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Queer Youth Fund Fights Hate With Love

Byline: Barbara Osborn

The Queer Youth Fund, a giving circle housed at Liberty Hill, was established in 2002. It gives significant multi-year grants to small youth-led organizations that promote equality and justice for lesbian, gay, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQQ) youth. So far, the Queer Youth Fund has invested more than $3 million in LGBTQQ youth projects in the U.S. and Canada. It was founded by Weston Milliken, Jim Johnson and Ralph Alpert.

We spoke with Weston Milliken.

W in Pavillion-7453-CROP

You’ve just announced the 2010 Queer Youth Fund grants. Each group will receive $100,000 over three to five years. Tell me about one of the groups selected this year. 

WM: Probably the most compelling story of my last set of site visits was in Missoula, Montana. This is where a group of middle school students from a program of the National Coalition Building Institute organized a march on city hall when the city council was considering a nondiscrimination ordinance. Ten percent of Missoula's population showed up for that march. The hearing went well past midnight, and the nondiscrimination ordinance passed. It shows what young people can do when they’re given a voice and some guidance.

Of all the philanthropic investments you could have made, you chose to focus on gay youth. Why?

WM:  Growing up in the south in the 1970s, it wasn’t a comfortable place to be gay, so I wanted to use my money to make things easier for other youth. I also had an experience of a college friend who committed suicide. He was distraught about being gay and felt that he didn’t belong. That was also a contributing factor. So now I am trying to make life better for queer kids and to do it in a systematic way. We wanted to do something big, so the grants would make a significant difference to an organization and to provide funding over many years because that helps organizations’ financial stability.

One of the things that we focus on is empowered youth. We’re really trying to avoid adult-driven organizations. We’re looking for projects where youth can contribute and have significant control over what happens in the organization.

The fund is almost 10 years old. How has the Queer Youth Fund changed?

WM:  One of the things that has changed is our process. We began involving community collaborators in our proposal reviews. The youth who are in those positions as community organizers have different life experiences than me, a rich white male. We focused on racial and gender diversity, including trans people, and that’s provided an extraordinary set of perspectives. It’s been very, very helpful to identify things that work and don’t work.  And we are receiving more proposals from organizations that are dealing with trans and intersex issues.

The other thing that’s changed is when we first started the fund, proposals came from the coasts: Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles.  As time has gone on, our funding has moved into smaller communities and states that you don’t necessarily think of when you think gay like Jackson, Mississippi, and Missoula, Montana. 

What grantee do you feel fabulous about?

WM: You want one?! That’s like asking someone for a favorite child. Let me answer it this way. We twice funded Gay Straight Alliance Network. A few years ago, they put together an annual conference of state-based Gay Straight Alliances. That year I looked at a list of all the organizations that were coming to the meeting and half of them had been finalists or grantees of Queer Youth Fund. It gave me a sense that we had a pretty significant impact and were doing the right thing. We were making an impact nationally and that a relatively small amount of money applied in a strategic way could have an impact.


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