I am More Than a Queer Black Male
Finding Identity Through Service
When I applied to serve with City Year Kansas City, I was transitioning from being homeless and had just graduated early after nearly dropping out of high school. I joined City Year last summer to attempt to do something constructive with all the of emotions I was feeling at this time. So, July came, and our service began with several weeks training before our jobs as tutors and mentors in Kansas City public schools started. Let me just say, during those first few months of service, I was very skeptical of if I belonged at City Year. As someone who barely finished high school myself, I wasn’t sure if I was even the right person to mentor students. I felt like a hypocrite setting goals with my students to be at school on time when I knew attendance was my own downfall.
Don’t get me wrong, City Year does a lot of work to make sure we feel comfortable and ready for our year of service. They curate weekly (sometimes more) diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging sessions for us. City Year also brings in external speakers to welcome us to the community, provides us with strong leaders as our bosses, and makes sure we are setup for success to make impactful connections with our students. And within all of that, I still felt a little confused on how I fit into all of it.
But once I began working with my students, I began learning quickly too. As my knowledge and experiences continued, my confidence and “fit” within the organization was becoming more clear. All of this drove the connection I made with one specific student last year. To protect their privacy, we’ll call them “Kiddo”. Kiddo, like most 12-year olds, was trying to figure out who they were and was struggling with it. This reflected in their confidence and the relationships they developed with their peers. Kiddo changed the name they went by a couple of times throughout this year and these first couple of name changes were a struggle as they were afraid of what people would think of them. They would completely avoid me. One time it was time for us to check-in together and I saw Kiddo walk into class, see me, then walk out; I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to connect with them at this point.
So I decided to write Kiddo a letter to tell them about how thankful I was to work with them the few times we had, and how I would always accept them for who they are no matter what. The next morning at breakfast I went to Kiddo’s table and handed them the letter then left without saying a word. Later that day in class, Kiddo apologized for skipping class, and for avoiding me. That day, we talked about art, food, clothes, everything. And right before the bell rang, Kiddo looked up at me and told me they’re always afraid people will get annoyed that they haven’t picked a name yet and would stop talking to them. I assured Kiddo I wouldn’t get annoyed. I just want to be respectful and make them feel safe. I wanted to show Kiddo the same grace and love that my City Year leaders and colleagues showed me. It took a while, but eventually Kiddo started writing their name on their papers in class, whatever name it may be at the time. They started correcting their friends on their pronouns and advocating for themselves to their teachers when necessary.
I know firsthand that as queer black male, often times people make my identity the focal point of me as a person. So, when I worked with Kiddo, I was using the same grace and love that my mentors and managers at City Year showed me to also make sure Kiddo felt comfortable, heard, and wanted. Just as I began to feel more confident in my role and wholeheartedly supported by my team, I started to allow people to see me as the strong and kind human that I am. I learned that I was capable of more.
I am Miguel, a confident, strong, passionate, eager, smart, kind, ambitious, queer, black male.
So why does all of this matter?
It’s easy for people in the LGBTQ+ community to get lost or feel left behind within an organization. But, I can tell you from experience, it makes a huge difference in someone’s life if you can challenge yourself to practice using the proper pronouns for their coworkers (or their friends and family too). I know it can be unfamiliar, or even uncomfortable, for some folks to understand and that’s okay. Ask questions, ask for patience, do some research to educate yourself, but most importantly be kind to others. Workplace discrimination goes further than being hired and fired, please remember that. Accepting someone’s individuality – instead of trying to correct it – can make a huge difference in the mental health of that employee (student, friend, or cousin).
My Challenge to you:
• Lean into your discomfort a little bit more
• Explore the idea of finding mentors for the LGBTQ+ folx in your community
• Model for others what grace looks like
• Have a conversation with your boss about the “rainbow elephant in the room” – and ask them politely, but firmly, to take this topic seriously
• Listen for understanding, not just for show
• And lastly, please be kind!
Miguel is a Senior AmeriCorps Member serving at City Year Kansas City in a local middle school. He is 19 years old and grew up in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. When he finishes his service year, he plans to pursue a career in education so he can continue to be an advocate for the students that need it most. Miguel is a polyamous bisexual and identifies as a Trans Male (FTM).
About City Year
City Year helps students and schools succeed. Diverse teams of City Year AmeriCorps members provide support to students, classrooms and the whole school, helping to ensure that students in systemically under-resourced schools receive a high-quality education that prepares them with the skills and mindsets to thrive and contribute to their community. A 2015 study shows that schools that partner with City Year were up to two-to-three times more likely to improve on math and English assessments. A proud member of the AmeriCorps national service network, City Year is supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service, local school districts and private philanthropy. City Year partners with public schools in 29 communities across the U.S. and through international affiliates in the U.K. and South Africa.
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