Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Courageous Conversations

It started with a simple request. Could I come in and help your district support your LGBTQ students even more than the district is already doing?  But, Dr. Linda Wagner, at that time the Monrovia Superintendent, and currently the Anaheim City School District Superintendent, had bigger visions.  Why not help multiple districts support their LGBTQ students to feel safer and more accepted?  And so on October 16th, in Alhambra, California, 72 participants, representing 22 school districts met to listen, dialogue and gain resources to make their districts even safer for LGBTQ students.  In attendance were seven superintendents, seven assistant superintendents, and multiple leaders from as far away as Bakersfield, Lancaster, Irvine and Manhattan Beach.

Dr. John Deasy, Superintendent for Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the largest districts in the nation, provided the keynote address. “It is not about tolerance.  It is about acceptance.  We have to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice yet.  Remaining silent is abandoning our role of being there for the students.”  Dr. Deasy passionately expressed that educational leaders need to visibly set the bar of acceptance for all who walk onto their campuses. As he spoke from his heart, the audience was drawn in. A sense of calm and ease began to flow into the day.  Participants recognized  we are all on this journey together, we have made mistakes, we doing the best we can with the knowledge we have and we are all here to do our jobs better by gaining more knowledge. 

Two presentations followed Dr.Deasy’s opening comments.  One presentation from two LAUSD experts, Dr. Judy Chiasson and Stephen Jimenez-Robb, focused on balancing California laws with finding the heart to do the right thing.  They used several examples where LAUSD made decisions of the heart, even when the laws did not require their action.   In addition, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) represented by Dr. Robert McGarry, as Senior Director, provided the participants with a wealth of information and Safe Space Kits to begin introducing both elementary and secondary schools to valuable suggestions on making their schools more welcoming.

To respond to questions that participants may have had following the presentations, a panel presentation with Dr. Chiasson, Dr. McGarry, and Stephen Jimenez was provided, adding Ariel Bustamante from the Gay Straight Alliance Network (GSA). There were questions about accommodations for transgender students, inquiries about LAUSD’s new campaign where straight allies identify themselves as safe places for LGBTQ students to turn to for support by wearing rainbow badges, and specific questions regarding struggles within districts. 

The day closed with my son Aiden and I sharing our story.  I spoke about the fear and struggles of a mother and made the analogy that districts are like families.  Families love their children and districts care about their students.  We are all learning and growing.  I shared districts could never make as many mistakes as I made . . . and yet here I am with my son and we are closer than ever, because in the end the love and care were things that mattered most.  Aiden shared his experiences and the changes he has seen in the past few years at the school he attended.  In our evaluations, one participant called my son, courageous.  I couldn’t agree more with that assessment of Aiden, but of course, I am his mother.

Besides the presentations, multiple resources around the room were available. Visibly present were resources from PFLAG, a national organization that supports LGBTQ individuals and their families.  I currently sit on the PFLAG National Board and Aiden sits on the PFLAG National Transgender Advisory Council.  Five local chapters of PFLAG sent representatives, as well as resources. 

Also in attendance was a newly formed coalition made up of various PFLAG chapters, GSA Network and other supportive individuals and organizations.  The Southern California Safe Schools Coalition was present not only to support this event, but to be a future resource for the school districts who might want specific knowledge or trainings.

As participants walked out of the room, an air of hope and possibilities followed them. I believe that our LGBTQ students will be a little safer when they walk onto the campuses of the 22 districts that attended.  And although it is just a beginning . . . . that is where all of us had to start.

Marsha Aizumi is an educational speaker and author of Two Spirits, One Heart. Visit Marsha at www.marshaaizumi.com

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