In the coming week, the coordinator of the GSA Forum will provide her own recap on the 5 day conference held at Glendon College between May 13-18th. For now, we’d like to leave you with the words of one of the attendees who has been able to do what we cannot yet do: sum up this incredible week.
It has been three days since I arrived home from the CCGSD’s 2015 Gender and Sexuality Alliance Forum. I put off writing for as long as I did because I was leery of writing about such an event; quite simply, I don’t think words can do it justice. Just as pure emotion and raw passion cannot be truly harnessed into the limits of adjectives and verbs, such an occurrence as the GSA forum demands great care and skill to even come close to truly describing the experience.
In the days leading up to the forum, my mind was alight with anticipation, and most of my waking hours were spent trying to imagine what the week would be like. I have a fairly active imagination, and yet the forum exceeded my expectations in every way possible. The first thing I noticed upon my arrival at the Glendon campus was the staff of the CCGSD. It was immediately apparent to me that I was in the presence of a very passionate team, who cared a great deal about their cause, but also about each other. I saw a team in the fullest sense of the word, people who could work together cohesively and effectively towards their common goals. This was especially effective when educating youth, because within a few days, I saw everyone at the conference start to work together as a team with the same ideals, and we all figured it out by watching the CCGSD team. We all learned how to help each other navigate the barbed wire maze that is often activism. We also learned the importance of finding a team that could guide us through that maze when we faltered, and work a little harder when someone else falters, so we can continue our fight for a more equitable world. When it comes to teaching teenagers, leading by example is tantamount in getting a message across, and in demonstrating what a team should look like, the CCGSD excelled in their example.
In this day and age, diversity is everywhere. In a room full of activists with common goals there will still be differences of opinion, because everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences. No matter how much we have in common with someone, there will always be characteristics or ideologies that we don’t share. At the GSA forum, we learned that those differences are okay. We were taught that it is five different opinions compromising and altering one another that impact a wide audience and bring about lasting change. The speakers we saw at the forum were all diverse in their own ways that it exponentially increased my learning. One issue I’ve found with most conferences is that there are often ten different speakers reiterating one point, but that didn’t occur once at the GSA forum. The speakers all stayed relevant and interesting because they brought up so many points that had never before entered my mind, and gave me ideas for implementing change in my school’s atmosphere that had never occurred to me before. The knowledge every speaker shared was unique and relevant to real life, and I felt fortunate to have been able to learn from every single one.
In keeping with the thread of how much everyone learned at the forum about diversity and equity, we also learned how to implement safe spaces for everyone in schools. In recent years I’ve noticed that so many people have the desire and motivation to promote inclusiveness in schools, but they are lacking the tools and support systems that are necessary to do so. One very key focus of the forum was how we as students can create those safe spaces for others as a GSA, and anything we didn’t learn from workshops or keynotes we were able to learn from each other. The forum gave all of the participants countless opportunities to chat, bounce ideas off each other, figure out what does and doesn’t work and exchange strategies and ideas for events that could potentially make the atmosphere in schools welcoming for students and staff from all walks of life. These strategies even included room for mental health initiatives within GSA’s, so that youth struggling with mental issues can find support in their school’s GSA. As we discovered at the forum, either knowledge or motivation are useless on their own; it is when we combine the two that we can make incredible things happen, and it was what we learned at the forum that gave us the tools to do so.
All of the learning about the impact we can have on the world was incredible, but a great deal of personal growth took place at the forum, as well. I struggle each day with anxiety and panic attacks, and although I do a good job of managing it, I worried that a panic attack or bad anxiety spell would impair my ability to take advantage of all the opportunities of the forum. I was pleasantly surprised to find that for the entire five days I spent at Glendon, I didn’t have one panic attack, and my general anxiety wasn’t an issue at all. Being away from responsibilities and everyone I knew helped me to focus and put myself in the moment, and that is the best self-care possible. I also came to realize as the week progressed that the forum was an escape for so many people, lifting them out of hardships and harsh environments at home and school. People cried on the last day because they were leaving one of the few places where everyone could be truly authentic, and be completely safe from judgement or discrimination. That provides immeasurable value for anyone who isn’t accepted anywhere else, and the connections to support systems can potentially save lives, especially when it comes to marginalized youth. The focus on mental health helped so many people, and the CCGSD’s emphasis on ensuring that people realized that to make change happen in others, we must first care for ourselves. Activist burnout is all too common, and we were taught right from day one how important it is to create a support system, and being at the forum gave us that support system, which will benefit everyone for a long time after the forum is over.
The intellectual, emotional, and mental growth that took place during the 2015 GSA Forum was simply astounding to watch and experience myself. Getting a bunch of like-minded students and adults together and giving tools and resources that we can take back to our communities has already had an incredibly positive impact on the lives of so many people. The connections and friends I made at the forum gave me the confidence to start new initiatives, because I know I will have a team of people standing behind me to help in any way possible. The forum combined support with learning and allowed everyone to be authentically who they are, which is the most incredible gift to receive. The impacts of the GSA forum on all participants will be carried with us for the rest of our lives, and when we go out and change the world, we can thank the team at the CCGSD for helping us to do it.