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ACLU and Ruth Ellis Center announce youth leadership program

By |2010-12-16T09:00:00-05:00December 16th, 2010|News|

Jay Kaplan, head of the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project, and Ruth Ellis Center Executive Director Laura Hughes announce the kickoff of Out and Upfront, a collaborative youth leadership program. BTL photo: Jason A. Michael

The ACLU of Michigan and the Ruth Ellis Center announced a new joint initiative last week. Out and Upfront: Youth Leadership and Advocacy is a collaborative training and education project designed to educate and encourage homeless, runaway and at-risk LGBT youth to become advocates for social change. Specifically, the program is designed to teach them how to combat bullying and discrimination. Details of the program were rolled out at a special event Friday night at the ACLU’s headquarters in Midtown.
“This program is aimed at listening to those with firsthand experience of discrimination and empowering them to envision and build better policies,” said Jay Kaplan, head of the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project.
One specific area Kaplan said the program will focus on is reducing bullying in local schools.
“Detroit is one of the largest school districts in the country,” he said. “Detroit, the city, has an anti-discrimination ordinance, but they don’t have an anti-bullying policy for the district. Part of the grant is also to work with Highland Park, which does have an anti-bullying policy (in their school district) but does not have an anti-discrimination ordinance in their city.”
Kaplan said still, an anti-bullying policy is just the first step in fighting this problem.
“A lot of schools have policies, but we’ve found that a policy, itself, is not enough,” he said.
During the 12-month program, which is funded through a grant from the Arcus Foundation, youth advocates will develop recommendations for policies that represent the needs of the LGBT community and include guidelines for raising awareness and remediation programs in schools.
“We have had tremendous support from local and state government leaders who are volunteering to help us train youth to go in front of legislators and school boards,” Hughes said. “Twelve young people are to going to take part in the program, which will include such training topics as Knowing Your Rights, What’s Your Voice, What Is Advocacy, etc. It’s a pretty intensive curriculum that we’re still in the process of putting together.”
Hughes said while anti-bullying has become the cause du jour in recent months, the Out and Upfront program was already in the works before the recent rash of tragic gay suicides.
“It’s something that we had been working on for the past eight months,” she said. “So much of it seems very timely, but as a center we knew that this was something that needed to be done for our community way before that.”
One of the leaders who has pledged her support for the program is Detroit Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins, who will take part in trainings. She has also, according to Hughes, pledged to get an LGBT-inclusive ordinance on safe schools passed next year.

As a tie-in to the launch of this initiative, Sassafras Lowrey, editor of “Kicked Out,” a collection of first-person stories from current and formerly homeless LGBT youth, spoke and read selections from her anthology, which was released by Ypsilanti-based Homofactus Press earlier this year.
Lowrey, who grew up in rural Oregon, was sent packing by her parents for being gay when she was only 14. Even prior to that, she faced the challenges of being raised by a physically abusive mother and a stepfather who raped her.
“Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT,” she said. “At the same time we know that number is higher because of the people who don’t get counted or who won’t identify to anyone as LGBT. My interest in fighting this epidemic of LGBT homelessness is purely selfish. When I was 14, I became part of the 40 percent who identify as queer.”
When she was kicked out, Lowrey, now 26, went to her local library in search of support and solutions to her crisis, sure she would find something on the topic.
“I saw libraries as very much the source of knowledge,” she explained. “I went looking for these type of stories and I didn’t find anything there. At that point, I made this commitment that if I survived I was going to make a book so that no one would feel as alone as I did in that moment.”
Lowrey left Oregon for New York City four years ago, and it was then, after contributing to a number of other anthologies, that she revisited the idea of creating one of her own.
“I was thinking about what my first book would be,” she recalled. “I thought that by this point, surely, a book like this had been written. It was surprising and disturbing to me that it hadn’t happened, and that’s really when I began working on ‘Kicked Out’ in earnest.”
As she did, Lowrey saw that the need for such a collection was as great as ever. It would raise awareness of the issue of LGBT homeless youth, ensure that the next 14-year-old kicked out by her abusive parents wouldn’t feel so alone, and teach those trying to fight the epidemic how to better do so.
“Youth are often undermined by the very systems that try to advocate for them,” Lowrey said.
“Sometimes, community organizers of non-profits or agencies who are charged with or designed with the intention of acting in the best interest of youth, are doing work based on their perspectives as youth organizers, as adults in the community, without taking into account what youth want, need or are experiencing.”
The 34 personal accounts in ‘Kicked Out’ makes those concerns clear.
“These sort of real-life stories paint a better picture for people,” she said. “Stories, in my opinion, are what bring this epidemic to life, making it impossible to ignore.”

For more information on Sassafras Lowrey and “Kicked Out,” visit

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.