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Advancing Equality in Montana

Fighting homophobia has been central to National Coalition Building Institute Missoula (NCBI Missoula)’s work since it was founded in 1998 in response to incidents of racist and homophobic violence in the region.  One of the tragic catalysts for the organization’s mission was a near-fatal arson attack on the home of a lesbian couple and their infant son.

A $100,000 multi-year grant from Liberty Hill’s Queer Youth Fund, awarded to NCBI Missoula during the fund's 2009-2010 cycle has helped this vital anti-hate organization respond to the needs of a new generation of queer youth by creating a safe, structured space for young LGBTQ people to gather with peers and plan the next stages in the struggle for equality.

Missoula crop Youth Forward members and NCBI Trainers Stacia and Michelle at the 2013 High School Train-The-Trainers summer camp.

“It was our high school young people who came and said that we have Gay-Straight Alliance groups in our schools and they’re great but we need a citywide safe space for queer youth,” says NCBI Missoula’s Melissa Fisher. “They said we need some place for folks from all over town to find each other and support each other.”

NCBI Missoula coordinates the Montana Safe Schools Coalition, providing districts with training and resources “to fulfill their duty of providing safe educational experiences for all students.” It trains businesses and organizations in overcoming prejudice in the workplace, leads community initiatives and workshops such as “Eliminating White Racism,” and “Diversity Day,” and works to build an inclusive community in many other ways. When young people who had participated in their programs spoke, NCBI Missoula listened.

“We truly value the leadership role that our young people can play and realize our young people can lead adults. We said this is something we need to do. We knew we needed to keep preventing and reducing violence and stopping homophobia in all of our programs, but we also needed to make a safe space for queer youth. We couldn’t have done it without the Queer Youth Fund and Liberty Hill.”

What was the urgency? The school programs were solid; diversity trainings for all ages incorporated anti-homophobia education.

“Montana is different from big cities,” says Melissa. “I grew up here and I left for Seattle because I didn’t feel safe. I identify as a lesbian and I felt I needed to be in a city with a bigger queer community. Montana is not as accepting, not as open. It’s scary to walk down the street with your partner. Our young people need a space where they can be together and know they’re loved. Being able to launch Youth Forward was huge!”

After planning and development, Youth Forward was launched in the fall of 2010. Participants meet 50 weeks out of the year, including during the summer. Four times a year, youth leaders map out discussion topics for the next several weeks. Though the group is led by trained social workers, there’s a focus on political education, community organizing and leadership development. Topics have included healthy bodies, healthy relationships, dealing with faith-based stigma, mental health issues, adultism, ageism—all from the perspective of how these issues relate to queer youth.

Youth Forward members at NCBI's High School Train the Trainers summer camp. Youth Forward members at NCBI's High School Train the Trainers summer camp.

“Youth Forward has grown and developed into a social justice advocacy group,” says Melissa. “The young leaders go back to their high schools and to the state legislature and push for anti-bullying policy. It’s launching them into a visible role in national legislation advocacy.”

At the heart of NCBI Missoula’s work is leadership development, and the Queer Youth Fund grant has made it possible for Youth Forward to grow “mindfully and in the direction the young people want it to.”

The multi-year support gives NCBI Missoula “the stability to take on these bigger bites, next steps,” says Melissa. For example, NCBI Missoula has recently taken on the role of being the GSA Network coordinator for the state of Montana, and is helping to support queer youth in rural and reservation communities.  “We couldn’t take that on without knowing we can be here next year to do the work we’ve committed to do.”

For more information on the Queer Youth Fund, please visit http://www.libertyhill.org/queeryouthfund

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