Guest Blog: Let students lead, but support them at every step

There have been many changes in the education landscape since GLSEN  was formed in 1990, but throughout the decades, one thing has remained the truest: that students advocating for themselves have been fundamental catalysts for that change.

Time and time again over years of leadership at GLSEN, I have seen how students will seize hold of a good idea, make it their own, and put it into action locally, over and over again. Just recently, a group of students in a Social Justice Club in Rapid City, South Dakota went to the school district to say they should add gender identity to non-discrimination protections in the district because their peer students need it. This is happening everywhere, every day.

At GLSEN, our job is to ensure that when a student anywhere in the country is brave enough to decide to advocate for the change they need in their school community, we are there to support them and to help accomplish that goal. Our part of the partnership is to stay abreast of those in-school and school system interventions that really work, and identify the right places within the system to move the issues and ideas forward. You don’t want one ounce of that energy and bravery to be wasted, because the opposition is fierce and the stakes really high.

While GLSEN works hard every day to support these students, there are everyday ways that anyone, especially parents, educators, and school administrators, can be of support to the students in their lives. One of the most important things for adults to do – educators, administrators, parents – is to ensure that you listen to what’s actually been asked for by students. Sometimes it’s about just lending a supportive ear. Sometimes it’s about partnership and problem-solving. Sometimes it’s about doing advocacy in spaces that are not open to the students themselves. But it might be any one of those things and it’s important not to assume that what’s needed is for you to jump in and fix the problem.

The other thing you can do is be a visible as a potential source of support, especially as an educator and administrator. That’s the idea behind one of GLSEN’s most popular resources ever: the Safe Space sticker which teachers, guidance counselors, school based mental health providers, and so many more put up in order to let LGBTQ students know they are welcome, they are respected, and they will be treated with dignity. Just knowing that they have support can change a student’s life, whether or not they actually come to talk with you. The Safe Space Kit which contains the stickers also provides important context and ideas for action.

When this partnership works, and change comes to K-12 schools in response to student advocacy, the results can be truly remarkable. In those schools that support and affirm LGBTQ youth, you can see the difference in the lives of all students in the community – in terms of both academics and individual wellbeing. Every adult can play a role in bringing about this better future by being the thoughtful, informed partner for change that students need. Every student deserves no less.

ELIZA BYARD is the executive director of GLSEN, which works to create safe and affirming schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Follow Eliza on Twitter at @EByard