What compelled you to found The Empathy Alliance?
The Empathy Alliance is a nonprofit that works with educators, student leaders, and parents around the country to create more acceptance for LGBTQ+ students. As a queer and gender nonconforming person, I was bullied throughout elementary and middle school. Once I came out and found acceptance, I realized how lucky I was to be loved for myself. That is when I decided to start The Empathy Alliance to ensure that other youth would not be harassed for who they are. The work we do makes schools safer for ALL students regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
What was it like starting your own non-profit at such a young age, and how do you plan on expanding your organization’s reach in the coming years?
The Empathy Alliance has reached thousands of teachers, students, and parents on topics as diverse as trans rights, starting a GSA, overcoming hidden biases, exploring gender, and understanding intersectionality. I feel very fortunate that through my non-profit, I get to do the one thing I love the most, which is being a teacher. I make a difference by educating others about the needs of LGBTQ+ students, a subject that I am passionate about and that is personally meaningful to me.
Even though I am young, the LGBTQ+ community has been very welcoming, and I have been lucky to find amazing mentors who support me and my nonprofit. I also partner with national organizations like The Human Rights Campaign, The GSA Network, Trikone, and The Tyler Clementi Foundation. These groups have been working for decades to further the rights of LGBTQ+ youth and combat anti-LGBTQ+ bullying and harassment. By partnering with them, The Empathy Alliance has been able to accomplish a lot more than we could have done alone! While The Empathy Alliance is working on several big projects right now, the one that excites me the most in terms of future impact is our teacher’s guide. I really believe this guide will help teachers because it is full of stories, tips, and tools that are written from the perspective of LGBTQ+ students. People are often surprised to learn that more than 85% of LGBTQ+ students experience bullying in schools, and more than 65% hear homophobic remarks and anti-gay slurs. LGBTQ+ youth are nearly three times as likely to have seriously contemplated suicide and five times as likely to have attempted suicide as their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts, so I believe this guide will really help teachers save lives. We just launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds, and hope to publish the guide within the next three months.
If you could give one tip to someone looking to make a difference in their community, what would it be?
Don’t be a bystander. Whatever problem you see, whatever issue you are passionate about, take a stand and do something about it. What you do is less important then the fact that you actually took action. I really believe the world is full of amazing people who have a lot to contribute, and together we can do anything we set our minds to: end world hunger, enjoy long lasting peace, save our environment, remove inequality and more. So don’t wait. Do something, anything, because we need you!
What have you found to be the most effective method for overcoming ignorance, hate, and exclusion in our culture?
I believe awareness and education are the two most effective tools for fighting bias. Whether I am working on a social media campaign, speaking on a panel, or facilitating a small workshop, my goal is to change hearts and minds through education and awareness.
Was there a specific person, or group of people, that played a large role in inspiring you to achieve your goals?
I owe a lot to the wonderful teachers, staff, and students at The College Preparatory School in Oakland where I study. As a new freshman, I came to this high school with very little knowledge about the LGBTQ+ community. However, in a short time I learned a lot thanks to an active GSA, engaged faculty, and an open and accepting school climate. When I came out, I was given all the support I could have wished for and I will always be grateful for that. The school also awarded me with an Equity Leadership Fellowship to attend a training conference that gave me a head start as an activist.
When I decided to return to my middle school to share my experiences with bullying and do something to change the school climate, I first approached my old counselor Ms. Amalia Kim. She is my hero and the one person who I owe the most to. She worked with me to start a GSA, get safe space stickers in classrooms, and introduce LGBTQ+ friendly books at the school library. She continues to create new programs and introduce better policies at the school, while also finding time to engage with The Empathy Alliance on work we do in the larger community. I can truly say that The Empathy Alliance exists because of her encouragement.
How did being a part of The Congressional Award enable you to accomplish your goals?
Being part of The Congressional Award gave me a tool to create regular, achievable milestones. I learned to enroll other adults and mentors in the work I was doing and benefited greatly from their advice. Because more people knew what I was trying to achieve, they cheered me on and I ended up accomplishing a lot more than I ever imagined I was capable of.
Why should a fellow young person consider enrolling in The Congressional Award?
The Congressional Award process offers a systematic, goal oriented, holistic approach to community service and personal development. As an activist I find myself rushing to finish numerous urgent things for my non-profit. Some weeks I stop taking care of myself, but working on the Congressional Award forces me to think carefully about physical fitness and health and find ways to be more balanced. Enrolling in The Congressional Award teaches you time management skills and the ability to accomplish a lot of big things by breaking them into manageable chunks. Its balanced approach forces you to develop new skills, get out of your comfort zone, and challenge yourself constantly. However, it is also very rewarding to track your progress over time and get tangible recognition. Best of all, this is not a competitive project but rather something for self-motivated, socially conscious people who want to do good in the world while trying to be the best possible version of themselves.
What is the best advice or words of encouragement you give to students who are victims of bullying or discrimination? And to those bullying?
I would want every victim of bullying to know that it isn’t your fault and that you are amazing just the way you are. As a society we may have failed to protect you, but if you can just be strong and believe that things will get better, I promise that one day they will! Every person is here for a reason, and sometimes we need to go through some hardships to discover our life’s purpose. You are here in this world for a reason too, so don’t let any bully make you feel bad about who you are. Don’t give up hope, and know that there are lots of people cheering you on.
To those who bully others, often unintentionally, I would say that it takes a lot of courage to be kind to those who seem different. If you are strong, or popular, or passionate, or vocal, then use your position to be a hero to those who need you the most. It isn’t cool or courageous to make jokes, use slurs, or verbally or physically harass someone just for entertainment. What seems like a small thing to you may end up ruining someone’s entire life. Also, one day you may end up being on the receiving end of someone’s bullying, so treat others like you would want to be treated yourself. Finally, be adventurous and be willing to explore friendships with a diverse range of people whose race, religion, gender, sexuality, politics, hobbies, interests, and ideas may not match yours. We are all human beings and can learn a lot from each other if we don’t put up unnecessary barriers between ourselves.