Students, staff push for full-time coordinator for LGBT Resource Center

**This article first appeared at on May 8th, 2011**

Students pushing for a full-time coordinator in the LGBT Resource Center recently gained the support of the Associated Student Government when Senate passed legislation in favor of their cause.

“ASG Stands with the LGBT Resource Center” was authored by members of Rainbow Alliance, Hillel Leadership Council, In Technicolor and ASG in an effort to draw attention to the resource center’s need for more staffing. It passed April 27, opening the door to a lengthy process that, if implemented, would involve restructuring the staff of the Center for Student Involvement.

The LGBT Resource Center was founded in 2004 and is located on the third floor of Norris University Center. It aims to create a safe space for members of the LGBT community and its allies while providing education and training about LGBT issues for the entire University, said Doris Dirks, coordinator for the center.

Dirks said she currently spends half of her time working with the center and the other half with about 15 groups she advises as coordinator for Student Organizations for Social Justice. Dirks said with the University’s increasing demand for LGBT resources, the job can no longer be done satisfactorily by one person.

“People know. Everybody knows,” Dirks said. “And the message I’ve received is it’s worth working on, it’s in process. And it’s not about me. It needs to make a transition. We’re at a point where I used to say yes to everything, and I can’t do that anymore.”

The Resource Center is the only designated “safe space” on campus where students can go for help with LGBT issues, Dirks said. Additionally, the center is responsible for providing ally training to campus organizations, providing free HIV testing, co-sponsoring events and holding panels. Dirks said she was recently asked to provide training for the School of Law on the Chicago campus but had to decline due to lack of time and resources.

Dirks, as well as a member of the center’s student staff, voiced complaints that a lack of budget and a lack of physical space prevent the center from providing LGBT support for students, staff and faculty who need it. Their newest publicity campaign, displayed on posters and on a banner at Norris, states that though 10 percent of Northwestern students identify as LGBT, 100 percent are served by the LGBT Resource Center.

“If you asked most administrators, they’d say they were supportive of the LGBT community,” Dirks said. “But it’s one thing to say that, and it’s another to put your money where your mouth is. I think it’s an issue of institutional priorities. It seems to me that when the University deems something important, they somehow come up with the money, resources and staff.”

Creation and expansion of coordinator’s role

Though the resource center was founded in 2004, it did not have an official supervisor until 2006, when Dirks, who was already on the staff of the Center for Student Involvement, was asked to be the center’s part-time coordinator.

Natalie Furlett, assistant director for the Center for Student Involvement, said it was an experimental position created before the University knew what the resource center would become.

“I think the amount of work that has sprung out of having that person has created more than what we had budgeted for,” Furlett said. “It now seems like we could use someone who could do it full time.”

The resource center is not considered a student organization but an entity of CSI. Dirks compared it to being of similar function to the Women’s Center or the Multicultural Student Affairs office.

Cara Tuttle Bell, director of programs at the Women’s Center, said her office has five full-time staff members that enable it to serve faculty, staff and students on both campuses.

“I think they’re spread thin right now,” Tuttle Bell said of the LGBT Resource Center. “In terms of what we do, they could do a lot of the same things if they had staff and resources available.”

In order to allow Dirks to work with the LGBT Resource Center exclusively, CSI would have to redistribute the other 15 groups she advises to other members of CSI staff, Furlett said. This would mean putting organizations like College Feminists, College Republicans and College Greens under new leadership.

Furlett said she is in favor of the change, but it would have to be done with careful consideration for the groups in play. She said the process would start with a talk among CSI staff and then with Rick Thomas, executive director of Norris, but starting discussion would not be plausible until next year.

Thomas said the resource center is not unique in that it operates on limited resources, as many organizations could also use more space or staffing. He also said redistributing Dirks’ other responsibilities would be complicated, given that the other CSI staff members have equally demanding responsibilities.

He said the center is a clear priority of the University, which was why administration decreased the pool for student offices in 2003 to make space for it and why a part-time coordinator was put there in 2006. He said he can see a full-time position as a reality down the road and will bring it up at the fall budget meeting.

“We make decisions about what we’re able to do and what we’re not,” Thomas said. “If there is demand that is there, and a legitimate need that needs to be addressed, that’s part of the argument I use to justify more resources to be able to meet those needs.”

LGBT centers at other schools

The LGBT Resource Center has a library of books, magazines and DVDs relating to LGBT issues, but resource assistant Chris Garcia said no one knows about it.

