Jessica Ratchford

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Jessica Ratchford, an active member of the Alliance Youth Committee between 2010 and 2012, speaks about the role of the Youth Committee in helping them hone their leadership, youth activism and organizing skills, as well as the impact it made on them as an individual. 

I went to Walter Payton College Prep. Both the president (who preceded me) and vice-president of our school’s Queer/ Straight Alliance (QSA, a term that our school deemed to be more inclusive and welcoming) were members of the Alliance’s Youth Committee (YC). Serving in these capacities in our QSA meant that in addition to leading our group, conducting meetings, and engaging with peers in school, they/we were also expected to contribute to the larger Chicago community. When I took over, the vice-president and I joined the Alliance YC as well as the About Face youth theater group (in keeping with tradition) to continue our school’s representation and involvement in the community.

When I was first introduced to the YC, I was completely new and had a lot to learn. The president of our QSA wasn’t able to make it to a meeting and requested that I attend to gather the meeting minutes. I remember thinking to myself: “how hard could this be?” And yet, this meeting, as well as my subsequent YC experiences turned out to be more challenging and more rewarding than I expected; I had to rise to the challenge.

From the time I joined, to the time I graduated, the YC attended and/or planned a variety of events. We went to the Great Gay Gathering in Washington D.C., and hosted a fall and spring summit, a dance, as well as the summer action camp. Conducting these events, however wasn’t the most difficult task. Our biggest challenge as a group of passionate youth was to overcome our individual differences and work constructively towards resolving conflict and expediting solutions. At one point, things got rather tense, and I proposed having a therapy session so we could channel ourselves back into the important work that we were doing. It worked; for me, as well as for my peers, it was really crucial to not give up and continue working together!

At the youth summit as well as other events, we routinely received positive responses from everyone. People always appreciated us and reinforced the work we were doing saying we’d changed or “transformed” their lives. It took us a while to see, firsthand, the kind of impact we were able to make as a team, but once we did, we never looked back. Another key aspect of the YC is that it was completely our initiative. However, whenever we needed support, guidance or felt lost, the Alliance staff (particularly David Fischer, whom we jokingly called the “designated adult” as well as Iman, the Youth Organizer, and Moises, who was on the board) were happy to guide us. Often, we (and particularly I) had this big overarching idea of what we needed to do, but didn’t have the details, and they really helped us hone in on the finer points.

Even after I left the YC, I continued to attend and support Alliance youth programming events as much as possible—I helped with the Alliance’s efforts in Champaign, IL, since I went to school there. I was a hostess for the 2013 brunch, and attended the 2014 Night of Noise.

My experiences at the YC have built a strong foundation for my activism and leadership. I went to the University of Illinois later, and unlike other new students who were new to LGBTQ activism, I hit the ground running. The Alliance had given me the opportunity to access the community at a very early stage. I had attended conferences, led workshops, made connections and learnt how to network. My YC work also involved a lot more than just helping and serving my community; in fact, I always say, even now, that I got a lot more in return than I gave! When I did reach college, I felt prepared to take on a lot of different leadership roles that were offered to me. My job took me to one of the largest LGBT conferences in the world, Creating Change 2014 in Houston, to work on better ways to serve are LGBTQ students and international students specifically by attending the racial justice institute and other ethically- focused workshops. I formed an affinity group there, as well as a taskforce for dealing with mental health issues concerning engineers/ engineering and the LGBT community. I was able to initiate and sustain discussions on issues that I would not have known how to approach without help from the YC. I also learned that activism isn’t merely a youth-centric process—it often remains the same, from the time one is 14 to when is 65. Activism requires the same kind of networking ability, very often with the same kind of people, and remains truly fun regardless of age! The only difference is that my Alliance experience truly gave me a head-start.

Even after I graduated and left the YC, I still retained my “base” network. My friend and fellow committee-member whom I graduated with landed up in Syracuse University in New York. Even though we were apart, we worked together and coordinated events remotely. We were definitely each other’s freshman support system while entering a new environment where we did not know anyone. We had a lot of Skype meetings when we’d just sit there in our Alliance capes (which were given to us when we graduated as to always have something to remember the committee by) and talk about our day! The Alliance made a lasting impression on us even outside of our leadership, networking and activism; it bonded two people as friends and that is a very deep connection that we both share.

Please donate and support the 100 Stories. One Alliance campaign so that the Alliance may serve more such youth and schools and support for LGBTQ youth across Illinois!