Columns » Queer & There

Educating educators on diversity

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Avalon Manly, 28, is an explosion of color, wearing a hat crowded with Pokémon, her seafoam hair waving from beneath the brim. She wears a pair of tinted glasses and a tie-dye shirt. Her nails, (freshly done) glint on the table. She strikes me as unmistakably Millennial, the furthest from my classic, stodgy, tweed-wearing understanding of what a teacher looks like. But she has six years of teaching experience and recently returned from teaching other teachers how to teach — particularly how to teach with an eye toward equity.

Her title: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness Facilitator (DEIF) for Teach for America (TFA), a nonprofit organization whose mission statement is to “enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.” The organization recruited her right out of college, and sent her to a school in New Orleans where she worked for three years before returning to Colorado Springs to be with her family. This summer, she was responsible for leading other teachers, who hailed from all over the country, through training that spanned privilege, oppression, identity, and how a teacher fits into this system.

Manly now lives and teaches here in the Springs. Having lived here in her youth, she knows this community. “I managed to grow up here in a super white bubble,” she says, “where I never had conversations about equity, and I think I’m here to do this work because of that. I somehow managed to never think about these things.”
When describing the main focus of her activism, Manly proves passionate and sharp, often including sources for facts and recommendations for further reading. She works intersectionally along the lines of race, class, identity, legal status, socioeconomic status, gender and queer identities. Of the latter, Manly (who is bisexual herself) says: “We need to do better teaching queer kids.”

Data support her assertion. According to a 2015 survey by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), 57.6 percent of queer students felt unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation, 43.3 percent due to their gender expression. Moreover, 66.2 percent experienced discriminatory policies at their schools, while 16.7 percent were prevented from discussing or writing about queer topics, and 50.9 percent of transgender students were prevented from using their preferred name or pronouns.

Victimized students had lower GPAs and were twice as likely not to go to college. While Colorado state laws prohibit discrimination against students due to sexual orientation and gender identity, “no promo homo” laws — or laws actively preventing or limiting the discussion of queer and trans issues in a positive way — in public schools exist in seven states.

Colorado may have progressed beyond that outward discrimination, but there are still battles to fight for full equity. Manly says: “Activism isn’t dead here, it’s just harder to find.” She indicates that the TFA Colorado Springs chapter is dedicated to its parent organization’s mission to promote educational equity, but the schools themselves have work to do. She says: “In my personal experience, I have not seen administrations working toward this aim... but kids are! Kids are starting GSAs [Gay-Straight Alliances] every which way. Kids are on it.”

Manly gives queer adults some ideas for how to help these activist students: “Advocate for equitable spaces in schools (like gender-neutral bathrooms) and acceptance of gender expression and identity, trans inclusion... so kids can be themselves at school.” She encourages adults to fight “no promo homo” laws, apply to join one of Teach for America’s advisory boards, go to school board meetings, advocate to include queer history in the curriculum, and partner with schools that are willing to teach queer history.

As for teachers of queer students (all teachers), Manly offers this advice: You can grapple with how to specifically support your queer students but “neutrality is also a choice, and if you choose to do nothing, you are choosing to oppress kids. Inaction is a choice.”

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