Melissa Ockerman is an Associate Professor at DePaul University’s Counseling Program, and serves on the Alliance’s Board as well as our Education and Training (E.A.T) Committee. She speaks to us about her Alliance journey as well as the specialized professional development and training on LGBTQ inclusion and safety that we provide for school administrators, staff, and students across Illinois.
I grew up in a very small, middle-class neighborhood. Everybody kept their doors unlocked, but the neighborhood itself was close-minded. One of my dearest best friends, whom I met in kindergarten and subsequently went to school with, was gay, but didn’t feel comfortable coming out because he would’ve been in danger. He came out, eventually, in college. When I was in college, working on my Master’s in School Counseling, I took a course on multicultural counseling. For one of my assignments, I was required to interview someone of minority status. So I called up my friend, and asked him for a ten-minute interview. By the end of our interview, two hours had passed, and we were both in tears. That day was I experienced a paradigm shift in my own thinking and understanding, because I had never been aware of the physical and mental harassment he’d received and the damage that this had done to his health. I was convinced that this could not continue; I then knew that harassing and bullying marginalized students, and particularly those who identify as LGBTQ, was one of the biggest/largest issues civil rights issues that our generation had to overcome.
After working as a school counselor, I eventually went to graduate school and taught other school counselors. I ensured that LGBTQ inclusion and safety was addressed in all our courses, because very often, school counselors are on the frontlines. Students come to them with their problems and confide in them, and these counselors can uniquely identify behavior shifts, understand peer groups, and educate people around LGBTQ safety and inclusion. It is part of our very job description to ensure that every student feels safe in their school. I am very privileged—when I worked as a school counselor, I was able to reach six-hundred students, but now, I teach thirty students every year who then go out to thirty schools and make an ever bigger impact!
Eventually, Dr. Joy Whitman, a colleague of mine, who was then on the Alliance’s board, took notice of my passion for this subject. She informed me about an opening in the E.A.T committee. That was 6 years back, and I’ve never looked back since. When I first started working with the E.A.T committee, I met David Fischer, the Programs Director, who was extremely energetic and student-focused. We brought the Alliance’s then-policy director, Sarah Schriber, to our Annual Illinois School Counseling Association Conference, where we reached out to counselors. There was barely standing room! We did some professional development with counselors, and eventually started the Summer Institute, which I hosted at DePaul. (DePaul has a strong social justice mission and was the Catholic University in the country to start an LGBTQ studies program).
Katherine Weseman, the Director of DePaul University’s Office of LGBTQA, whom I co-chair the E.A.T committee with, and I have spoken extensively to the Alliance staff about our new vision for the committee.The Committee previously focused specifically on the Summer Institute and other specific professional development opportunities. However, we are looking to evolve. We hope to create a database of resident experts on certain professional development topics,that the Alliance can then use for professional development speaking commitments, workshops or other research. John D’Emilio, another board and E.A.T committee member, is a highly skilled researcher who helped Michelle Jett (the Alliance’s Education and Training Manager) revise and update all our professional development materials.
The Alliance is full of such passionate and highly committed individuals. Our current board Chair, Jeff Edwards, is a role model for collaboration and creative problem solving. I deeply appreciate his leadership, which was especially helpful during my first few years as a board member. I am also certain that after the transition last year, the Alliance will grow stronger under the leadership of Anthony Papini, who brings to the table a lot of fresh ideas, a solid vision, and compassion.
I truly believe that we are experts in what we do in terms of creating awareness and providing training to schools and administrators. We will ensure that the Alliance remains the go-to resource for any school or professional in the state of Illinois who needs direction and guidance in relation to policy and practice around LGBTQ inclusion.
I am extremely fortunate in that I work professionally on a topic in which I am so personally invested as well. Thanks to the Alliance and my tenure as a board and E.A.T committee member, these two areas have converged in meaningful and magical ways! I urge you too to support the Alliance’s mission of providing much-needed professional development around LGBTQ student inclusion across Illinois. Donate now and help make our schools safer!