As I reflect on Black History Month, the person who most impacted my intellectual development, my passion for writing and for leading is James Baldwin. Baldwin was short in stature, but towering in his intellect. He spoke across generations through powerful prose, with groundbreaking novels like "Go Tell it On the Mountain", a semi-autobiographical tale of a young black boy coming of age, grappling with his complex relationship with the black church and a with his father. I read that book and was forever changed.
Baldwin's pen was his weapon, producing essays on contemporary art to modern activism. Suffocating from U.S. racism, he courageously found space in France to write and think, to be. Paris became Baldwin's second home as a struggling young artist and Saint Paul de Vence became the place he spent his final years. Baldwin's life, viewed through solely a romantic lens, was that of a cosmopolitan, a Hemingway-esque man of the world who wrote, traveled, and enjoyed life.
But he was more than that. He was a humanist who was deeply rooted in America, with his identity shaped by this country's history. He was a storyteller who revealed the sins of an adolescent country, a democrat who believed in pushing the American experiment to its limits, and an activist engaged in civil rights struggle, eschewing greater fame and fortune for the sake of social justice. He was heroic in his outspokenness. He was also openly gay.
Baldwin was unapologetic about his sexual identity, and paid a price for it. He was shunned by many in the mainstream civil rights community and criticized for his writings, namely Giovanni's Room, a novel about a love affair between two men. He disrupted for many the grand narrative of what Black male leadership looks like - the hyper-masculine, heterosexual male with a church going family. Baldwin personally caused ruptures in my own heterosexual male privilege through his words, through his courage, and I thank him for that.
Baldwin was a truth teller who found solace in words. He talked about his early life in Harlem, where he found refuge from the tough streets in public libraries, reading every book he could get his hand on. Unfortunately, refuge, like Baldwin, is what a lot of LGBT youth are still seeking. We are witnessing the perennial castigation and rejection of LGBT young people, particularly LGBT youth of color, in our homes, communities and schools, and it is curtailing our progress as a nation.
LGBT issues are becoming hyper-visible in media lately, but LGBT youth are still rendered invisible in every day life, in our discussions of "youth matters" or school climate concerns. For example, nationally, Republicans are waging a war to make it more difficult for LGBT youth to be protected in schools and communities in a number of states, and targeting to shoot down President Obama's budget proposal for funds to support this population.
These actions run counter to reality. Here are some sobering statistics:
According to GLSEN,
o LGBT are twice as likely than their peers to be kicked, shoved and harassed in school.
o 80% of LGBT youth of color report hearing gay used in a negative or derogatory way in school.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness:
o 40% of the homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBT
o Demographically, LGBTQ homeless youth are disproportionately African American or American Indian, and often from low-income communities, and from poor or working class families.
o Studies indicate that once homeless, LGBTQ youth are at higher risk for victimization and suffer higher incidents of mental health problems and unsafe sexual behavior than straight homeless youth. They experience an average of 7.4 more acts of sexual violence toward them than their heterosexual peers and are more likely to attempt suicide (62 percent) than their heterosexual homeless peers (29 percent).
Since my blog centers on Tri-Sector Athletes in Education who are making a difference, providing solutions, we do have shining examples of those advocating for LGBT young adults.
The Hetrick Martin Institute (HMI), a non-profit organization based in New York founded in the late 1970s has made it its mission to support LGBT young adults. HMI works cross-sector with government, private and non-profit organizations to provide social services such as counseling to referral services for housing to a place where students can wash their clothes.
The founders of HMI didn't stop there. In 1988 HMI, in partnership with the New York City Department of Education, created Harvey Milk High School (named after the murdered gay activist and elected official from San Francisco), a school that educates and supports over one hundred LGBT young adults, the first of its kind in New York City.
As a public high school, Harvey Milk is open to all students, not just LGBT. But it still caused a stir when it was founded. Many felt a segregated school for LGBT students was morally or socially wrong, a throw back to a pre-Brown v. Board era and protested to shut it down. But Harvey Milk prevailed, still serving young adults, providing an environment that is transforming lives, and providing a salient model for other schools to learn from.
I intentionally place my students from my Educational Leadership programs at NYU Steinhardt in internships with the Hetrick Martin Institute because I believe in its work. My students, as Tri-Sector Athletes in development, need to be informed, and need to learn how to become servant leaders to all students. Also, educational leaders need to see effective models. My students need to know that our schools and communities hold the potential of a James Baldwin, of an Audre Lorde, or a Bayard Rustin, truth tellers who will transform our consciousness and our country.
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