A Note from Kevin Jennings

Twenty-three years ago, I was a high school history teacher in Concord, Massachusetts.  I had just come out as a gay man to the school, a very rare thing back then.  One morning a ninth grader named Meredith showed up in my office with a proposal.

“I’d like to start a club to fight homophobia at our school,” she informed me.

I was a bit surprised.  I had assumed that anyone interested in so doing would be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.  I was pretty sure Meredith wasn’t any of those, primarily because she was always making out with her boyfriend right outside my classroom.  While it was possible she was LGBT, it seemed unlikely.  So I asked a simple question.

“I’m happy to help, but I’m curious -- why do you care so much about this issue?”

“Because my Mom is a lesbian and I am tired of hearing my family get put down around this school,” she replied.

This was an angle I hadn’t thought of, so I was caught a bit off guard. “Well, ok, uh, did you have a name for your club?”

“Not really,” she answered, “but since you’re gay and I’m straight, why don’t we call it the Gay-Straight Alliance?”

And a movement was born.

From that humble beginning, Gay-Straight Alliances (or GSA’s) have spread to thousands of schools.  There are some important lessons for anyone interested in diversity and justice from this story that I’d like to share.

  1. Don’t wait for someone else to be the leader – be the leader yourself.  It was Meredith’s courage and vision that led to the creation of the first GSA.  She didn’t wait for someone CWEelse to show leadership – she did it herself.  Although she probably had never heard him quoted, Meredith was following the advice of the great artist Andy Warhol who once said “People tell you that time changes things, but actually you have to change them yourself.”
  2. Young people can be the catalyst for change.  It was a young person – a ninth grader in fact – who came up with the idea for the first GSA.  Meredith followed another great tradition, one of young people leading the process of change.  For example, the “Greensboro Four” were four teenage college students who led the first lunch counter sit-in in 1960, an event that led to the end of segregation in restaurants in America.  Young people bring an invaluable perspective and a fearless energy to the fight for justice and thus have a unique role to play.
  3. Allies are critical.  Meredith came up with a brilliant idea – bringing people together based on a shared commitment to justice, not just on their identity.  She paved the way for other “straight allies” to get involved in a cause that previously had been mainly led by LGBT people.  She showed that everyone could play a role in the fight for justice, regardless of his or her own status as a person with privilege or as a target of discrimination.

Meredith didn’t know that she would make history when she came in to my office twenty-three years ago.  She just knew something unjust was going on, that something had to be done about it, and she just did it.  So my final advice?  When you see a chance to make the world a fairer, better place with greater respect for diversity, listen to Nike and Just Do It.

Kevin Jennings is the CEO of Be the Change ( www.bethechangeinc.org ) a nonprofit that creates national issue based campaigns that address pressing problems such as poverty in America.