By Laurel Lisovskis, BSW
Part 5 in our Share the Wealth series. Click to read other Share the Wealth posts.
Upon entering her eighth-grade year as a new student at our middle school, Jessie, whose name has been changed to protect her confidentiality, sought support in order to help her with the transition. I have had the great pleasure of working with her throughout the year, and she and her parents have agreed to let me share some of her story with you.
Having two amazing moms in her life since she was very small, Jessie has been accustomed to normalizing her peers to an unconventional family situation, and she has done so with grace and determination for as long as she can remember. Part of this experience for her as a middle school student has been to start Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs, wherever she is attending. The middle school I am working at was the lucky recipient of her efforts this year.
As part of her self-care plan, Jessie thought starting a GSA at the school would be a good way to focus her energy while nurturing a positive school climate for her peers along the way. She approached her principal, who agreed that it was an excellent idea. She then approached a trusted adult, her science teacher, and requested that she help oversee her efforts. Again she was met with a positive response. After filling out the appropriate paperwork to authenticate the group and reviewing school policy, we were ready for Jessie to set a date for the first meeting, which was to be held during lunch. We nervously wondered if anyone would show up. Jessie knew the school needed this group; but did other students?
You bet! Sixteen students crowded around tables in the facilitating teacher’s room, and, amid a flourish of poster-making and lunch-eating, kids identified their sexual preference, sexual identity, and their preferred pronoun. Then we talked about how it felt to have this new group. Kids expressed many things that day. What stands out was that the GSA seemed to be filling a huge void. Kids felt like they could finally be themselves. Some kids talked about how difficult it was to share regular events and stories about their lives because their home life looked different from friends’. Others talked about feeling a disconnect with peers because they were hiding a part of their identity.
Before long, Jessie told the group, now meeting on a regular basis, about an event called the University of Oregon Teach-Out. This workshop was created for students to gather across the three local Eugene school districts to talk on a larger scale about LGBTQ issues, including identity, healthy relationships, harm reduction, and how to advocate for inclusive school environments. We decided it would be amazing to go, and go we did!
On May 14, well over 200 students gathered to listen to LGBTQ community leaders and to participate in inclusion activities on the themes of group cohesion and identity expression. The grown-ups received education and resources. We acknowledged the importance of a population carrying by far the highest suicide rates among kids across the country. We discussed the love and warmth that comes from students feeling like they are a part of something nurturing and nourishing, and we shared stories about things that are working at our respective schools.
I talked about my school site, and how we went from having some of our first posters torn off the walls to the recent experience of having fifth graders tour the school, brightly and happily mentioning and responding to the posters now permanently fixed in the cafeteria. Working closely with the school counselor who sat beside me at the Teach-Out, we have seen, through our group work and through individual interactions, a number of students coming out. She explained to me that this is a significant change, and she would know. She is the ear for so many worries and triumphs, aspirations and fears. She has known many of these kids since they were little, and it occurred to me, watching her emotional reaction to the day, that Jessie’s self-care plan had expanded to a community-care plan, changing the lives of not only current students, but the generation to come.
These are the kinds of things that we social workers live for—the service user serving her own in a way that only she could. I feel proud of Jessie as a trusted adult in her life, but I also feel grateful and amazed at what she has given her school, and what she has taught me about the power of one voice.
Laurel Lisovskis, BSW, is in her second year of graduate school working toward clinical licensure in social work at Portland State University. Her field placement is at the school-based Bethel Health Center, one of the innovative programs conceived through an alliance between state healthcare initiatives and public schools to bring services directly to students and families at school sites. Her intern experience includes doing individual and group therapy, as well as traditional social work roles such as resource utilization, collaboration with internal and external supports, and case management. Laurel is also working within the clinical setting to streamline integrated care services. With over ten years of expertise in counseling in both healthcare and public school domains, she lends a unique perspective of the connectivity between mental health and the well-being of middle school student populations.
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Details about the University of Oregon Teach Out Program are available here.