New School Year, New Opportunities for GLSEN

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Twenty-six years ago, a man named Kevin Jennings had this crazy idea that we could make a difference in the way LGBT students were treated in schools all across the country. From a small, secretive meeting in Boston in 1990 came the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. GLSEN—the first and leading organization in the nation on LGBT issues in education.

Through pioneering research, program development and advocacy, GLSEN has made the case for the urgency and importance of these issues, and identified effective school-based solutions. Today, GLSEN remains at the vanguard of the “Safe Schools Movement,” thanks to the active partnerships with the largest national organizations in elementary and secondary education, youth development and youth service, civil and human rights, and most importantly, its powerful chapter network of grassroots organizers across the country.

GLSEN Middle Tennessee was established in 2010 and is one of over forty active chapters serving LGBT students and educators in over thirty states. Supported by a national staff, local volunteer-based chapters like ours are taking action to transform K-12 schools by deconstructing systemic biases and inequality in education to ensure that all students can attend schools that are free from bullying, violence, and discrimination. We strive to create learning environments that promote self-esteem and healthy development, where young people learn to accept and respect all people, and students are afforded the opportunities and support needed to realize their full potential.

Locally, our volunteer chapter leaders have fully embraced our identity as a “small-but-mighty” force for positive change in Tennessee schools. As we eagerly await the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, we reflect on our successes and the challenges this past year. With guidance from students, educators, and other stakeholders, we’re prepared to begin the school year with fresh perspective and a strategic focus to achieve five key goals:

#5: Provide LGBT-inclusive resources and curriculum for students in Tennessee.

Even a small rainbow or other LGBT-friendly symbol or representation can signal a safe and welcoming space to a youth in need of support. But we can go so much deeper. When LGBT students see themselves reflected in their everyday school encounters in—in lessons, films, and books—they are validated in their identities. This year, we are partnering with 25 local districts to put LGBT-inclusive books or “Lit Kits” in school libraries so that students have access to positive representations of LGBT identities in their scholastic worlds.

#4: Advocate for affirming and inclusive policies and laws.

In the past year, we have been fortunate to play a small role in a powerful coalition effort to defeat legislation that unfairly targeted and discriminated against transgender and gender non-conforming students. With important state elections on the line and passionate activists leading the charge for positive change, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment in the political landscape. In Tennessee, where only nine school districts have enumerated anti-bullying policies that are inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity, we will ramp up our advocacy efforts to ensure that LGBT students are protected and included even in our most rural communities.

#3: Empower educators to create safe and supportive classrooms.

GLSEN’s professional development program was the first in the nation to provide educators with concrete strategies to meet the unique needs of LGBT students and create safe spaces for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. In Middle Tennessee, we are piloting a new module to train professionals in elementary schools on the essential tools and policies essential for the positive development of gender identity and expression. In the 2016-17 school year, we aim to train 1000 teachers, counselors, administrators, and other school staff to meet the needs of LGBT students in counties where the climate is most harsh.

#2: Cultivate strong and active LGBT student leaders and gay-straight alliances.

In 2015-2016, we have supported more than forty gay-straight alliances, including the creation of new student clubs at schools in Antioch, Hillsboro, Blackman, Mt. Juliet, and Franklin County. We’ve geared up students with materials for days of action like Ally Week, No Name-Calling Week, and Day of Silence. We’ve provided training to student leaders and faculty sponsors on how to organize in their schools and communities. And we’ve provided direct assistance to help student leaders navigate challenging issues that they face in schools everyday. This year, we’re excited to convene to a local GLSEN Student Council with representatives from each of our area’s GSAs to build a powerful network where incredible student leaders can learn from each other, grow together, and speak as one for LGBT students in Tennessee.

#1: Become the leading voice for LGBT issues in Tennessee’s schools.

After 6 years of serving Nashville and its surrounding counties in Middle Tennessee, we are thrilled to begin the 2016-2017 school year with a new identity as GLSEN Tennessee! As one of the few chapters in the southeast region, we have unofficially served students, teachers, and parents in school districts from Memphis to Mountain City and have even on occasion been the closest ally for students in neighboring states. Our decision to expand into a statewide network of youth, educators and advocates is a critical milestone in our development as an organization. Over the course of this year, we will engage and mobilize activists across the state under the banner of GLSEN and leverage the collective influence to truly tip the scales in favor of LGBT students in Tennessee.

Together we are realizing a broader vision of how the “whole school” must serve the “whole child”— ensuring not only safe schools, but great schools. With your support, we are creating climates and attitudes of respect that will resonate across generations. Every person can play a role in making sure that LGBT students are supported and valued. We want you to be part of this movement. Email us at middletn@chapters.glsen.org to learn how to get involved.