He Was Born This Way
It feels weird to interview someone historical.
Weird because they did something profound — such as pass a pro-Pride law in a city with a strong religious community. But even weirder because they’re human: just like you and me.
Juan Acosta is an entrepreneurial activist who serves on national committees, speaks at conferences and festivals, and co-authored a book with Lady Gaga. He’s dedicated his life to fighting for mental health and LGBTQ+ rights.
He’s only twenty-two and, although he’s already accomplished a lot, he’s most certainly not finished. It’s clear that communities in the U.S. — and around the world — still have a lot more work to do for the LGBTQ+ community. We’re also not the best at improving mental health.
It’s important to note the intersectionality of his work, as both mental health and LGBTQ+ issues are intertwined.
Juan is already a leader on these issues at the national level. And with people like him leading at the forefront, the future definitely looks bright.
Noah: Tell us about yourself and the work you’ve done with the Born This Way Foundation, your writing, among other endeavors.
Juan: I am a mental health and LGBTQ+ advocate, activist & a national speaker. I’m originally from Woodland, California but currently reside in San Francisco.
I began doing community service and advocacy work at the age of thirteen and raked up more than 200 community service hours by the age of fifteen, receiving recognition from non-profits and government agencies.
Since then I have collaborated with numerous organizations including as mentioned, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. I had the honor to serve as one of the inaugural reporters for their Channel Kindness platform. It’s a digital platform created by Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to act as a safe space for young people to tell their stories of kindness, resilience, and community. It highlights positive news and kind acts done by people and organizations throughout numerous communities.
My work as an advocate includes the historic LGBTQ+ proclamation I drafted for the city of Woodland. A story I wrote about this experience is featured in Lady Gaga & Born This Way Foundations upcoming book titled Channel Kindness.
Noah: Can you tell us more about Channel Kindness?
Juan: Of course. The book is a collection of inspirational stories written by young people as well as personal notes of empowerment from Born This Way Foundation co-founder Lady Gaga.
Within the pages, you’ll meet young changemakers who found their inner strength, prevailed in the face of bullies, started their own social movements, and decided to break through the mental health stigma. These storytellers shared how they felt, created safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth, and embraced kindness with every fiber of their being by helping others without the expectation of anything in return.
Noah: Can you tell us more about your story within the book?
Juan: Of course, my story is about my push for LGBTQ+ visibility in my hometown of Woodland, California. It depicts the importance of safe spaces and the communities reaction to it.
Noah: How would you describe Woodland, California in that light? Has the community been more or less progressive on that front?
Juan: My hometown has definitely demonstrated growth. The proclamation I drafted passed through the city council for the first time ever. It’s a true testament to the town’s growth, as a similar attempt was shot down by the city council in 1998.
Nevertheless, there is room for growth. I hope my work and my mission to operate as a vehicle for change is able to spark proactive conversations and movements throughout my community.
Noah: What was the proclamation that passed and how did it impact the community?
Juan: It was a LGBTQ+ Pride proclamation that sent out a message of acknowledgement and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in Woodland, CA. It brought joy to many and helped empower and uplift voices that oftentimes were left out of the conversation. Voices that felt discouraged and afraid.
My work in the mental health field — and advocacy in general — has always been rooted in ensuring that voices normally left out of the conversation are brought to the table. I am honored to currently serve on numerous committees to elevate the youth voice in the mental health conversation since we know that the mental health system should not operate as one-size-fits-all.
Noah: Can you tell us about the committees you serve on and what work you’ve done with them?
Juan: I am currently one of the fifteen members of the Youth Innovation Project Planning Committee for California’s Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission. The committee was selected from hundreds of applicants throughout the state and is tasked with finding innovative ways to help the youth access mental health services they need.
The committee — as a whole — identified common, unmet mental health needs that the youth are facing. Our work is then put into action as we have been putting together a first of its kind regional Innovation Idea Labs throughout California. It’s being formed to bring young and county leaders together to have a proactive conversation about their needs.
I am also lucky enough to be one out of the six members nationally selected for Mental Health America’s Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council. I’m contributing to a report on issues in collegiate mental health and advice for other student leaders and campus mental health advocates. In addition I’ll present at the national Mental Health America conference scheduled for September. I am looking forward to the upcoming speaking engagements — some that will now be held virtually due to our current situation.
“Nevertheless, there is room for growth. I hope my work and my mission to operate as a vehicle for change is able to spark proactive conversations and movements throughout my community.” — Juan Acosta
Noah: Wow, you have quite the formidable work load even with the committees alone.
I want to dissect everything you said so let’s start with the regional Innovation Idea Labs. What is this, exactly? A startup incubator? A nonprofit incubator? Both? How will it work operationally?
Juan: I’d like to look at the Innovation Idea Labs as an incubator for some very exciting ideas created by fearless youth leaders and activists who’ll present their work to county leaders.
The committee has been putting together Idea Labs to bring both youth and county leaders together to foster these proactive conversations and plans for new or enhanced resources throughout the state of California.
Noah: What are some of these plans? Or are they confidential at the moment?
Juan: There are many plans and proposals.
Some include school institutions having more mental health resources, county leaders enhancing and making these resources more accessible for all, and more about how we can bridge these resources together with technology.
The experience has been phenomenal. I am looking forward to seeing the finalized results of these Idea Labs. I am also excited to continue sparking these conversations locally and nationally via my upcoming speaking engagements and projects.
Noah: Is there a musical component to the work that you’re doing in mental health advocacy? And if so can you explain?
Juan: I believe music is so powerful, and it really helps us all on the daily. We all have a song that brings back memories, that brings us joy, and songs that break our heart. I believe in the power of music, I view music as a medium that helps humans process things we all benefit from it.
Which is why I’m particularly looking forward to being a panelist at the upcoming 320 Festival being put together by Talinda Bennington and Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman.
“It brought joy to many and helped empower and uplift voices that oftentimes were left out of the conversation. Voices that felt discouraged and afraid.” — Juan Acosta
Noah: Who’s playing this year at 320?
Juan: There are so many amazing performers on the lineup. I am particularly excited to see Art Alexakis of Everclear and Social House, who worked on Ariana Grande’s Boyfriend.
Noah: Great. What panel are you most excited for that’s being hosted at the festival?
Juan: I have to be biased and say I’m really excited for the panel I’ll be taking part of.
The LGBTQ+ panel will be a discussion about the unique and specific pressures faced by the LGBTQ+ community alongside my friends from Mental Health America. However, I am really looking forward to the Cultural Perspectives on Mental Health, and Entertainment Industry and Mental Health panels!
Noah: Well it sounds like we should all go to the festival to listen and learn!
My final question is this: other than Lady Gaga, of course, what local musicians would you recommend us at The Riff to listen to?