Garcia, a Medill junior and co-author of the Senate legislation, said due to the center’s small physical space and location, it gets minimal traffic and does not fulfill its function as a safe space in which people can “hang out.”

“We need an office and position that can grow and can have a stable trajectory,” Garcia said. “We don’t have a good response for hate and bias incidents. We don’t have good resources for trans individuals. The resource center is so small, and for any practical purpose, it’s too small to be effective.”

At the University of Michigan, the LGBT Resource Center, now called the Spectrum Center, has just celebrated its 40-year anniversary. The center was the first of its kind in the U.S. when it was founded in 1971, and its assistant director William Sherry said it is still going strong, with four full-time staff members.

Sherry said the Spectrum Center is centrally located and equipped with computers, printers, a refrigerator, couches and bean bag chairs. He said having a full-time staff is an integral part of the center’s success.

“Having people students can develop relationships with makes all the difference,” Sherry said. “Having a full-time staffer makes students more comfortable. They know who they’re going to be talking to. It allows for safety and consistency.”

About two weeks ago, the dean of Harvard College announced it would hire a full-time director of LGBTQ student life, according to an article in the Harvard Crimson. The change was the result of an extensive administrative review of the LGBTQ experience at Harvard.

Garcia said he and the presidents of Rainbow Alliance are writing a long-term plan to address the needs of the NU LGBT community, but that the process should start with a full-time coordinator.

“For the University to prove that it cares about LGBT individuals, you need to have someone in the administration that has LGBT in their title and can commit themselves to working with sexual orientation and gender expression exclusively,” he said.


A house of art offers inner-city youth a creative out

**This article first appeared at on June 3rd, 2013**

In a two-story brick residence in Humboldt Park, three teen artists sit around a table discussing their plans for an original neighborhood mixtape. There’s a tripod and a can of spray paint on the table, as well as a pile of paperwork, including grant proposals. The walls are covered in painted portraits.

Miguel Rodriguez, founder of the Graffiti Zone, sitting outside the program's home

Miguel Rodriguez, director of the Graffiti Zone, sitting outside the program’s home/Photo by Samantha Caiola

When these three turn 18, they’ll have the opportunity to live in this house as part of Graffiti Zone’s Artist-in-Residence program, which pays young artists a weekly stipend to hone their passions and, they hope, beautify a neighborhood too often making headlines for its violence.

The teens – currently ages 16 to 17 – were commissioned to the house by Miguel Rodriguez, who at 20 is the director of Graffiti Zone, a Chicago nonprofit that helps at-risk teens express their talents. His teaching, though structured, allows boys and girls as young as 8 years old to experiment freely with such alternative mediums as graffiti, sound mixing and slam poetry.

Rodriguez understands troubled youths’ need for self expression. At just 13, he turned to graffiti in order to out his frustration with the chaos of city life and a lack of family support. Mostly using spray paint – something that strictly regulated in this city because of the gang life associated with it and the millions spent by City Hall to remove it time and again – he scrawled on walls throughout Humboldt Park.

It was a short career, and one that ended with a bust by the cops for criminal defacement of public property – for which he was locked up in Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center for a week.

“Graffiti really communicates that we have a lot of youth out here who are really passionate about what they’re doing, to the point that they’re willing to get arrested for it,” he said. “It also speaks to them saying to the world I’m here. I exist. I live in this community. That’s the most basic thought that goes through a graffiti writer.”

After his brief stint in locked up, Rodriguez joined Graffiiti Zone and other programs like Kuumba Lynx, a non-profit that empowers youth through hip hop – where mentors started to call him an “artist.” The title took. No longer was his work dismissed as criminal; it was encouraged and embraced. Just like that, he was more than just a kid who wrote on walls. He learned techniques of graffiti writing, such as making block letters, bubble letters and wildstyle, as well as creating personal portraits.

After that, he started bringing spray paint and canvas to block parties around Humboldt Park and teach youth about primary colors and get them involved with Graffiti Zone in an effort to keep them out of street life. Now, he uses the same methods in the after-school classes he teaches at Cameron Elementary School and West Town Academy.

Last summer, Graffiti Zone created eight murals in and around Humboldt Park on walls that were donated by local businesses. The murals, which are vibrant, and express themes like peace, love and friendship, have received only positive feedback from the community, Rodriguez said. No RIP stains scribbled to honor slain gang members in a city so warped by shootings and murders it has drawn international attention.

