You Can’t Just Look Past Me

Jessica: A Youth Organizing Story

Jessica outside of Big Sky High School, where she will graduate from this year. Photo credit: Joe Stone

Jessica Beers is a high school senior in Missoula, Montana. She is part of the LGBTQ community, lives with muscular dystrophy and is a wheelchair user. Jessica not only found her voice and passion for social justice through EmpowerMT, but she found an inclusive, accepting community – something that didn’t always come easy to Jessica.

Holy cow, this is my group

I was bullied pretty much from elementary school, to my freshman year of high school. I was bullied because of my disability, and being different than my peers, more physically. I didn’t look like the other girls. I couldn’t keep up with my other classmates, and I was mostly bullied by my childhood friend, who told me I wasn’t good enough. [She said] That I was different and that was the problem, I couldn’t do stuff with her, and it was my fault I was born this way. It kind of just snowballed from there. She told other people not to talk to me or hang out with me, and it just went on from there. It was really lonely. I didn’t want to go to school, even though I loved school.

This is the second in an ongoing series of stories the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) is curating from young people and youth organizing leaders from across the country. These stories will uplift the voices of young people from across the country, sharing their journeys into youth organizing, and what it has meant for their personal development and the empowerment of their communities.

If you or someone you know would like to tell your story, contact us.

The  one memory that was my a-ha moment with EmpowerMT, where I was like ‘holy cow, this is my group’ was way before I first knew who they were. They came to my school for a training freshmen year. I had no idea who they were, I didn’t really want to be there, I didn’t really like group activities. They were laid back, chill, didn’t care that I was quiet, they still included me. They didn’t ask about my disability, they didn’t look beyond me, they saw me in that group. It was in that moment that I realized, this is a group I need to know about and share with people. When I met EmpowerMT, it became clear that I was not the problem. These other people didn’t accept me for who I was, but EmpowerMT did. That opened a whole new world for me because I realized that I can be different, but I can also be the person I want to  be, I don’t have to conform to others. I can be my own person and stand out.

RECENT FINDINGS

A safe and supportive Organizational Culture is a key element of youth organizing practice that encourages healthy development of young people. According to Watts, Kirshner & Govan (2017)youth organizing creates space for “positive and affirming relationships that encouraged engagement and recognized young people’s dignity and humanity.”

After the first training, I learned  about Youth Forward, their queer youth group. I started going and making new friends. That gave me the final push and courage to come out to my friends and family. Coming out was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be – it  helped that my parents and brother were very accepting. It felt better coming out when I went to Youth Forward because other people have done it too and shared their stories. It was a boost of confidence I needed in myself. It’s not anything bad, it’s who I am, so it’s best to live on.

We have to start the conversation

Jessica is frustrated by the challenges at the state level, particularly in the new administration, but she has still found joy in recognizing other victories.

One of the major challenges in Montana is that we’re a red state. It’s frustrating to make sure we get equal opportunities, and we are in a smaller community here in Missoula. The challenges we face, like when the bathroom laws are in play and our state is voting for it, that’s one of the major challenges, we aren’t on the same page [with the rest of our state] when we should be.

My first campaign experience was in Helena, the capitol. We went on a bus ride all the way to Helena, and were lobbying for the Bully Free Montana Act. On the bus ride there, I was really anxious, I’d never been to the capitol before. When we got on the bus, we talked about what to expect, how it’s okay to feel everything that’s gonna happen. If you get upset, it’s okay, it’s okay to feel everything, but you need to do something with that emotion while you’re there. I got there feeling empowered, like we were gonna make a change, it was gonna be a good day.

RECENT FINDINGS

Recent research has indicated that practice of youth organizing supports individual outcomes related to Social & Emotional Learning and Resiliency. Watts, Kishner & Govan (2017) found that, through the practice of youth organizing, “young people learned to channel their emotions into constructive action, maintain their composure, and stay focused on their goals—even when faced with difficult emotions like anger, anxiety, frustration, demoralization, and sadness.” 

Youth organizing culture and practice goes further than most youth development approaches in this regard, as it specifically provides the skills necessary for young people to maintain composure and stay focused on “constructive action” in the face of challenges from the micro to systemic level.

When we got to the room, it was tighter and not as accessible as I thought it was going  to be, but we made it work. We did a training for adults, from the teen perspective. We talked about how the bill would affect the LGBTQ community if it wasn’t passed. We were trying to get across how important the bill was, and got to talk to adults who might not always understand what it’s like to be in the LGBTQ community.

For the most part, their reaction was pretty positive, they enjoyed hearing what we had to say. There were questions, which was good, and they all seemed to really grasp the concept of what we were trying to do. I feel like it really did have an impact on them and hope in the future when other bills come to pass they’ll really think about the impact it will have on the LGBTQ community.

