Outright Vermont: Programs Amidst a Pandemic (Interview with Dana Kaplan Part Two)
We got the chance to talk to Dana Kaplan, Executive Director of Outright Vermont, an LGBTQ+ youth-facing organization, about the history of Outright, the current programs and events the organization is running, and the importance of centering youth and intersectionality in social justice work. This installment delves into some of Outright’s programming and how they’ve adjusted to COVID19. This is part two of a four-part interview series about Outright. Read Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4.
Can you give a couple of examples of programs and events Outright runs?
Much of what we’re up to is creating opportunities for young people to connect, to have access to conversations that they wouldn’t otherwise get to be a part of. In a rural and remote state like Vermont, it can be hard for folks to access location-specific programming, so having everything go online has been helpful for youth and families that couldn’t otherwise get to our events and groups.
We run both one-off, statewide events and we also have our recurring weekly and monthly affinity-based social and support groups. An example of a bigger event we run is the Queer and Allied Youth Summit, which happens every May in a different and rotating location each year. It’s a 24-hour gathering of 200+ youth that typically includes a march and a speak out, youth led workshops, a townhall, a queer prom, and a sleepout. Pure community celebration, and for many, the first time they’ve seen so many peers like them!
A new event the team put together last year was based on what staff were hearing on the ground from youth themselves. We held a Lavender Commencement. For so many LGBTQ+ youth, commencement is not a given — whether they are enrolled in a more typical high school program or any other sort of degree or journey with a beginning, middle, and end. The cards are stacked such that it’s harder to be set up for success, right? That’s literally how inequity functions. So making it through school is big! We wanted to help validate and affirm their success, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Writer, activist, and trans visionary extraordinaire Alok Vaid-Menon gifted youth their new book, and they shared some beautiful words of wisdom, too. It was really sweet and special, and something we hope to continue to do from here on out.
We also run our week-long summer camp which I talked about earlier; this year we are committed to doubling the program, as we intend to run two sessions of camp, based on the need. Last year camp registration for 65 campers was full in just 33 minutes, so the need is real. It’s your typical summer camp with a queer, social justice twist. Dates for Camp are set — July 1–16 — and we are remaining hopeful that we can run it in-person.
In the winter, we also do winter camp reunion to help folks remember the community they have, even in the off-season. Another big event we coordinate is Leadership Day at the statehouse. Youth from across Vermont gather to meet with their legislators and talk about the issues most impacting their lives. We also do a panel with Legislators who identify as LGBTQ, and they talk about the intersections of what it means to be a representative, hold that level of power, and how to do it all while celebrating individual identities. It’s important for youth to see their futures as full of possibilities. It’s also an opportunity for youth to testify in committees on issues that matter most to them — Outright youth have been at the center of creating some important bills that impact their lives, like the gender neutral bathroom bill and testifying about the detrimental impact of conversation therapy.
You touched on this, but is there anything else about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected OV’s work?
We are definitely having to respond in different ways to issues that are coming up for youth that might not otherwise have been as obvious or pressing without COVID. There are so many youth who don’t have safe or consistent access to technology or the internet, so we’ve worked with some of them directly, and gotten tremendous support from the Vermont Department of Health to distribute the technology they need to remain connected in a virtual world. Often times, our connection to youth has been through the school system, so without school running as usual to be that bridge, we’ve had a different opportunity to go directly to youth. In May we did a statewide Needs Assessment to see what queer and trans youth were needing in response to COVID. A lot of what we heard back was spaces for connection, celebration, and fun. Some folks also talked about the need for support around being stuck in quarantine with abusive or unsupportive family members, or the lack of routine throwing off their ability to care for themselves, or the difficulty in accessing affirming medical care given how inundated health providers are. So there’s been a different level of some basic needs support and safety planning support that typically might otherwise be held by the schools.
We’ve also been doing more mutual aid. In September we did an outside traveling tour of Vermont, bringing gender-affirming supplies and grocery cards to different towns to make sure that some of youths’ most basic needs were being met. In some cases we were just there to say “hi” and be an IRL LGBTQ+ person! Sometimes youth aren’t seeing anyone else like them in their towns and communities, so just showing up and saying “hey I see you, I’m here with you” is an important part of what we’ve been up to.
Next Friday, we’ll explore the importance of centering youth voice and leadership, as well as how Outright works with allies to make the world safer for LGBTQ+ youth. Stay tuned for more!