By: Lisa J. Keating
November is National Transgender Awareness Month. The purpose is to celebrate the progress made with transgender awareness and rights, as well as focusing on what is next. Transgender youth are near and dear to me. Prevention and education are the most powerful ways to ensure a child will grow into a thriving adult. By increasing self-confidence, acceptance, and sense of belonging, LGBTQ youth will be less likely to turn to destructive behaviors.
In honor of Transgender Awareness Month, I interviewed Executive Director, Seth Kirby, and Youth Advocate for Sexual Assault Prevention, Collin Veenstra from Oasis Youth Center, located in Tacoma, WA. The mission and vision of Oasis are to transform the lives of queer youth by creating a safe place to learn, connect, and thrive. Oasis envisions a world in which queer youth are valued in the community as strong, creative leaders.
Oasis launched an exciting and innovative program for 11-14 year old gender diverse youth in September of this year called Project 13. With the growing number of youth identifying as LGBTQ at younger ages, resources are limited with demand rising rapidly. As a parent of a trans daughter, I understand the barriers of limited resources, education, and access to comprehensive healthcare and education programs. So often the parents are left to educate healthcare providers, teachers and administrations. The long term impact Project 13 could have on young lives and their families is significant.
Seth Kirby has a background in HIV prevention, civil rights implementation, and consultation on policies and issues impacting LGBTQ youth and families. He believes that the next generation of queer leaders is paving the way for lasting change, which is why he loves his job as Executive Director of Oasis Youth Center. In addition, Seth has been volunteering with Pride Foundation for over 15 years, and joined the board in 2009. He currently serves as Pride Foundation’s Board President (through Dec. 2015). With Seth’s extensive experience working with this population, his leadership has been invaluable in the continued growing success of Oasis.
Seth, historically, Oasis has had a long standing age range of 14-24 years old. What caused the organization to lower the age to include 11 through 14 year olds?
For nearly 30 years, Oasis has maintained a distinct age range of 14-24, consistent with our HIV prevention roots. We made the decision to start working with 11-13 year olds based on three factors:
Youth are coming out younger: The average age of coming out has lowered significantly since Oasis began in 1985. By reaching youth at younger ages, Oasis can bolster protective factors and support youth as they develop positive identities and make safe peer connections.
There is a local need: With our new public location (established August 2013) and our increased school partnerships, more preteens and their families are reaching out to Oasis. These families and youth are wanting a safe place for their youth to connect with peers. We’ve been doing this for 30 years, so it felt like the logical next step.
We secured the resources to do this work: Organizationally, it is very important that as Oasis starts Project 13, we are able to plan for staffing and other infrastructure needs so we can ensure consistency and long-term sustainability. We utilize a program model that is designed for this age range. Our staff have experience working with middle schoolers. And we have the initial funding to help ensure success. Project 13 is funded by Beyond the Bridge, a donor advised fund of Pride Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What challenges does this age range present for Oasis staff and volunteers?
While there are many opportunities, there are always a few challenges with starting any new program. While our Project 13 model and programming is consistent with our 30 years of organizational experience, we also know we have a lot to learn. In benchmarking with partner organizations, we know that nationally, there are only a handful of programs for queer and questioning youth aged 1114. We hope that through Project 13, we can contribute to the development of more programs to support this age range.
Our other challenge is really about getting the word out, and helping people understand the need of a program like Project 13. To participate in Project 13, youth ages 11-13 will need parent/ guardian permission to participate (due to age of consent laws). Realistically, these youth also need family support to get to and from Project 13 on a weekly basis. To some extent, Project 13 will only be successful if parents and guardians agree to help their children participate.
The testimonies of past Oasis youth are filled with heartache, triumph, and inspiration. Every story I have heard centers around the community that each individual found there. Many of them have gone on to be leaders and advocates in the community on social justice issues through the skills they gained in the organization’s programs. How will older Oasis youth be valuable to Project 13? Will they have opportunities to be mentors?
Project 13 follows an 8week developmentally appropriate curriculum adapted from the Oasis Peer Education Network (O.P.E.N.). O.P.E.N. is a monthly program that empowers queer youth ages 1424 to learn, discuss, and model healthy relationships. Through O.P.E.N., Oasis offers the space for youth and young adults to discuss healthy relationships and develop strategies for contributing to sexual violence prevention. Trained O.P.E.N. participants are now able to cement their leadership skills by being Peer Mentors for Project 13. Peer Mentors can share their coming out experiences, give advice, and act as role models for this next generation of youth.
What do you hope is the impact on the youth served through Project 13?