The Bully Free Montana did pass…From what I’ve seen in my school personally, it has had a positive impact, there’s less bullying and it’s a more positive environment. I haven’t been able to see other schools on a daily basis, but when I visit other schools to do trainings with EmpowerMT, the environment seems to have improved.

While Jessica felt empowered through her involvement in campaigns around LGBTQ issues, she saw that, just as in many other spaces, the movement work she came to love still had some blind spots when it came to accessibility. She saw an opportunity to affect positive change on issues outside of the campaign work.

For her senior year project, Jessica asked 12 people, including two administrators, at her school to spend two days in a manual wheelchair. This video, produced by Jessica as part of her project, captures their experiences and what they learned.

Recently, for my senior project, with the  help of students and staff, I had 12 people be in a wheelchair for two days and I made a video on their responses and their experiences. They knew the bigger challenges, but it was the smaller challenges that really made them think about what it’s like being in someone else’s shoes, for even two days. They told me it made an impact on them and how they want to make changes in how the school is laid out, how  people can be looked past when they are in a wheelchair. It really made me proud, because two of the people were administrators and they said “this is  a challenge, and we need to work on this in our school and bring change.” I showed this at an EmpowerMT chapter meeting and they enjoyed it. It  made them realize that there’s stuff that can be improved not just in the org, but in the community as a whole

One of the major roadblocks for me was when I couldn’t make it to a summer camp training with EmpowerMT because the location where they were having it wasn’t very accessible. The first time I went, I brought my physical therapist with me because there were going to be big rocks, stairs, everything like that, and I knew I would need help. I decided last year that I wasn’t going to go. I thought of every possibility, “I could still go if i did this, or this,” but then came to the conclusion not to go. I felt like I was missing out on something, but I knew I physically couldn’t make it. I also knew that me not going could possibly make an impact on the organization itself, so I took the plunge and didn’t go.

My mom and I met with EmpowerMT and discussed why I wasn’t going to attend camp that year and how something needed to change. The org is inclusive of LGBTQ, of all races, gender, everyone, they try to make the point of being inclusive, but this camp was not. The physical place was not inclusive of people who are in wheelchairs and have other mobility issues. We made that point and wanted to make sure the org knew for future years to not hold it at this particular place because it was not manageable. There were tears, crying, hugs, it was an emotional meeting, but I do think it made an impact because now, the camp is  no longer held at that location, it’s at a better location for mobility and accessibility. I love the organization, but it’s not just [about] me, there are going to be other people in wheelchairs or with mobility issues, and that first camp was not going to work for everyone.

As a person in a manual wheelchair, it’s not common to hear about folks discussing changes that are needed [for mobility and access]. I mean, there are elevators, sidewalks, ramps, ADA, but it’s also about realizing there’s more to it than just having ADA standards, or having  an elevator – sometimes the  elevator doesn’t work, or it’s outdated and people get stuck in them [this actually happened to Jessica when she was in Helena]. I definitely feel like accessibility is looked past and assumed that it needs to be improved, but we’re not there yet on how to do it. The conversation needs to start somewhere, and sometimes it’s us that need to start it, such as ‘Are your bathrooms accessible? How accessible?’ ‘Are there a lot of stairs?’ ‘Do you have an elevator?’ ‘Do you plan on fixing this soon, if not, why not?’ Whether it’s accessibility or something else, anything that needs change, needs that push to get it started.

I’m not going back to what it was

Jessica has gained a sense of agency that was once suppressed. She has a clear vision of who she is and who she wants to become.

RECENT FINDINGS

By creating opportunities and support for leadership development, particularly through a pedagogy that emphasizes participation and experiential learning, Youth Organizing has been shown to improve self-confidence and agency in youth people.Research from Shah (OPS11)found that “Upwards of 80% of students felt confident that they could research a problem in their community, create a plan to address the problem, and get other people to care about the problem. Similarly, when asked to rate their own leadership, nearly 90% of youth indicated that they viewed themselves as leaders and around 80% believed they had the ability to organize people to get things done.”

I’ve definitely noticed personal changes since meeting EmpowerMT. The biggest one is confidence in myself. I’m still a little bit shy, but I’m not going back to what it was. I want to say what I have to say, state my opinion, I want to hear that I do matter, you can’t just look past me because I’m shorter than you and in a wheelchair. Self-confidence has made me also more independent. I can make a change, I can make my voice heard, and I can make an impact if people are willing to listen and understand what is going on. I feel like that was a major accomplishment in my development. I can set goals and reach them.

I want to go to college next year to become a special education teacher and to have a minor in women’s studies. Being in the school environment and being in the special education room is really important to me. I can relate to them, and they should feel safe in school, and as a teacher I want to make sure I can get that across.

Beyond being more motivated to finish high school and go to college, young people surveyed in Building Transformative Youth Leadership (OPS11) expressed high expectations of their educational future. Eighty percent of youth reported plans to pursue a college education, and close to half of the sample said they expected to obtain a graduate or professional degree beyond college.