by Zachary McCarthy, City Year Boston AmeriCorps member
One of the reasons I joined City Year is because I identify deeply with the core values of the organization, which include a commitment to inclusivity and an embracing of differences as strengths that help us make positive change. This value is particularly important, considering the role of City Year AmeriCorps members—we work every day with hundreds of thousands of students across the country, building relationships with them and helping them become more successful and confident, in school and out. Many of our students are at a critical stage in forming their own identities. They are beginning to understand who they are and how they see themselves in the world.
Research shows that one way educators can better support LGBTQQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, plus) youth and youth of all backgrounds is to affirm and recognize their own identity. Educators who are aware of their positionality, power and backgrounds along with a deep understanding of their students’ backgrounds can create meaningful learning experiences.
A big part of my journey at City Year has been my work to help create safe spaces, or spaces where our AmeriCorps members can be authentic and share all of who they are. This is critical not only to ensure City Year continues to be an inclusive working environment but also to better support the students we serve.
Many of our City Year sites have an affiliate group called CY Pride, whose mission is to establish a welcoming community where AmeriCorps members who identify as LGBTQQIA+ and allies of this community have a place to develop themselves into stronger and more supportive leaders. CY Pride’s work isn’t just for the benefit of AmeriCorps members—it’s for the benefit of our students, and also for helping shape entire communities to be inclusive. Here are a few ways CY Pride works with the City Year community to build inclusive environments:
Encouraging Authenticity and Setting Up Safe Spaces
A big priority for CY Pride is making sure that everyone feels like they can be the most authentic version of themselves in their daily work. Many of our members are out and proud members of the LGBTQQIA+ community, but we also have some who are just starting their coming out process.
We work to make CY Pride meetings welcoming towards those looking to learn about the queer community for the first time, as well as those who have been involved for a while. In addition, we try to highlight the intersectionality of sexual and gender identity with that of racial identity, but we’re careful not to ask our queer people of color to “teach” us about that topic. We hope that our members can apply the things they’ve learned about creating safe spaces to any community they engage with or are a part of.
Amplifying Different Perspectives and Providing Learning Opportunities
This past summer in Boston, CY Pride had the opportunity to hear from two fantastic organizations: EPIC, a nonprofit that supports differently-abled youth, and YW, an organization focused on bringing cultural competency into the workplace.
During our time together with E.P.I.C., the City Year AmeriCorps members in attendance explored our own able-bodied privileges and what ableist practices we might be perpetuating. This session helped us think critically about the ways the environment we create could be more inclusive not just for those who identify as LGTBQQIA+, but those of all ability levels. YW’s facilitators provided resources to help us think through our identities and the ways they interact with others within our work. The discussion provided us the space to start exploring our own internal biases and wrestle with how those biases might affect our work in schools.
Reflecting on the Power of Personal Identity in Connecting with Students
In thinking about my own background through my work with CY Pride, I had revelations about how different parts of my identity intersect and how that has impacted my experience in the classroom and with my students.
During my time in service, I realized that my students can see right through anything that is less than genuine. To truly connect with them, I had to be my most authentic self every day. By sharing my personality, sense of humor and values, I showed them that I truly cared about them and their success.
Still, coming out is a big decision to make. When I came out to students, I had mostly positive experiences; however, I found the conversation challenging at times. Some students had a lot of questions, while others were uncomfortable or even angry at first. Speaking with my students was a learning experience for me and it showed me the value of having LGBTQQIA+ educators present in our students’ lives. It also reinforced for me the importance of being authentic with my students, both as a way to connect with them more deeply and to help them feel safe enough to share with me their authentic selves.
As one of the leaders for CY Pride, my hope is that we keep building a community that provides affirmation and safe spaces for AmeriCorps members so that they are validated, strengthened and supported to do the work of serving students in schools. In developing into a community of affirmed role models, perhaps we can better be prepared to do the important work of helping students affirm who they are and who they hope to become.