At Oasis, we often talk about the positive assets of queer identity. My personal hope is that Project 13 participants – both 11 to 14 year olds and our Peer Mentors – can apply their learning and leadership development to many areas of their lives, not just to Oasis. My other hope is that families and youth serving entities such as schools will be able to celebrate and honor these youth for the incredible assets they offer to their peers and the world. These assets include being self-aware, acting courageous in the face of potential adversity, and being able to resist peer pressure and negative influences.
Building a sustainable youth center takes extensive planning and vision. In the next 1-3 years, how do you envision the long term vision of Project 13?
At Oasis, our vision is for queer youth to be acknowledged in the community as strong, creative leaders. We can help realize this vision through programming like Project 13. These are youth who will potentially be active Oasis members for 14 years of their development, through adolescence and young adulthood. Through Project 13, more queer youth ages 11-24 will have the confidence, skills, and support to be change agents in their communities.
Collin, what is your role in Project 13?
I am the Youth Advocate for Sexual Assault Prevention at Oasis and serve as the program organizer for Project 13. With the support of the rest of our staff team, I organize our weekly programming, supervise youth during Project 13 program hours, communicate with new and current Project 13 families, and most importantly, make sure we have plenty of snacks each week.
Pre-adolescence is a tough age with huge developmental growth spurts as their bodies shift into puberty while exploring independence and self-identity at the same time. As a parent of an 11 year old, I am often confronted with an emotional tsunami without any warning that can end as quickly as it started. Many educators I know say that middle school is the most challenging age group to work with. What inspires you about working with “tweeners”?
After 5 years in youth development positions, I have worked with pretty much every youth age range at this point. In returning to middle school programming through Project 13, I feel this program can be a game changer for youth involved. I think that any one of us, looking back, can appreciate and understand what a difficult, formative time middle school is in a young person’s life. For queer and questioning youth, peer pressure, lack of support, and low self-esteem can be connected to really big internal questions and struggles. Project 13 is all about giving youth that support, the space to discuss big topics and build confidence, and the connections to a family of peers, youth mentors, and staff who are all cheering them on. Middle school is a tough time, and that is exactly what inspires me to work with this age range. This is an incredible opportunity to facilitate positive, healthy options and support queer and questioning youth as they grapple with these challenges and seek out their identities. It’s an honor.
How will the individual sessions be structured?
Project 13 sessions have both structured program activities and free-time for youth to hang out, play games, do their homework, and enjoy our youth center. Of the three hours Project 13 runs each week, our structured programming runs for an hour. This leaves additional free time for youth to pursue their interests and feel empowered through choice and options, whether playing an impromptu jam session on our Oasis stage, working on a masterpiece in the art room, or connecting further with their Project 13 peers, youth mentors, or staff about that week’s topic.
What topics and issues will be addressed?
We focus on a different theme for each week of our 8-week programming, including: positive self-identity, peer pressure, social media, coming out, healthy relationships, boundaries, and leadership. These topics are addressed through interactive discussions, activities, and games geared to help youth engage in creative ways and allow for different means of expression. By talking about one issue at a time, youth are able to focus their thoughts and attention to each separate topic, and simultaneously draw connections between our previous topics as well. I think of our weekly themes as a building block approach. Each theme is so important in itself, but our weekly step-by-step approach is meant to help youth build connections between them; to see how self-identity and peer pressure are connected, to see how a strong, healthy sense of self contributes to healthy boundaries and relationships in our lives, and more.
These topics are big in middle school, and our role as a program is to give specific focus to the questions, issues, and concerns queer and questioning youth face with them. This space, support, and community is so important for young queer youth to have as they are exploring their senses of self and the world around them.
I asked Seth this same question. As the program manager, imagine 1-3 years from now. How do you envision the long term vision of Project 13?
We are currently in our first Project 13 session, and I am already so happy to see the friendships, peer support, and inner-confidence of our youth members develop in just a few weeks. Thinking about a few years down the line, I am excited to see our Project 13 participants stay involved throughout middle school, and graduate into Oasis programming for older youth, ages 14-24. Just think about the potential impact a group of youth with strong social bonds, leadership skills, and a keen awareness of their strengths, identities, and healthy choices can have on Oasis and our community as a whole! I want our Project 13 graduates to return to the program in future years as peer mentor volunteers to support new youth in the program.
I also look forward to seeing families, youth, and community organizations involved with Project 13 become active voices in supporting queer youth and their families throughout our community, and the affects this will have on making our city a safer, more supportive place for queer youth to thrive. At the last Project 13, one of our current youth told me that when friends at school ask them what Project 13 is, they reply that it’s their second family. I am so excited to see how Project 13 will continue to grow, and the number of youth and families lives it will impact.
For more information about Project 13 or Oasis, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisa Keating lives in Seattle with her family and is the founder of My Purple Umbrella.