City Year is committed to social justice for all, including LGBTQ students and staff. City Year Philadelphia is proudly the first site, corps-wide to host a Project Safe Zone initiative.
“We are a group of LGBTQ staff and corps members and straight supportive allies,” said Impact Director, Brendan Morrissey. “The mission is to create safe spaces and cultivate allies who have the courage, awareness and leadership skills to powerfully ensure the full inclusion of and respect for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and questioning people at City Year Philadelphia and in our communities.”
City Year’s stated goal is to end the dropout crisis. 28% of LGBTQ teens dropout annually, which is more
than three times the national average, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. Nationally, more than 30% of LGBTQ students have missed a full day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or unwelcome, according to a GLSEN report. “We know that having adult allies in schools can drastically improve outcomes for LGBTQ youth,” Morrissey said.
The Philadelphia group began in 2003 and meets about once a month after hours at the City Year office. The group varies in size from 8 to 25 corps member depending on the planned topic, according to Matthew Valenti, a team leader at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School in his second year with both City Year and Project Safe Zone.
Project Safe Zone’s first initiative of the 2015-16 year was to celebrate October’s LGBT History Month and National Coming Out Day. The group did this by helping to establish safe spaces in each of the 14 schools City Year Philadelphia serves. Signs designating “safe spaces” were handed out to each team. “With the sign came an info. sheet outlining what it means to be an ally, and what it means to have a safe space,” said Valenti. “The idea is that teams would review this sheet and decide if they would all agree to be an ally and create a safe space.” Additionally, City Year AmeriCorps members were given rainbow ribbons to visibly show their support as LGBTQ allies.
In past years, Project Safe Zone has hosted scholarship essays for high school students, recruited corps members at LGBTQ events, and performed service projects at LGBTQ agencies like the Attic Youth Center. The group also facilitates training sessions to all 200+ City Year Philadelphia AmeriCorps members.
“On my team, we are building a community that takes safe space seriously and makes sure we are supportive of each other as well as the students we serve,” said Nikki Long, a team leader at Thurgood Marshall K-8 School, who is in her first year with Project Safe Zone. “We don't use hurtful language, we speak with kindness and respect, and we are open to having conversations around inclusivity of all people with our students.”
Long said the group is a resource to all AmeriCorps members regarding “the LGBT climate in the schools we serve in as well as on their teams.”
She said it is simple for those not directly involved with Project Safe Zone to still support it, “You don't have to attend PSZ but you can always leave your door open for any student or any teammate that needs you. Your student may be struggling with their sexuality or gender identity and if you're there to listen, that support goes a long way.”
Resources from Project Safe Zone partners:
By Justin Lesko, City Year Philadelphia AmeriCorps Member
The work of Justin and his team at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School is made possible by Program Sponsor, Ballard Spahr LLP.