Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=221160
Story Retrieval Date: 9/2/2014 9:00:17 AM CST
LGBTQ students at Lincoln Park High School are able to share experiences and questions with college mentors in the Lincoln Park Youth Society.
Lincoln Park LGBTQ students connect with mentor, each other in new program
When Christy Walker joined Lincoln Park High School as the dean of students, students began coming to her office for advice about LGBTQ issues. When she realized that there was no support system in place for these students, she decided to create a mentoring program.
“For many of them they are connecting for the first time with other students at this school who are identifying the same way as them,” Walker said.
In partnership with Nico Lang and Sarah Hughes, graduate students at DePaul University and co-facilitators of the program, she formed the Lincoln Park Youth Society, an anonymous peer-mentoring program for LGBTQ students to explore their identity.
LGBTQ concerns are not the only topics, the program supports the full student.
“This program creates a safe place to explore all of their identities. They may be a student of color or a student with a disability,” Walker said. “We hope that with the program they have a safe place to process their identities and feel supported.”
The program, which had its first meeting on April 19, provides monthly meetings with local college students in which the discussions are driven by the high school students’ questions.
The session then breaks off for one-on-one conversations between each student and his or her mentor. The mentors are also encouraged to stay involved with the students outside of the meetings.
“While I was handling my own coming out process I would have loved to have a mentor that would provide guidance and emotional support,” said Hughes, who is also a mentor, “and that is what I aim to do, as well as what this program aims to do.”
“So many students are unaware of others that are grappling with an LGBTQ identity, and it allows for bridges to be formed between teens and older mentors alike,” Hughes said.
According to Dr. Gary Howell, chair of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Section of the Illinois Psychological Association, students identifying as LGBTQ, on top of going through puberty, face a range of issues related to their identity including depression, isolation, and anxiety.
“Having something like this in place five or six years ago, we might not have had the string of suicides we had in 2010,” Howell said. “If they have that supportive environment in place, they are less likely to engage in higher risk behaviors or negative supportive environments.”
Chicago Public Schools previously attempted to open a school to provide a safe and accepting environment for LGBTQ high school students, but it ran into stiff public opposition in 2008 and action was postponted. The proposal was withdrawn from the board agenda in 2010.
Lincoln Park Youth Society has generated interest from 22 students this year, according to Walker. Members remain anonymous so that students don’t need to fear joining the program. The school has an enrollment of about 2,100, according to the CPS website.
"It takes people years to come out. We're not here to out people,” said Lang, co-facilitator of the program. “We're here to affirm who they are in a way that feels safe and in a way that doesn't feel like it has negative repercussions."
Waymon Hudson, an LGBTQ activist and president of Fight Out Loud, an organization committed to ending discrimination of LGBTQ communities, agreed.
“If you’re trying to discover who you are, I think anonymous support can be good. When I was in high school, we didn’t have any organizations. It’s an option to let kids feel safe,” he said.
Walker’s goal for the program is to start with the support piece, and eventually expand to an organization for LGBTQ students and allies to teach inclusiveness, equality and awareness.
“If you have a mentor that is out, to see that there is something on the other side is really helpful for LGBT students,” said Hudson.