I heard about the Alliance in April 2006 (before its formal beginnings). I was an attorney at the ACLU of Illinois working to support the constitutional rights of LGB and/or T youth in schools. Several people there recommended that I meet this “great person across the street”—the Alliance’s founder and first (former) Executive Director, Shannon Sullivan. When we met, Shannon and I realized that we shared similar goals and dreams—she spoke about her work at the Coalition of Sexual Orientation (CESO) involving sexual orientation and gender identity issues, and the professional development and trainings she had planned. We both shared an interest in bringing Gay/ Straight Alliances (GSA’s) and professional development to schools, but were coming from different directions; I was a lawyer, while she was advocating to people and schools so they they could avoid being sued!
Soon after, we started the Townhall Project, which included long term community organizing work, with the end goal being policies (surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity) passed in certain districts. We started in Peoria where there was a large contingent of ACLU members. We traveled there and met a small group of people (who had assembled mainly via word of mouth). This group was excited to hear our plan and put us in touch with young people who needed support or were facing problems in the district. This small meeting eventually lead to the formation of the Heartland Safe Schools Initiative (HSSI). At the end of the year, we organized a hugely successful public forum, which featured the youth (and their stories), supported by a panel of adults including teachers, parents, and related professionals. We had a full house and the State Superintendent of Education addressed the group! What, to our pleasant surprise, resulted from this work was not merely policy change, but the creation of several GSAs. Shannon and I were extremely thrilled that this work had spurred youth (as well as school administrators and other allies) to advocate for GSAs where there had been none.
We then replicated this work in Bloomington/Normal and Champaign/Urbana. The State Superintendent of Education came to fora there as well. After the Alliance was officially formed (when CESO and GLSEN Chicago merged), I transitioned to being a full-time Alliance employee. In 2009, we began to push for one of our biggest policy efforts yet—to draft and support the passage of bullying prevention legislation. We wrote a bill and then convened Prevent School Violence Illinois (PSVI) to facilitate and lead conversations with our allies. In 2010, the bill became law. As my first legislative push, I thought "wow, passing laws is easy!" I soon learned that my notion was naïve but it was a great feeling nonetheless. Eventually, a taskforce created by the new law made a comprehensive set of recommendations for effectively preventing bullying in Illinois schools. About one year ago, I moved to the PSVI full-time to support the important work of implementing those recommendations.
My work at the Alliance has been a very important part of my life, and central to my professional trajectory. Working with PSVI has provided me the opportunity to do something different while remaining connected to the Alliance.
In my experience, the Alliance remains unparalleled in the development and support of youth leaders through its critical work with the vibrant and diverse GSAs across the state and also its Youth Committee and camps. The presence of such support is indescribably powerful for young people. It is this work that saves young people’s lives, both literally and emotionally. The integrity that the Alliance has shown during my time there, and through these years, is singular. Many people may consider driving seven hours for a one-hour meeting (as Shannon and I often did to central Illinois in the early days) to be an inefficient use of resources. However, there is nothing more powerful than sitting with people in the flesh--especially young people. We can never place monetary value on being in the same space as people because nothing is more powerful to affect change. The Alliance's policy work has served to further support youth to safely share their voices in these spaces. Youth have led and been at the center of Alliance conversations. It is my hope that you will support this legacy—one of undiluted dedication to youth leaders. Please show your support and donate! Because of your generosity, Illinois youth will continue to thrive.