Melanie Willingham-Jaggers has been appointed as the first Black nonbinary executive director of LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLSEN. The organization aims to make schools safer for LGTBQ+ students in grades K-12. NBC News reported they joined right when LGBTQ+ students were advocating for safe spaces in their school board meetings.
“LGBTQ+ young people in schools and their student groups, like GSAs, have always been the hub, kind of the breeding ground, the soil from which these sparks of activism come up. What we understand is that young people — period — are going to help us understand the vision forward and the way forward to the future,” said Willingham-Jaggers via NBC News.
The organization was originally founded to stop bullying against LGBTQ+ youth, noted Willingham-Jaggers.
From NBC News:
In the 1990s, she said, LGBTQ young people were often told that bullying is just a “part of life” and that they simply shouldn’t be gay. Over the last 30 years, the group has shifted the narrative so bullying LGBTQ kids is no longer culturally accepted, she said.
Since 1999, the group has also conducted extensive research and released its National School Climate Survey, a national survey of LGBTQ middle school and high school students’ experiences with harassment, bullying and discrimination. It uses the findings to suggest school policy solutions.
Willingham-Jaggers said the organization has made a turn toward building safety based on three pillars: advancing racial, gender and disability justice outcomes and education, building digital connections and unifying the organization across its 38 chapters to ensure grassroots organizing, NBC reported.
They are also focused on bringing awareness to intersectionality. Being the previous founder and successor were white and cisgender, Willingham-Jaggers is now put in a position to highlight issues facing those who share her identity. With that lens, they aim to advance racial, gender and disability education in the chapters across the South and Midwest that are disproportionally white, via NBC.
Willingham-Jaggers isn’t new to this work. They’ve been working with LGBTQ+ youth since they were 17 years old, reported NBC.
From NBC News:
Willingham-Jaggers has been working with LGBTQ youths unofficially since they were a camp counselor in Southern California when they were 17 years old. But officially, they began the work in 2009 when they moved to New York City from Cincinnati to work for an organization that supported runaway and homeless youths whose family and caregivers had rejected them because they identified as queer or transgender.
“It was really kind of a formative moment for me to understand that, yeah, I was working with runaway and homeless kids, but this is part of a larger LGBTQ+ movement to really change the world so that these young people know that the world is worth sticking around in,” they said.
Leaders like William-Jaggers are just as important as our educators who fight for critical race theory. Education on topics and issues effecting young students should go hand-in-hand with ensuring a safe learning environment for those students.