The door to West Side Chicago church donated to Graffiti Zone/Photo by Samantha Caiola

The door to West Side Chicago church donated to Graffiti Zone/Photo by Samantha Caiola

“There’s no reason for you to go out there and write on walls when we have space for you to do it,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not going to be worth it for you to get arrested- on your side or the community side.”

Rodriguez, like many grass-roots leaders working in alternative art forms, struggles with the inaccessibility of government funding. He currently runs Graffiti Zone on private grants rather than city money, which is tough to get because of the small pool and the large number of artists reaching for their share.

“It’s been hard to balance offering programming and dedicating time to write grants,” he said. “I’m sure the money is there. It’s all about how to get it and really having the connections and sitting at these meetings when the decision makers are at the table and making sure we’re at the table.”

Last year, the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs awarded cultural arts grants to 522 profit and non-profit organizations as well as individual artists, said Allyson Esposito, director of the grants program. Of those grants, only 25 were in the form of project-specific funding for organizations with robust programs for the elderly, children, people with disabilities, or low-income people, Esposito said. These organizations received between $8,000 and $15,000, with a few getting $25,000.

Esposito said she believes that art education for youth is important, and needs to be more prominent than it is right now.

“Youth is the audience that absolutely should be reached,” she said. “In our city there are areas that have more arts education than others…involving youth in after school and out of school intervention keeps them engaged and pairs them in meaningful relationships with adults. Allowing them creative expression can lead to less violence.”

More commonly, the grants go to more established, more structured programs like The Merit School of Music’s Communidad strings program. The Merit School, a large conservatory in Pilsen offers subsidized musical training to students of diverse economic and racial backgrounds.

The strings program follows the Suzuki method of music and has a very strict student and parent attendance policy, which instructor Lesley McCool said causes some students to drop out preemptively if they are not completely engaged.

“The difficulty with string playing is that it takes a very long time just to get the basics set up,” she said. “It takes a few years to really develop ones own voice, because they need to be technically proficient to do so. But it will lead to personal expression in the future.”

When it comes to music, Graffiti Zone affords a lot more creative license to its participants. The organization hosted an open mic on Wednesday at a community church, where neighbourhood youth were able to perform music and poetry and display visual works.

One of Graffiti Zone’s musical artists, Destiny De la Vaya, is a 16-year-old Clemente High School student on Chicago’s heavily Hispanic near West Side who appreciates creative license. A lover of music and signing, she did not participate in the school choir. Instead, she works with her friends to record covers and put them on YouTube.

“It’s really hard to get your name out there,” De la Vaya said. “I want to be seen everywhere. The school has a talent show at the end of every year, but that’s about it.”

Ulysses Diaz, a Chicago-area visual artist and counselor at Waubonsee Community College, which is in Aurora, said individual expression is key for organized art programs that target at-risk youth.

“It’s important with young artists to allow them to explore without any rules,” Diaz said. ”If there would’ve been some type of structure that an organization wanted to follow, it would take away from the authenticity of the artist and the ownership that the young people feel they’re contributing. Which to me is the main piece. To think you can give something that someone can look at and connect to.”

He said that he was an introvert who enjoyed working alone, but was able to find community with Youth Struggling for Survival, a now-retired youth empowerment organization. Louis J. Rodriguez, founder of the organization and author of the novel “Rushing Waters, Rising Dreams: How the Arts are Transforming a Community,” said he founded YSS from the ground up, starting with a basement in Humboldt Park, in order to give underserved youth an outlet for hip hop and slam poetry.

“Presently, too much art (and arts funding) is being concentrated in museums, orchestras, tourists spots and removed from poor urban communities,” he said.

But despite the roadblocks, Miguel Rodriguez and Graffiti Zone continue to carry the banner (and the canvas) for urban graffiti artists, music producers hip hop dancers and slam poets. He hopes to participate in the Humboldt Park Arts Festival and create many more murals this coming summer.

“Using the arts as a way of self discovery and building identity and leadership, as well as being able to put some money in their pockets, can be the substitute for wanting to join gangs,” said Rodriguez. “It’s a whole identity and sustainability issue. It’s an alternative to having to get your hands dirty with drug money.”

