Engaged Faculty Spotlight: Faculty Members Addressing LGBTQ+ Issues

Faculty Members Addressing LGBTQ+ Issues
July 10, 2023

This month's spotlight features two faculty members engaged with LGBTQ+ communities in their teaching, mentoring, research and/or policy-related work, especially focusing on LGBTQ+ youth and the importance of affirming LGBTQ+ identities.

Dr. Jessica Peters, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, has served as a part-time staff clinician at the community organization Youth Pride Inc (YPI) in Providence since August 2016, in addition to her work at Brown. Peters says that she first started her position to obtain clinical hours to apply for licensure, but after she got her license in 2018, she “continued because it was a meaningful part of my week.” Since 2016, Peters has run therapy groups, seen individual clients, participated in drop-in hours, and supported primarily BIPOC sexual and gender minority youth who attend YPI.

Peters highlights the importance of affirmative care and building trust through continuous community engagement, especially when individuals likely had either no or negative experiences with therapy. For Peters, YPI provides space for interaction beyond formal clinical work. In her downtime, Peters says, she “would just interact with the youth” at YPI and would have conversations at the kitchen table that allowed her to support and get to know youth who originally were not interested in formal sessions of counseling or therapy. Working in the affirming and safe space at YPI allows Peters “to meet the youth where they are at and to gain trust” in ways that are different than in hospital or lab settings. For example, she says, “I don’t think it would have had nearly the success in terms of engaging with as many youth meaningfully if I just showed up only to do formal sessions with them.” She describes YPI as a “space that is deeply queer and is this safe, welcoming, and informal place for youth to just show up and be themselves.” One of her main goals is to “demonstrate to youth that both therapy and research can be affirming and safe spaces.”

Peters’s work with YPI has inspired other trainees at Brown who seek additional training with sexual and gender minority youth to volunteer their time to community engagement. She has trained interested post-doctoral fellows at Brown in sexuality- and gender-affirming therapy. “Every person who has worked with me has sought this out as a way to add to and supplement their clinical training,” Peters says. In addition to providing clinical supervision, these collaborations with Brown trainees have led to the development of initiatives to meet Youth Pride Inc.’s needs. Working with Dr. Peters, Dr. Alex Bettis, formerly a Brown postdoctoral fellow, received a Child Mental Health in Action Award in 2020 for the Little Unicorns Project, a family-based supportive intervention for younger (5-9 years old) LGBTQ+ children. This program is now a sustained element of the organization’s work, providing space for the children to socialize and the families to receive information at YPI. Similarly, Peters supervised Dr. Gisela Jimenez-Colon in establishing Mostrando Orgullo, a much-needed Spanish-speaking support group, which is now run by YPI staff. Peters has also worked successfully to connect staff and youth at YPI with Brown-affiliated clinical faculty and treatment programs. These connections help escalate care for youth in need, while disseminating information about the space YPI provides to queer youth in various treatment programs in Providence. 

YPI has also provided a space for conducting research and recruiting participants. Peters was part of a team, led by Drs. Shirley Yen and Ethan Mereish, who were awarded an NIH grant to study potential treatment modifiable mechanisms of the effects of minority stress on experiences of self-harm and suicide ideation in queer youth. Motivated by supporting queer youth and figuring out opportunities for intervention to build resilience, Peters emphasizes the reciprocal nature of the project, “how can we then take all this wealth of information that these participants have generously given to us to help them or youth like them, and tailor interventions for youth experiencing these intense minority stressors.” An article from this project recently came out that aims to inform treatment development.

Beginning in Fall 2023, Peters will shift her clinical work at YPI into a primarily supervisory role, training Brown postdoctoral fellows and URI doctoral students volunteering at YPI to provide therapy and receive training in sexual and gender affirming care. Reflecting on her experiences at YPI, Peters emphasizes the importance of “actually being a person in these communities as well as practicing and conducting research in them. If you want to engage professionally in these communities, you are going to get a lot further if you also engage as a human being.”


Dr. John Palella, lecturer in Education, joined Brown University in 2020, and has been teaching EDUC 0515: LGBTQIA History since. This Community Based Learning and Research (CBLR) course starts with the question; “What could a high school U.S. history class look, sound, and feel like when taught through the experiences of LGBTQIA people and communities?”, and prioritizes LGBTQ+ identities, voices, and resistance to systems of domination. The assignments for this course culminate in creating 10-day lesson plans for high school students, as well as analyzing the history curricula of local high schools. Palella highlights the importance of historical narratives - deeply contested in contemporary US politics - and affirming LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 education for democracy, learning, and inclusion. He focuses on storytelling as a particularly effective teaching and communication strategy.


Palella has been involved with the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), consulting on inclusive K-12 social science studies in Rhode Island as the state revises curriculum standards. Palella has served as one of the principal history standard writers for RIDE’s new Social Studies Standards. He has been vocally opposed to the H7539 Bill discussed in the House Education Committee in April 2022, which would restrict teaching about race, sexuality, and gender identity in public schools. In a Brown Daily Herald interview, Palella indicated that “it’s actually super healthy for children to learn about different gender identities, identities different from themselves…. And (to understand) the inclusivity and diversity of those identities.” Palella is also serving as a Curriculum Advisor to Courageous RI, which aims to combat hate speech and harmful forms of communication in media and education. 


When asked why he chose to come to Brown, Palella highlighted the engaged scholarship of the University as a primary reason for his enthusiasm; “Brown's commitments to training culturally responsive and social-justice-oriented educators; transforming the educational experiences of predominantly Black and Brown students in urban schools; and fighting systemic inequities in the Providence school district through research, teaching, and local activism! These are the major reasons why I came to Brown.” Palella has a “special interest in the voices that LGBTQIA+ historiography has both ignored and muffled. I use this research to empower social studies teachers to explore these histories in their classrooms.” Most recently, he has received the Anti-Racism in Practice Grant in Spring 2023, along with two undergraduate students and Dr. Laura Snyder, through Sheridan Center’s Seminar for Transformation Around Anti-Racist Teaching.