Decolonizing Support for LGBTQ+ Young People

How Joy As Resistance is building a radical community of love for youth.

In Stapleton, change is simmering. In June 2020, under pressure from the community, the neighborhood’s Master Community Association officially announced that it would begin the process of changing the neighborhood’s name. The neighborhood in Northeast Denver is currently named after former mayor Ben Stapleton, a 1920s Ku Klux Klan leader. The current list of potential new neighborhood names is 160 names long.

It’s in this neighborhood of change, in the midst of a now four-month quarantine, that Bre Donnelly is learning to roller-skate. Her neighbors, a family who immigrated from Ethiopia, have been teaching her in the alleyway behind their houses. The three children — 6, 8, and 10 — knock on her door every few hours, sometimes with food, sometimes to walk her dog for her, sometimes asking her if she wants to come out and skate. Bre just bought her house in this neighborhood, and the light is much better here than in her previous apartment. Today she’s going to pick up a desk. She’s settling in amidst the change.

In 2019, Bre was working as a social worker in a school in northeast Denver, near Stapleton. After working with young people to found the school’s gender and sexuality alliance (GSA), Bre noticed something: a lot of the same students she was seeing who struggled with self-harm or suicidal ideation were the students she was seeing in GSA each week. She wanted to help. She asked students if any of them had been to the organizations in Denver that provide services to LGBTQ+ youth, and their response was generally, “No, I could never do that.” The students told her that these organizations were only open on certain days, that it would take two hours by bus to get there, that for these and many other reasons it just wasn’t doable.

What if the clinic went to them?

And that’s how Joy as Resistance was born.

Bre continued asking questions. What if this organization was affirming and community-based? What if Joy as Resistance helped build communities that supported each other even when Joy as Resistance wasn’t there? What would it look like to decolonize mental health and nonprofits? These questions propelled Bre, and partly because of the insistence of Amanda Gonzalez, Bre applied for and became a fellow with Moonshot Edventures. Moonshot has become an incubation space for Joy As Resistance, with people like Christine DeLeon, Kat Ling, and Sasha Green mentoring and teaching Bre through the experience of founding an organization.

Joy As Resistance is in its early stages, and taking shape. They have recently filed for their 501c3, are piloting two partnerships in the fall, and have been active in the community already, hosting workshops across the city. Ultimately they aim to be a space where LGBTQ+ youth are empowered to build their own futures. They are reimagining education to be something that not only happens within school buildings, but wherever young people are safe to gather and be their full selves. Bre is careful to keep identity at the forefront of her conversations, and there have even been moments that she questioned if she should be the one leading this organization as a white person. While Bre founded Joy as Resistance, it would not be what it is without her board of directors: Darren Smith, Gabe Fischer, and Dr. Tanya Greathouse, all people of color with deep connections to the LGBTQ+ community. Every workshop that Joy As Resistance has put on so far has had community facilitators who are people of color. Bre and her board have seen this same diversity reflected in the young people they serve.

Joy As Resistance is surrounded by a community of change-makers. One of Bre’s partners in the work is Webster Johnson, founding team contributor and Bre’s dear friend. In June, Bre and Webster attended a student-led rally that shut down the highway to the Denver International Airport. They were a part of the Rename Stapleton rally during Juneteenth. They have been very open about their support of Black Lives Matter on social media across all platforms. Bre also heralds the work of ally Tay Anderson, the school board director whose tweet reignited the Rename Stapleton movement. Vanessa Roberts, who is the Executive Director of Project Voyce and whose community roots are evident in every aspect of her leadership. Tania Chairez, the founder of Convivir, a Colorado organization providing services for immigrants and refugees. Shalelila Dillard, Executive Director of the SCD Enrichment Program. Miguel Gonzalez, Director of School at Embark Education. These are just a handful of people among the countless other entrepreneurs and leaders Bre listed as collaborators. Bre has built a coalition of innovators who are in the same stage of their ventures, The Revolution Coalition, to be a workspace for people to collaborate and work together. Joy As Resistance is grounded in this community of change.

Bre notes that, while it may not be true of the LGBTQ+ community writ large, their LGBTQ+ community, the little family of folks they have carved out in Denver, have been radical and revolutionary in terms of acceptance and love. They honor the experiences of people on the margin. It’s almost a utopian experience, Bre notes, that this community lives in a way that asks, “What if we just didn’t assume anything about each other, and we loved and accepted each other, and we honored and accepted our differences?” How wild, Bre adds, that living this way is radical.

Powered by this radical community of love, Joy As Resistance has two big collaborations on the horizon. One is with Remembrance Yoga and Wellness, a Black-owned yoga studio in Denver. Starting on July 13 and running for six weeks, Remembrance and Joy As Resistance will travel to different parks in the Denver area and provide yoga and wellness services. And then in the fall, Joy As Resistance is working with local school districts in Denver and Aurora on what partnering to start GSA’s and provide other support services could look like.

As people learn about Joy As Resistance, they are invited to find ways to contribute that fit their capacity. This may mean donating, following on social media, or re-posting content that amplifies the vision of Joy As Resistance. Bre is also looking for people to volunteer time and expertise, especially finance, operations, and mental health professionals. Joy As Resistance would not be what it is today without the support of an active community, and that community is ever-growing.

And what has Bre learned from this year of founding, responding, growing? That there are failures everyday. In showing up as a leader, as a queer person, as an ally to Black people, as a human being, there will always be failures. Sometimes she won’t say the right thing, won’t understand the depth of something, or will gloss over something when she should have gone deeper. But she has to keep learning, and showing up. And with folks like these surrounding them, the road ahead looks wide open.

Joy As Resistance was an awardee of the inaugural Enduring Ideas award, given by The Reinvention Lab and powered by Teach For America. To learn more about all Enduring Ideas awardees, click here.

Illustration is by Drew Madson. Madson is an award-winning illustrator, educator, caricaturist, and doodler. His work has been featured in Harvard Ed. Week Magazine, The Harvard Citizen, CSB/SJU Record, and more.