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Educators and advocates from across the country gathered at City Year Headquarters in Boston on October 14 for the third annual Brave Education LGBTQ Education Summit. The day-long event, co-hosted by City Year, Teach For America (TFA) and TFA’s local LGTBQ alumni board, PRISM Massachusetts, brought together over 75 educators and professionals who are passionate about ensuring educational equity for all to discuss how we can help increase inclusivity within schools and communities. 

The summit, which originated in the Fall of 2014 in Little Rock, Arkansas by their newly formed Teach For America’s LGBTQ Community Initiative, is a response to an urgent need to build competencies, awareness, and share resources that would positively impact LGBTQ corps members and the students and communities they serve. This year’s summit featured numerous panels that focused on how educators can “affirm identity”—or to acknowledge the whole individual and understand how that individual’s culture, language and life provides value—and as a result, become even more effective teachers, mentors and role models for their students. During the opening panel discussion, titled “Understanding How Districts and Schools Can Be Affirming Spaces for Transgender and Non-Binary People,” four educators highlighted the importance of setting the right tone in schools, and the need for adults to exhibit vulnerability first.  

“If educators aren’t affirmed in their own identities, students can’t be affirmed in their identities,”  Alaine Jolicoeur, a history teacher in Baltimore, said.

The rest of the panelists agreed that being authentic and approachable is often an essential first step in building trusting relationships with students and enabling them to feel safe enough to ask questions. Leading the discussion were Dr. Asa Sevelius, the first out transgender principal in Massachusetts; Taylor Mack, ‎a teacher at a public charter school in Washington D.C.; and Vanessa Ford, nationally recognized elementary STEM educator and parent of a transgender identifying student.

But it’s not always as easy as it should be to build trusting relationships and safe spaces, shared City Year New Hampshire AmeriCorps member Ash Russell, whose team is working with their school to integrate inclusive ideas surrounding LGBTQ identities into classrooms. 

“I am serving in an elementary school that has not seen a lot of diversity from the LGBTQ community,” Russell said. “I am finding solace in breaking down barriers in small ways.”  

As students learn more about the concept of gender identity, Russell says they are observing students’ growth mindset in understanding the various types of diversity that exist, including gender and sexual orientation. “In understanding my own identity, I can use that acceptance and understanding to acknowledge that there are so many pieces to each students’ identity, they are more than the sum of their parts,” Russell said. 

Events like the #BraveEducation summit not only spark dialogue within communities of teachers and education advocates, but they also provide a platform for educators to support and celebrate one another. Lila Givens, an alumna of City Year San Antonio and current a staff member at The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience, explained that it’s important for City Year to continue to be involved in events like this one.  

“Education, racial and LGBTQ justice is a part of City Year’s DNA,” Givens said. “I am asking myself: How can I show up and gain more cultural competency so that it comes into my work as an educator?” 

The lessons learned at this summit not only provided participants from City Year and TFA ways to increase their understanding of what it means to be a “brave educator,” but it provided another safe space for adults working in schools to be themselves and to discover how an appreciation of their own identity can have a positive impact on students. 

 “City Year is doing a great job in terms of inclusion,” Russell said. “I feel safe and welcome. Although [others] don’t know everything, they are always open to learn.” 

This openness is crucial for education professionals to not only affirm their own identity, but to create safe and welcoming spaces for students to learn and thrive, both academically and socially.

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