(Photo: Advocates for Youth)
For Advocates for Youth, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit committed to adolescent sexual health, rights and justice, working toward LGBTQ equality is a long game. Over the course of nearly 40 years, the organization has pioneered breakthroughs for adolescent sexual and reproductive health–from trailblazing the first National Conference on AIDS and Adolescents, to serving as a primary author for UNESCO’s Internal Guidance on Sexuality Education.
Advocates’ accomplishments stem from the core of its work: deep, ongoing partnerships with young people nationwide, particularly those from marginalized communities, including Black, brown, indigenous, queer and trans individuals. Together with young people, Advocates works to identify existing local, state and national policies that need change and develops just and equitable new policies and solutions. Advocates also works with health care providers, educators and other youth-serving professionals to help more than 9.5 million youth make informed, responsible decisions about their sexual health.
Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies partners with Advocates for Youth through its Gender and Reproductive Equity portfolio as part of a commitment to youth leadership and their reproductive knowledge, freedom and power. To learn more about Advocates for Youth’s unique emphasis on youth allyship and collaboration, I spoke with Louie Ortiz-Fonseca, Advocates for Youth’s Director of LGBTQ Health & Rights.
At a high level, Advocates for Youth advances sexual and reproductive health for youth across the board. Zooming in, how does Advocates for Youth help LGBTQ teens and young adults specifically?
One of Advocates’ original initiatives is the Youth Resource LGBTQ Leadership Program, a collective of LGBTQ young people of color from all over the country. It was one of the first nationwide LGBTQ youth resources programs when it started over 20 years ago. Since then, it has evolved from an online message board to a living, breathing group of young people doing important work around things like bathroom equity, HIV prevention access and organizing Trans Awareness Week every November.
Another initiative is a program called Engaging Communities around HIV Organizing (ECHO). ECHO is a collective of young people living with HIV who are challenging stigmas while working on HIV decriminalization. HIV decriminalization basically means trying to get laws that were instituted during the height of HIV/AIDS hysteria in the 1980s and 1990s to catch up with science. I am a person living with HIV, and I can be arrested simply for being HIV-positive in some places. ECHO helps support young people with the tools to amplify this issue and their own experiences.
One of the initiatives you lead at Advocates is a YouTube series called Kikis With Louie. For those who may not know, what is a Kiki, and why are Kikis important?
Kiki is Black queer slang, and it means hanging out and sharing space with each other while joking around. So, “let’s have a Kiki,” means, “let’s get together, talk, laugh and be ourselves.” Kiki can be used as a verb, noun or adjective—but no matter how a Kiki is used, it is based in queer joy. For queer or trans young people who may not feel safe letting loose at home or in other social networks, Kikis are places for them to be fully themselves without thinking or second-guessing what they say.
Kikis with Louie, a YouTube series designed for and by young gay men of color and trans teens, provides community, dialogue and education regarding relationships, intimacy, consent, HIV, STDs and (broader) advocacy. The videos are short and engaging and feature celebrities, sports stars, social media influencers, LGBTQ icons and young people from cities across the country.
To learn more about Kikis, I recommend watching “Let’s Have a Kiki” by the Scissor Sisters.
What changes did Advocates for Youth make during the COVID-19 pandemic and how have these changes helped to advance your mission?
One of our biggest programs for youth activists is an annual five-day conference we put on in Washington, D.C. Because we were unable to do in-person training during the pandemic, a lot of the youth we worked with felt isolated. But because we let them lead and tell us how they wanted to connect and learn, we were able to organize a fun, engaging virtual conference. We were flexible with the hours and did not just schedule meetings and trainings between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm ET. We incorporated a lot of music. We even managed to do a lip-sync drag show and dance party online, because a lot of our attendees gave each other tips on using green screens to create a club atmosphere.
We have also been working with more community-based organizations that did not necessarily have the opportunity to work with national organizations like us before. For example, we worked with the Behavioral Health Network of Greater St. Louis to create a cultural responsiveness toolkit that helps medical providers work better with LGBTQ youth of all backgrounds. We are working with similar groups in many southern states now.
Some of the groups we launched partnerships with did not even exist pre-pandemic, like Black, Gay, Stuck at Home, who we helped screen a Black and queer-focused movie online for free every month. Those relationships are going to be long-lasting, and we are incorporating them into our ongoing strategic planning.
What have you learned during the pandemic about effectively working with LGBTQ youth?
I think the greatest lesson our organization has learned is that adult allies should do more than create safe spaces, they should be safe spaces. The physical places where our youth used to meet and socialize closed during the pandemic, but we as people could be that safe space for them to be themselves. Also, the pandemic reminded us to always be open to feedback and hear it as a gift. After all, these kids trust us enough to share what they think about our work.
Are there any new initiatives or programs coming up on the horizon that we can know about?
We just released a digital toolkit for Pride Month called Queer and Now. It includes tips and resources for celebrating Pride, including lists of movies and documentaries to screen, books to read and sample Twitter and Instagram posts. We are also about to release a cultural responsiveness toolkit for adults working with LGBTQ youth.
I would highly recommend that parents, teachers and adult allies check out AMAZE on YouTube. AMAZE is a collection of short, catchy animated sex education videos. It’s like Kikis With Louie, but for kids aged 8-13. It is great for parents or caregivers who may not know how to talk about things like masturbation, gender, queer identity, HIV and other topics like that.
What trends or changes are giving you hope for LGBTQ youth in 2021?
I am always hopeful. I know several states have passed legislation that is anti-queer or anti-trans. Things are hard, and they are going to get harder. But the young people we work with are resilient. They refuse to be erased or silenced. They are organizing in new and different ways, and that is what gives me hope.
Back in the 90s, when I was first starting in LGBTQ+ advocacy, we had to organize in-person meetings, and photocopy flyers with pictures cut out of magazines. Now, young people are using accessible, far-reaching platforms like TikTok to break down complicated issues and theories in one minute or less.
I also believe that the support of adult allies goes a long way. It sounds cliche, but a lot of times the best thing we can do is just listen. I have an 18-year-old son, and every day he reminds me of this. It is hard for me as a father not to say things like, “this is what you need to do, this is what happened to me, this is what I did.” They will eventually ask for your feedback, but simply listening at first allows them the opportunity to find the answers within themselves. That is what empowerment is all about.
Sarah Flocken is the Founder & Chief Human at SLH Communications.