This fall, the Missouri GSA Network has been hosting five regional summits for high school GSAs in various parts of the state, among many other activities. And the group has set Jan. 10, 2015, as the date for its statewide high school GSA conference in Columbia, Mo.
In October alone, the Network sponsored three events to counter school pushout and two racial and economic justice-related events. It also co-hosted the second annual Show Me Pride College Summit at Mizzou in September.
Kansas City Summit
On Sept. 13, the second of five high school GSA summits took place at the UMKC Student Union. Nearly three dozen people attended, most of them students. Current and future student leaders took part in icebreakers, set discussion rules and spoke about the visions they had for their GSAs.
One of the first topics addressed was the question “What is a GSA?” Traditionally, GSA has stood for gay-straight alliance. These alliances are, in general, student-led organizations in high schools (sometimes middle schools), colleges and universities that provide safe, supportive environments for LGBTQ and allied youth. Some view the words gay and straight as too limiting to the intended inclusive nature of such groups, though, and they might substitute the words gender and sexuality.
These GSA groups vary in their level of activism and degree of student leadership, and the spectrum of youth leadership was another topic discussed at the Kansas City summit. Levels of student leadership can sometimes be limited by the chartered purpose of the group, the school district or faculty sponsorship. Some GSAs might also be more identity-based than mission-based (or vice versa), which affects how active they are in such areas as youth organizing, base building, peer leadership, restorative justice and collective action. Information available at the summits can empower students to define more clearly their GSAs’ missions and goals.
The Missouri GSA Network serves as a link among the GSAs within the state, providing support and training and even helping new GSAs get off the ground. The Network is relatively new and rapidly growing. Founding director Morgan Keenan saw a need in 2012, when he was working with Growing American Youth, a group that lends adult support to LGBTQ young people in the St. Louis area.
“After hosting a GSA summit, we noticed that the students who attend the support group were not the same students showing up to the summit,” Keenan said. He decided to establish the Missouri GSA Network “on the idea that LGBTQ young people need more than to be seen as vessels of support or need and that they also need to have space to be seen as leaders and doers in the work to make things better, instead of just waiting until it gets better.”
The Network seeks to empower student youth to fight homophobia and transphobia in their schools and racial and to seek economic justice in their communities, developing leadership and understanding around critical issues. Another goal is pushing for the passage of local and statewide legislation that will make schools safer, Keenan said.
Keenan, who has a background in social justice, has worked to support LGBTQ youth in various organizations, including the Missouri Safe Schools Coalition and the Trevor Project. He describes the Missouri GSA Network as student-driven and stresses the leadership roles of the students, referring to himself as staff. The Network’s board includes young people and adults.
Student help the Network expand
One of the student leaders helping to conduct the Kansas City summit was Sterling Waldman. Waldman has been involved in activism for several years and is the first person under 18 to be certified under national standards in the field of sex education. Waldman hopes to continue educating in this field after high school.
Also facilitating at that summit was Ka’Milla McMiller, another veteran student leader. She explained how leadership is sustained in high school GSAs as students move on and graduate: A leadership vacuum is avoided by giving full training to underclassmen.
One of McMiller’s areas of focus is school pushout, which is the often-insidious encouragement that some students receive to leave school before graduation. This may begin with suspensions from school for small offenses. The phenomenon is often seen in students who are already at a disadvantage and might need extra help for various reasons. It can be based on many factors, including sexuality, disability and race, and it’s sometimes seen as institutionalized. Related to pushout is the school-to-prison pipeline, which involves not only pushing students out of school, but subsequently funneling them into incarceration. These two issues, along with the need for racial, economic and social justice – which was heightened by the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. (see FergusonOctober.com) – are just some of the transcendent issues that the Missouri GSA Network has addressed.
Both Waldman and McMiller live in the St. Louis area and have traveled around the state during September and October to help put on the regional high school summits.
According to Keenan, this year has been the first time that the group had the funds to travel and take the high school sessions statewide. Before this, activities had mostly been centered on the St. Louis metro area.
Keenan said the fall regional summits are a way to gather young people together with others who might be in similar situations and train them to be leaders in their schools and broader communities. The day is facilitated by the Network’s Youth Leadership Council (YLC) which is made up of 12 students, each of whom has made a one-year commitment. The council works closely with the Network to create the curriculum and connect with other students around the state.
“The YLC is where all the program decision-making happens,” Keenan said.
The Network’s calendar includes such activities as Day of Silence/Breaking the Silence, camps, pride events, films, dinners, educational workshops, protest actions and fundraisers. Although the group continues to be based in St. Louis, its leaders are reaching out to the rest of the state.
“We know that St. Louis is not the only place that GSAs exist, and our mission is to support any student in Missouri looking to create change in their school or community through leading and running a GSA or Community GSA. That’s why we support EQUAL in such a big way,” Keenan said, speaking of Empowering Queer Activists and Leaders, which is the Greater Kansas City area GSA Network.
“They are doing awesome work,” he said.
Beyond state borders
Some members of the Network have attended events hosted by the Illinois Safe Schools Coalition and the Iowa Pride Network. Also, the National Association of GSA Networks (gsanetwork.org) holds a National Gathering each summer.
“We are connected in the National Association of GSA Networks … and it has been super great to have their help in developing our own state network. National Gathering is a great opportunity for students to connect with others.” said Keenan.
The National Association of GSA Networks’ website also has research, reports, literature, media and other guidance for GSA Networks.
Mark your calendars for the Missouri GSA Network’s first statewide high school GSA conference: It will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2015, in Columbia, Mo. And in March, the group will hold its third annual LGBT Queer and Ally Student Day at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City.
To keep up with the Network’s activities, check its Facebook page (facebook.com/MissouriGSANetwork) or go to Missouri GSA Network. You may also contact the Network directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-282-5028.