that are just for LGBTQ+ identified folks. And other dedicated spaces for everybody, regardless of identity. We do our best to be mindful of tending to all the things and people and spaces with intentionality.

What is the importance of having a space where queer youth are not only supported, but are active leaders?

Youth are the experts of their own lives. They know what they need. Especially when we’re looking at LGBTQ+ youth and the places where homophobia and transphobia rob them of the ability to voice what’s needed — for example, it’s inaccurate and transphobic ideology to say that youth are too young to know their gender identity, when we know that that part of your brain forms between the ages of two and four. So when a youth says “I know I’m non-binary,” or “I know I’m trans,” it’s our responsibility to listen, and meet them with, “thank you for telling me. Thank you for letting me in. What do you need? How can I support you? What are your pronouns and what’s your name?”

Our being here is and has always been about working to change the toxicity that youth navigate, so that everyone can live the life they want and need. It’s not enough for us to just give someone a Band-Aid when they’re hurt; it’s our responsibility to say “how did you get hurt? What are the root causes of the set-up, and how can we together create change in this environment so that doesn’t happen again?” Youth are the ones that know because they’re living it! The most powerful and radical thing that adults can do is get out of the way and let youth lead, because they are the ones that know. We see that happening all over the world in terms of youth at the forefront of all sorts of social movements. It’s our responsibility to leave things better than we found them — youth are the ones paving the way for that work to happen.

How do you and other adults involved with the organization ensure that Outright Vermont is truly youth led?

It’s a process! We have the opportunity every single day to check where we’re coming from, to make sure we are living our values. We ask ourselves how to make sure we’re not tokenizing youth, how to meaningfully engage youth in the work so that when we’re planning priorities for the year, those priorities are coming directly from youth, which then becomes the road map for the work the organization takes on. Those priorities: training for teachers, inclusive queer sexual health education, having more gender neutral or gender-free facilities, harm repair, and access for all — that is direction we take from youth specifically, which informs the ways we’re making moves in our programs and staffing. We are also paying youth for their time and expertise, through our youth organizing program (thanks to the Nellie Mae Foundation!) and other youth mentorship roles. The structures for youth leadership within the organization have taken various forms over the years; but the form follows the function — and the function is always working to ensure that youth power is meaningfully woven throughout all facets of what we are up to.

In our final installment next Friday, we’ll delve into some goals Outright has for the future, including some of the anti-racist work Outright youth are doing. Stay tuned for more!

Youth Leaders and Adult Allies (Interview with Outright Vermont’s Dana Kaplan Part Three) was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.