Young Organizer Series: Ronnie Veliz, GSA Network
Young Organizer Series: Ronnie Veliz, GSA Network
By Joe Rihn
Liberty Hill supports youth leaders in L.A. not only through grantmaking but also through coalition-building and training. As the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement continues to build, we have seen how transformative those youth-led coalitions are.
Last August, as young people of color led a protest against the death of Ezell Ford, an unarmed black man killed by police, some of the most visible supporters flew rainbow flags. The LGBTQ demonstrators were members of the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition as members of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Network, one of the twelve community-based groups making up the youth-led coalition.
“People were not expecting the outness of the intersection of gay and black and brown and queer and trans,” says Ronnie Veliz, 29, Southern California Program Manager of the GSA Network. “It was very empowering to hear young people talking about solidarity.”
For the GSA Network, empowering young people means supporting students who fall into multiple marginalized groups, such as youth who identify both as LGBTQ and as a person of color and/or as an immigrant. GSA members have mobilized in recent months not only for youth killed by police but also for one of their own alums who is undocumented and experienced violence in Mexico and detention in the U.S. The successful effort to free Yordy Cancino, says Ronnie, shows how “the intersectional movement led by youth of color is alive.”
“Students who are LGBT youth of color are disproportionately being pushed out of schools,” says Ronnie, partly because bullying presents unique challenges for LGBTQ students. “In defending themselves they are getting suspended,” he explains, adding that LGBTQ students of color are "being criminalized for expressing their gender in a way that is not the norm and also because of the color of their skin.”
The GSA Network also organizes where queer and immigration issues meet. “We emphasize being at the intersection of the immigrant identity and the queer/trans identity,” Ronnie says. The organization encourages people to contact them with immigration questions, and works to connect undocumented people with the resources they need. Having a support network is crucial for undocumented LGBTQ youth who face the challenge of a “double coming out.”
The organization demonstrated its importance as a support network for undocumented people in 2014 when Yordy Cancino, a young GSA alum was detained because of his immigration status. Despite graduating with honors from high school and being admitted to college, Yordy lacked the financial resources to continue his education in the United States. He sought educational opportunities in Mexico, but faced discrimination and violence.
“In Mexico he was almost killed twice for his sexual orientation,” Ronnie says. When Yordy requested asylum in the U.S. he ended up in a private Corrections Corporation of America detention center, where he remained incarcerated for over one hundred days.
In response, GSA clubs united to direct a petition for Yordy’s release to President Obama, and the heads of ICE and the Department of Homeland Security. “Before we knew it we had more than 3000 signatures,” says Ronnie. The GSA groups presented the petition to immigration authorities during a rally in Los Angeles, and a week later Yordy was free.
Ronnie says immigration will continue to be a GSA focus in 2015. “We are preparing our youth to engage in nonviolent direct action,” he said of the organization’s current direction. “Our youth can no longer wait for another executive action. We have heard it directly from them and we agree with them that it’s time for youth to take a stronger stance.”
The GSA Network will also “continue premiering new resources and material for other youth who are starting to see themselves as activists,” including a free PDF guide in conjunction with the Immigrant Youth Coalition that explains how leaders can make GSA clubs more “undocu-friendly.” According to Ronnie, “Dreamers have been part of GSA clubs for our entire history.”
In all of GSA’s work with students who are LGBTQ, undocumented, or youth of color, empowering young people to express themselves is central. That’s why the GSA Network kicked off 2015 with an event called “Telling Our Stories,” which gave young GSA members the opportunity to share their personal experiences in front of an audience.
“It was a packed house,” said Ronnie, describing how youth of color told stories of being both LGBTQ and undocumented, or growing up queer in a religious family. “We wanted to create an opportunity for our fellows and youth leaders who identify as queer boys of color to share stories of empowerment with adult allies,” said Ronnie, adding that the event included adult speakers who have, “had the same struggles.” Ronnie believes, “the norm is to have adults speak on the experiences of young people.” For the GSA Network, it’s about empowering youth to speak for themselves.
LGBTQ Youth of Color, one in a series of profiles: Young Organizers at liberty hill.org.
- When a chain of events point to a conclusion that Black lives simply don’t matter to some, it’s time to fight.
- When some schools and classrooms are focused on pushing youth through a system that should be preparing them for college, but instead is grooming them for a prison cell, it’s clear the time to fight is now.
- When there are systematic structures in place that are tearing families apart it’s clear that the time to fight is now.
- When LGBTQ youth, who are abandoned by their families, are pushed into the juvenile system at alarming rates, the time to fight is now — and young people of color are rising to the challenge at every turn.
Some of the most noteworthy social justice activism is happening right now, and leading the movements in racial and gender discrimination and immigration are young people of color. Liberty Hill’s social justice partners in youth leadership have declared Los Angeles as ground zero in the fight for equality and justice with OccupyLAPD, #BlackLivesMatter, the fight against youth and family deportation with the ‘Not One More’ movement and more.
Youth Justice Coalition, Community Coalition, Innercity Struggle, Immigrant Youth Coalition, Gay-Straight Alliance Network and the Khmer Girls in Action are just some of the organizations with an investment in youth leadership that have been making strides and are fighting on the frontlines in some of the most dire situations facing youth of color today.