• AJ Sims. BTL Photo: Reel Artsy Photography

Advocates for Change

Local Leadership Program Gives Youth International Voice

Kate Opalewski
By | 2018-08-24T11:03:40-04:00 August 23rd, 2018|Michigan, News|

AJ Sims said he is passionate about two things: LGBTQ laws and transgender rights. He has been able to pursue his passion by way of a youth advocacy project at the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park. In partnership with London Bell, Sims is mentoring and building support among young people for international law and human rights.
He met Bell while visiting the Ruth Ellis Center where he started going at the age of 15 to dance and visit with friends.
“I knew I wanted to help people, but didn’t know how,” said Sims, 20, of Detroit. “We started talking about how to better the community.”
Bell, 41, is an International Human Rights Law and Policy Advocate, an ally and friend of the LGBTQ community, a National Council Member with the United Nations Association of the U.S. and Board President of the Greater Detroit Chapter of the United Nations Association.
“It was the perfect match,” said Bell about meeting Sims. “AJ has been a really good partner in gathering the youth and talking to the youth in the community. They are excited about what we’re doing because he encourages them to be excited.”
Since the project launched in October 2017, together the pair has been able to organize three United Nations 101 sessions to discuss different United Nations agencies and how to use the United Nations system to advocate on a global level for local issues.
“We met with young people who are quite passionate about their rights and the rights of others. We sat and hashed out what’s important to them. They wanted to know how they could further use their voice to be advocates for change – encourage people to step out and not be afraid. Why sign a petition? Why vote? Why show up at a rally?” asked Bell pointing to a couple areas of concern like violence, discrimination, abuse against transgender women of color and stigma and access to resources for those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.

London Bell. BTL Photo: Miz Korona

“People in other parts of the world are experiencing the exact same issues. Their rights are not being protected. Justice is not being served. They do not have access to institutions of justice just like in the U.S. and so, for me, it’s helping young people and people of different generations understand that we’re more similar as global citizens than we are different.”
When asked what makes this project different from others, Bell said, “I believe that it’s different because it is youth-driven and youth-focused. It’s also going to have a local, national and global component to it. When we’re finished going through this project, our young people will be well-versed in how to incorporate advocacy strategies into their activism, how to develop relationships with our leaders and members of Congress and they are also going to understand our role at the U.N. And if they want to take further their activism, how to use the U.N. system to do so.”
The project will last six months and the group will travel to Washington D.C. in the fall of 2018 and potentially to the United Nations in 2019 to attend the United Nations Association’s Global Engagement Summit. The Summit is the largest annual gathering of Americans at the United Nations in support of the principles and work of the United Nations.
“Come in, sit down – we need you – and let’s talk about some of the things you’re passionate about and let’s see where your talents are because you have them and we need them,” said Bell to young people interested in joining the project. “From the shyest person to the most vocal, there is so much that each person can contribute. From using social media to signing petitions to making phone calls to our elected officials or being someone other people can seek answers from.”
Sims reiterated the benefit of participating.
“I never thought I could change somebody’s life doing what I do every day,” he said. “I’ve seen change happen and I know it’s possible – in people, in institutions and in myself.”

Connect with London Bell online at LondonJBell.com and AJ Sims at aj.sims@ruthelliscenter.org.

London’s Tools of Engagement
Ruth Ellis Center

United Nations

Bell Global Justice Institute

AJ’s Tools of Engagement
Kristi Faulkner Dance

UNIFIED – HIV Health & Beyond

WSUP (Wayne State University Prevention Team)

This article originally appeared in Pride Source Magazine. Between The Lines interviewed seven young LGBTQ people and allies who have grabbed ahold of their “Tools of Engagement,” and with their confidence have become role models and leaders building positive networks and influencing others. 

About the Author:

Kate Opalewski
Kate Opalewski is BTL's features editor and has been since 2015. She has covered a variety of topics ranging from art, politics and community outreach. Recently, she was honored by the Detroit Police Department LGBT Advisory Board for her work for the local LGBTQIA community.