A mural created by members of the Graffiti Zone, working with Rodriguez/Photo by Samantha Caiola

Gay youth struggle against schools’ ignorance and communities’ intolerance

**This article was first published at on June 25, 2012**

As thousands in the LGBT community took the streets over the weekend in places such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco to parade pride before a nation that considers itself tolerant, research shows gay youth still grapple with painful issues during perhaps the most pivotal stages of their lives.

Take, for example, a recent report by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights advocacy organization. The report stressed the prevalence of bullying and discrimination toward LGBT youth, a problem Chicago-area experts say is caused by intolerant and unsupportive systems in schools and communities.

HRC’s national survey of 10,000 LGBT-identified youth, called “Growing Up LGBT in America,” recently found 51 percent of participants had been verbally harassed at school, and 48 percent felt excluded by peers because of their sexual identity.

One seeming remedy is forming Gay-Straight Alliances – extracurricular organizations that aim to create a safe space for LGBT youth and their allies. However, few GSAs exist in Chicago-area schools. While 47 percent of students nationally reported having a GSA at school, only 41 of 158 Chicago public high schools are listed in the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance’s GSA directory, according to an analysis of Illinois Safe Schools Alliance data.

Alexis Wieselman, who has advised GSAs at both Eric Solorio Academy and Phillips High School, said running these clubs is particularly difficult without the support of administration and the surrounding community.

When she advised the club at Phillips two years ago, she said the administration “put up barriers whenever possible” by delaying the start of the club and subjecting them to additional paperwork.

“The problems that I have run into with GSA’s in inner city Chicago schools is that administration doesn’t have an understanding of the importance of visibility for LGBT youth,” said Wieselman, a science special education teacher. “They don’t view it as important that teachers be out and that there be communication in the handbook that LGBT students exist.”

A Gay-Straight Alliance, when permitted, can provide a place for students to speak openly about their identities, which may work to combat the rise in LGBT youth suicides that led to the viral “It Gets Better” campaign from 2010. But a recent report from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center indicates that it is not getting better. LGBT youth attempt suicide at a rate of two to four times higher than that of their heterosexual peers. They struggle to “cope with developing a sexual minority identity in the midst of negative comments, jokes, and often the threat of violence,” the report said.

Spencer, a 16-year-old attending a public high school in New York, was initially afraid to share his identity with friends, family or teachers. HRC reported that one-third of LGBT youth feel they do not have an adult to whom they can talk.

Spencer said his parents, who were unsure how to handle his questions, arranged for him to speak to a therapist about his identity. Through these sessions and a few friends, he learned to ignore people who probed him about his identity with malicious intent and brushed off “certain remarks, certain looks and just people being rude.”

“During 8th grade I had identified myself as a homosexual, but never publically,” he said. “I never talked about it. People would always ask me and I would deny it, not because I wasn’t proud or I wasn’t comfortable. It’s just that I didn’t know what that meant. I wasn’t positive, I wasn’t sure. There were so many questions floating around. It was not a hard time but it was just confusing.”

And even with a supportive administration, a club’s success can hinge on the attitudes of the school’s neighbors. According to the HRC report, four in 10 LGBT youth say the community in which they live is not accepting of LGBT people.

Spencer, for example, said the community in which he grew up focused more on racial diversity than sexual diversity, and being gay was still a taboo subject, especially for his parents’ generation.

Emily Tongue, who advises the GSA at Collins Academy High School in North Lawndale, said establishing the club was easy; retaining membership proved more difficult because of the stigma surrounding it. Students sometimes referred to the organization as “that gay club,” and parents approached her insisting that their child remain uninvolved, she said.

“Commitment is really hard in high school in the first place, especially with something like a GSA,” said Tongue, who, like Wieselman, teaches science special education. “We’re [North Lawndale] a mostly African-American  area, drug ridden, low income, and very homophobic. So it’s big-time needed there. But it’s just a matter of students feeling comfortable enough to show up.”

Tongue said a few of her GSA seniors were victims of bullying last year, but chose to mediate the situations within the club rather than take it to administration. The club provided support for the targeted students but encouraged them to handle the situations on their own.

“This was their chance to start standing up and being the voice they needed for the rest of their lives,” she said. “We were lucky to have only a few bullying cases, but the students learned to know that the world was mean, and they would have to be bigger person and move on from it.”

