Section: Opinion

Alumnus mentors LGBT students for successful change

By Kevin Pattison

I have always been passionate about social justice and change. Kenyon provided me a place to cut my teeth on these weighty academic topics. My experience of Kenyon in the mid-1990s, however, was that it wasn’t always a diverse, inclusive place. As an LGBT student, there were times I struggled to bring my whole self to my learning.

Several professors, however, helped bridge a divide between academics and identity. Professor Emerita of English Judy Smith’s course on Representations of the Body in Literature, an independent study with current Board of Religious and Spiritual Life Director Liz Keeney on Identity in America and Professor of English Ted Mason’s Configurations of Race in 19th-Century Literature allowed me to explore themes that would become central to my work in educational equity and identity. They were also part of what led me to join Teach For America in 1997. I knew the classroom could be a space for powerful growth and exploration for our students. 

I spent 13 years living out this commitment as a teacher, instructional coach and administrator in Oakland, Calif. In the back of my mind, however, I always wanted to tackle work to create equitable opportunities for LGBT youth and schools where all students feel they belong, feel a sense of relevance and succeed.

The American Psychological Association estimates that LGBT students drop out or are pushed out of high school at three times the national average. LGBT youth represent as much as 42 percent of the homeless youth population, according to “LGBT Youth in America’s Schools.” For LGBT students whose identities live at the intersections of racism, poverty and sexism, these challenges can be particularly acute. That said, LGBT youth also have a long history of demonstrating great strength and perseverance. I’ve seen it first-hand: when we care deeply about students, set high expectations, adopt a strengths-based perspective and provide support, we can dramatically alter paths to opportunity and choice.

Over the last few years I have been working to change statistics for LGBT students in Tulsa, Okla. I’ve worked from the ground up: securing funding, forming an advisory group of regional leaders and building partnerships with school districts and community-based organizations. 

Through these partnerships, we launched a city-wide Educational Equity Kick-Off, uniting district, business and community organization leaders in support of equity for all. We coordinated a training for educators of school staff on supporting LGBT students. We coordinated a youth leadership retreat for students active in their school’s diversity club/GSA, an event that now takes place twice a year. Although only the beginning of what it will take to achieve equity for LGBT students, particularly those growing up in poverty, we are helping to move educational equity forward in purposeful ways.

Make no mistake; the work can be hard. It’s not for everyone. I’ve had to hold the line on unpopular decisions because they were in the best interest of students. I’ve had to tap into reservoirs of hope, care, perseverance and humility. I’ve fallen short of goals. When I did, I learned what I could from it and recommitted myself. Knowing what is at stake and what my students and families deserve fuel my conviction.

If you share a passion for the promise of education and ensuring all youth — regardless of sexual identity, gender identity, race, income, gender, ability, etc. — get an equal shot at opportunity, I hope you’ll join us in this work. There are many pathways into it. Choose one that works for you. The passions you’ve fostered at Kenyon through classes, student organizations and community involvement position you well to make an impact. Together, we can advance meaningful change and reveal the power and potential of all young people.

Kevin Pattison ’96, a Teach For America–Bay Area alumnus, is now a consultant working with Tulsa Reaches Out and other organizations to expand opportunities for LGBT students.


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