Research shows that students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender can have a much harder time making it through high school than students who do not.In addition, LGBT youth represent about 6 percent of the teenage population but as much as 40 percent of the homeless youth population. For students who identify not only as LGBTQ but also as low-income or underrepresented minorities, these challenges can be particularly acute. All of these realities tell us something important: We must do much more to set our LGBT students up for success.
This is an issue I’ve come to know intimately. Coming from a family of educators, I knew that the classroom could be a powerful place to grow, explore and expand my identity. But as a young LGBT student, I didn’t always find the classroom to be a very diverse, comfortable, inclusive place. At times, I struggled to bring all facets of my identity to the classroom, holding back important parts of myself.
It was, in part, these things that led me to join City Year after graduation and later to become a teacher through Teach For America’s 1997 corps. I have always been passionate about equity and social justice broadly, but I wanted to bring this charge to the classroom to ensure that all students had the opportunities and support they needed to succeed.
After more than a decade wearing a few hats in Oakland schools — as a teacher, instructional coach and administrator — I began to think back to some of the lessons I learned through Berkeley’s urban education leadership program. I started to consider how I might engage in work I was feeling especially passionate about: creating equitable opportunities for LGBT youth and coaching teachers, administrators and parents or caregivers to better support their students. I’ve seen first-hand that when we care deeply about our students, set high expectations, approach teaching from a student-centered and strengths-based perspective and provide high levels of support, we can dramatically alter students’ paths to opportunity and choice.
Knowing what our LGBT students need and deserve, we’ve got to work to grow local movements that can fuel necessary changes. I’ve been working to be a part of doing just that in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Across the city, we’ve created a foundation from the ground up. This has required us to secure funding, form an advisory group of regional leaders, foster partnerships with school districts and a network of community based organizations, or CBOs.
Through our coalition, we’ve launched several citywide initiatives for LGBT students. This fall, we hosted an educational equity kick-off that brought together district, business and community organization leaders to support equity for all. We coordinated a training for school and CBO staff to better support the LGBT students in their care. We also supported CBOs in their collaboration to create a youth leadership retreat for students who participate in their school’s diversity club or gay-straight alliance. Still, this is only the beginning of the important work of achieving equity for all LGBT students. And we need more leaders to join us.
While this work is not without substantial challenges, I cannot think of a more fulfilling path I could have taken out of college. I had to push myself far past what I thought were my limits to become a better educator for my students. I had to take responsibility when I failed, figure out what lessons I could learn from my failures and move forward even when it was hard. My students, families and colleagues deserved that.
One of the things that drew me to continuing my studies in education at UC Berkeley was its history of serving as a hub helping to drive social change. The members of the Berkeley community have diverse thoughts and ideas about how to make the world a better place. One thing that frequently unites us is a belief in what is possible and a belief that we can get there. We work together to set a vision, then take our ideas, energy and willingness to learn and grow and to make our communities fairer places to live. There are a lot of great ways to do that after graduation. I hope many of you will find, as I did, that teaching is one of the most impactful and rewarding opportunities we’ve got.
Kevin Pattison is a UC Berkeley alumnus and currently works as an independent consultant with Tulsa Reaches Out and other organizations.