Even when bullying cases are brought to authorities, the “three strikes you’re out” policy typically used in Chicago schools is not conducive to LGBT mediation, said Bonnie Wade, associate director of UCAN, a Chicago-based program for LGBT. The perpetrator gets a slap on the wrist and the victim gets set aside, without further effort to create a safe space, she said. Often, Wade said, the complaints of LGBT students are overlooked by teachers and administrators who blame the students for drawing in violence with their appearance and behavior.

“Our social structures are not set up to support gender variance or gender nonconforming young people.” she said.  “So when young people fall outside of the mainstream…that is seen as deviant or is stigmatized…It’s still pretty uncomfortable for people, especially when it comes to teenagers. Our schools, our community groups and churches, we’re in the process of catching up.”

FEMA denies appeal for tornado aid to Illinois Town

**This article was originally published at on March 26, 2012**

In the wake of the tornado, rated an E4, Gov. Pat Quinn asked FEMA to help with damage assessment on the ground in Harrisburg. Quinn submitted a request for federal funding on March 7, but it was denied three days later, said Patti Thompson, communications manager for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Quinn appealed the decision, but it was denied last Wednesday.

FEMA spokesperson Sandy Jasmund said the damage in Illinois was not severe enough to warrant their assistance since other aid agencies were already in Harrisburg and there was a number of people covered by insurance.

Harrisburg residents, such as Mona Crim, expressed disappointment with FEMA’s decision. Crim is the director of the Christian Community Compassion Center in Harrisburg, which also serves as a homeless shelter and food pantry and has provided assistance to tornado victims.

“There are a lot of people that don’t have insurance that were affected by this storm. They don’t have the money to rebuild,” Crim said. “Our plea now is for different communities to send building materials. It’s disappointing, but we’re pulling things up by our boot strings.”

After the storm, FEMA joined state and local officials for a preliminary damage assessment and then decided not to provide federal assistance based on the guidelines in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, Jasmund said.

“It’s based on facts,” she said. “They felt that when looking at the damages, it was not beyond what the local and state government could provide along with the voluntary organizations.”

There are currently two FEMA employees assisting state officials in Harrisburg, Jasmund said, one helping disabled victims and the other working with local volunteer organizations. They will stay in Harrisburg as long as they are needed, Jasmund said.

However, some directly involved in the recovery said they feel the officials’ presence isn’t enough. Thompson said her organization supported Quinn’s appeal by providing documentation of damage after the initial denial. Last week, IEMA was coordinating the delivery of resources, equipment and personnel to the Harrisburg area, Thompson said.

“Obviously we’re disappointed because we see the need for the types of federal assistance that are available only through FEMA,” she said. “We certainly would have liked to have seen that approved. In the meantime, we’re not giving up on any hopes of helping the people.”

If FEMA did assist, it would be able to provide individuals with grants to cover temporary housing, medical bills, funeral arrangements and other post-disaster expenses, Thompson said. After the denial from FEMA, Quinn requested a Disaster Declaration for Illinois from the United States Small Business Administration. The declaration was issued March 22, and the administration opened an office in Harrisburg the next day, said Jack Camp, an SBA spokesman.

The SBA can provide low-interest loans for renters, homeowners and businesses, Camp said. Individuals can apply for loans by visiting the office, calling or completing a form online. Thompson said the people who are not eligible for SBA loans would benefit from FEMA grants, which do not have to be paid back like the SBA loans.

In addition to the SBA money, Harrisburg has received help from volunteer organizations who are collecting donations, rebuilding homes and providing shelter for those made homeless by the storm. The high level of volunteer activity is one of many reasons why FEMA denied Quinn’s request, Jasmund said.

But Dave Skoblar, director of a national nonprofit called Project 195 that has sent over 200 volunteers to Harrisburg so far, said FEMA “threw up its hands” on this project.

“Their initial story that we have enough volunteers is nonsense,” Skoblar said. “There’s never enough volunteers. With the FEMA budget constraints, it would not be financially smart for them to drain their account in March. They’re being pragmatic, which is no relief to anyone at all, especially in Harrisburg.”

Jasmund said FEMA was “not the team” but only “part of the team” managing the Harrisburg recovery, which she said was progressing well.

“Everything went according to local responding first,” she said. “We’re working together at the state and local level.”

Still, Crim said tornado victims are “just trying to get by” and that the local community is holding nightly informational meetings to keep everyone on the same page as they rebuild their town.

“I just want people that are not here to know that it is time for them to be praying for Harrisburg and to send money and help,” Crim said. “That’s what we need.”