• Social Innovation Fellowship

Award Year 

Gay Nebraska Youth Network

The Gay Nebraska Youth Network (GNYN) is the only peer-led, youth-focused group in Nebraska that provides social activities, connections to resources, and opportunities for new friendships to gay youth. The goal of this C.V. Starr Social Entrepreneurship Project is to build on the successes of the GNYN to develop a sustainable, replicable, and easily implementable model of the existing organization and to distill this infrastructure into a kit which will be provided to student leaders in other states. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth face elevated risks of depression and suicide. This project has the potential to improve the psychosocial outcomes of LGBT youth nationwide.

Personal Statement

 The stories I hear from the youth in GNYN resonate with me intensely. I react to the stories of fear, isolation, and loneliness that youth express growing up gay in Nebraska because not so long ago, I was one of them. As an Omaha, Nebraska native who attended a tiny college-preparatory school, I could count the number of LGBT people I knew on two hands, and those my age on one. Though I excelled in academics, in extracurricular activities, and socially among peers, I had a good deal of trouble emotionally. While my high school friends enjoyed relationships, both serious and frivolous, I often felt lonely and isolated; I felt as if no one understood what I was going through. And despite my close friends’ and family members’ earnest attempts to understand certain issues I was facing, I yearned for a community that would understand and respond to my concerns without excessive explanation. I hated always being “different,” and desperately wanted a place to just “fit in.” I share this information not because I think it makes me unique; in fact, from countless discussions I’ve had with LGBT Nebraskan youth, these are common sentiments. This project blossomed out of a personal need, one which I know many others also harbor.

After my freshman year at Brown (2009-2010), I was struck by how much of an LGBT community existed on campus. It was unlike anything I had experienced until that point, and it very literally changed my life. Seeing people at Brown openly express their identities in such kaleidoscopic diversity allowed me to finally envision a future where I could be both gay and happy. After participating in a variety of groups my freshman year, I took up more leadership positions within the queer community at Brown, and today am heavily involved on campus. I serve as the Head Chair of the Queer Alliance, an umbrella student organization with about 15 active subgroups which serves as a hub for LGBT organizing on campus. I am also co-chairing the IvyQ 2012 conference, an annual pan-IvyQ queer conference which will be hosted at Brown in February for its third year, with an anticipated attendance of 500 students and over 30 renowned presenters.

I feel qualified to pursue this project because of my history with it, my demonstrated leadership ability, and also my coursework at Brown. As a Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies double-concentrator, many of my classes center upon the themes of identity formation and maintenance. Courses I’ve taken in Ethnic Studies and Religious Studies have helped me to understand how racial/ethnic and religious identities may intersect with non-normative sexual or gender identities. I also worked on a research team investigating the effects of socioeconomic status on students’ experiences of Brown, so I am fairly knowledgeable about the influence SES can have on young people.

 I loved what I found at Brown, and I also loved my Midwestern home; returning from Brown after my freshman year, I believed that LGBT Nebraskan youth would actively desire and benefit from a large, visible youth community similar to that which I have found at Brown. With big aspirations and a few people to help me, I then created what I called the “Gay Nebraska Youth Network.” I am attached to this cause and think that it will be incredibly rewarding for me--not to mention the youth who have told me how much this group helps them--to be able to stay in Omaha this summer and build the GNYN into something that will last beyond my time as an undergraduate and continue beyond the Cornhusker State. I believed that this was important work in May of ’10, and I believe even more so now. Reading through members’ uniformly positive reviews of the GNYN has invigorated my commitment to this project proposal and fueled my belief that I can contribute to a better future for LGBT youth.