by Jacklin Bolduan
Antonio Mims is a senior at Madison West High School. He has been a part of GSAFE’s Foundations of Leadership (FOL) course since his sophomore year. GSAFE, the Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, functions statewide to provide a multitude of programming, leadership opportunities, resources, and advocacy for Wisconsin’s LGBTQ youth and the schools they build community in. According to GSAFE, the FOL course aims to “Foster in students a better understanding of themselves and their capacity for leadership and to empower youth to become active partners in the collective success of the individual and the community with an emphasis on racial justice, LGBTQ issues and social justice.”
Students are nominated by teachers and community members, or they can self-nominate. The nomination is followed up by an interview with the GSAFE’s Racial Justice Youth Organizer, Ali Muldrow, who also plans curriculum and facilitates the course.
Muldrow says the course is strongly rooted in exploring the experiences of LGBTQ people of color. To her, “Leadership is an orientation of the imagination,” which is reflected in the structure and assignments of the course. “A lot of it is looking at systemic issues and then asking students to generate creative and thoughtful solutions.”
Muldrow says the class also asks students to unpack how those systemic issues affect them in their personal lives. For their assignments, students are asked to offer creative responses to the prompts and they are encouraged to manipulate the assignment in whatever way they see fit. In addition, the classroom is grounded in the notion of consent. Muldrow says the goal is for students to be able to make a “declaration of who you are in the space.”
Not only does the class provide new frameworks for understanding, but it’s a lot of work. Muldrow says it’s important for students to create work that they care about. “We really push students to do things that they’re interested in to create work that they care about and that they feel proud of.”
Mims said, “The class has really opened my eyes to a lot of things regarding racism that’s institutionalized and issues of sexuality and gender and poverty.” He said the ability to discern between ideas that do and do not inspire oneself stretch beyond the FOL classroom. “That idea has helped me to grow in my self and create me. Just become more confident and autonomous.”
It’s clear that FOL has a lasting influence on its students like Mims, who has already been accepted to two universities. He hopes to major in psychology and to apply that work to progressing social justice, although he’s not quite sure what that will look like yet.
In June of 2015, FOL broke outside of the classroom and began offering the course to youth who are incarcerated. The students can take the course online and earn credit that can be used or built upon once they are released. It takes a different format and utilizes a different curriculum, but is created to link up with the FOL course should students choose to enroll once they are released.
The title of the course is The New Narrative Project, which centers around LGBTQ inclusion and self-determination. Muldrow describes it as “A course that allows folks to explore their leadership capacity as they explore their own identity.”
The course is made up of a different group of students every week. Together, they cover one theme, which also changes each class. Currently there are a little over 70 incarcerated students enrolled in the course.
“We’ve been focused on inclusion and making sure that all students have access to being celebrated for their leadership, their importance, their brilliance. We realized there was a hole in working with incarcerated youth. Those were students who had just as much right as any other student to gain access to advanced learner curriculum,” says Muldrow.
She said GSAFE saw a need to create a link between students who are incarcerated and academic success. They wanted to stress the importance of connecting incarcerated youth to civic engagement alongside this work.
“Because of the racial disparities in Madison, I knew coming into this position that to really do this work we were going to have to include incarcerated young people and prioritize incarcerated young people.”
Muldrow knows that beyond these statistics, there is a system that leads specific groups of people to a life dealing with the prison industrial complex. “We know that LGBTQ folks of color are more likely to be incarcerated that anybody else. There was a need to address the systemic impact of the school to prison pipeline.”
FOL is making small strides in reaching that goal. So far, there are two students who have transitioned from taking the New Narratives course online to taking the Foundations of Leadership course when they were released. “It’s a huge compliment,” Muldrow said, to have students decide to take the course after they are released since for many, maintaining any connection with the detention facilities they were in is emotionally challenging.
Although she knows there is much more work to be done, she says she’s excited about the possibilities courses like FOL are creating for the future.“We’re definitely going to live in a better world because these people are going to grow up and put these ideas into some version of action.”
Foundations of Leadership has begun recruitment for the Fall 2016 semester. To nominate a student and find out more about the course you can visit GSAFE’s website. Click on “What We Do,” then “Youth Leadership Development,” then “Foundations of Leadership,” where you will find the link to nominate.