The youth of today are our leaders tomorrow. At Short Stack, we firmly believe that it is absolutely critical to empower youth with the knowledge and leadership skills necessary to be a force for good in their world. That’s why we love GSAFE so much — they do just that for LGBTQA+ youth in Wisconsin. Andrea, our Director of Sustainability, had the opportunity to chat with Brain J. from GSAFE about their mission and impact on the greater Wisconsin school community.

Tell me about the history and mission of GSAFE.

The primary focus of GSAFE is developing youth leaders to empower the LGBTQA+ community and advancing protections for youth across the state. Students deserve to feel seen and cared about, in a thoughtful and intentional way.

Further, we have a strong focus right now on raising voices in the LGBTQA+ community that have historically been more ignored than others. It is particularly important to make spaces for and empower leadership within LGBTQA+ students of color and trans and nonbinary students. We haven’t gotten that right in the past, and we continue to work to center our work around these specific youth populations.

For the last ten years GSAFE has worked with individual school districts to update or otherwise modernize their existing discrimination policies to specifically include protections for transgender and nonbinary students. Our medium range goal was to get half of all school districts in Wisconsin to have some kind of policy, and we have now met and exceeded that goal! We are now in the process of really helping schools implement those policies — it is one thing to have a policy, it is another to have every educator on board and know how to implement those policies.

Where do you operate? What kinds of resources do you provide to LGBTQ+ youth?

We operate primarily within schools and school systems, supporting close to 250 Gender and Sexuality Alliances, originally known as Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs). We offer direct support via leadership conferences, classes, and a summer leadership camp. Students have the opportunity to build their network, refine their leadership skills, and become even more effective in their advocacy. Connection among students is a critical component of our work. We also offer support to students, families, and educators who come to us individually with a concern and assist them in solving the issue or advocating for them as need be.

What are some of the nuances or differences in working with LGBTQ+ youth versus LGBTQ+ adults?

Not to generalize, but they are AWESOME and have lots of optimism and energy. Oftentimes youth are in a position where they don’t have quite as many options as their adult counterparts — their families or schools may or may not be supportive. This can affect how authentic they can be. Engaging in services outside of schools requires parental permission, so we have to grapple with how we can make schools supportive even when homes are not. Adults around them need to know how to be resources and supportive.

Youth in general, but particularly LGBTQA+ youth are frequently told that they aren’t smart or capable enough to have rights — even though they do. They have a right to be seen, to be a leader, to not be abused. Youth often need extra reaffirming that these rights are true.  

What is the biggest issue facing LGBTQ youth today?

There are many issues that LGBTQA+ youth face, but we always come back to the fact that LGBTQA+ youth of color and transgender and nonbinary youth are not being treated with the same respect as their white, cisgender, and gender conforming peers. Educators often want to create a welcoming space for all students, but might not know how to accomodate for all intersections of identities. This creates unsafe spaces for youth, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not. Youth can often not be their true, authentic selves.

How can folks get involved? Any events coming up?

-Financial support is critical. When we don’t need to be thinking about funding, we’re able to invest in and grow our programming for students and educators. One great way to provide financial support is to eat at Short Stack during February, as a portion of every sale will go straight to GSAFE! Another is through our website, linked here.

-We often need volunteers to help behind the scenes at events such as conferences, fundraisers, and community events. If you have interest in volunteering for these, you may reach out via our website.