Students in the university's Q-community returned from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change Conference with the vision of making the Q-community more inclusive at the University of Richmond.
The conference was held at the Hilton Atlanta from Jan. 23 to Jan. 27 and brought more than 3,500 people together from the United States and abroad to discuss the LGBTQ movement and to train in leadership development.
"It was a great opportunity to connect with folks across the U.S. and internationally on LGBTQ issues," said Ted Lewis, the university's first associate director for LGBTQ campus life.
Wednesday was a full day of anti-racism training, whereas Thursday consisted of daylong institutes on specific topics, Lewis said. During the rest of the week, conference participants attended workshops and speeches.
In small groups of about 20 participants, the students were able to listen to speakers whom they had read about in class, Lewis said. Two of the speakers at the conference included Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and performer Frenchie Davis from "American Idol" and "The Voice."
On Thursday, most of the Richmond students attended the campus pride institute on how to start change on college campuses. Sophomore and Q-community member Aurora Breeden attended the campus organization institute and took away several ideas intended to bring awareness to the Q-community and enhance its inclusiveness. Many groups on college campuses have diverse LGBTQ members, but few allies in their groups, Breeden said.
The participants discussed ways to involve more straight allies in campus organizations that are similar to the Q-community, including inviting one ally to accompany each existing member at meetings and hosting mixers, Breeden said. One of her goals for the university is to have another gender-neutral space other than within the Q-community, she said.
The campus pride institute specifically addressed building leadership skills, Lewis said. There were several workshops geared at college students and how they could create change in their communities.
Lewis was the only faculty member who attended this year, the second who has taken students to the conference. He brought eight students with him, including all five members of the Q-community and three additional students. Each of the eight students had received scholarships from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lewis said.
The students were interested in meeting with other people from Virginia, Lewis said. They met with a congregation of students from Virginia Tech, as well as Richmond alumni working in LGBTQ fields throughout the country. These alumni are involved in organizations including Southerners on New Ground, Soulforce and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, Lewis said.
Junior Ashley Colon, a member of the Q-community, attended a three-hour workshop focused on transgender people in the LGBTQ community. The workshop stressed the importance of recognizing the issues transgender people face in society and including them in social-justice work, Colon said.
The sessions were Colon's favorite part of the conference because the speeches helped her realize how much power is within the movement, she said.
"We are still learning at the grassroots level," Colon said. "But there are people who have been in this for a very long time and are guiding the movement," Colon said.
"It's like you have this huge family history, and it's all there in one room."
President Obama sent a short video to the participants of the conference along with some of his staffers, who held a workshop on the Obama administration, Lewis said.
"It was a surprise to everyone who was at the conference," Lewis said. "No sitting president has ever attended or sent a letter or video, including Obama, in the last four years. This was a big deal."
The president's video was especially meaningful for students since it was received so close to his inaugural speech, Lewis said. The speech was the first inaugural speech in which a president had ever used the word "gay." This made students feel as if they were a part of the discussion on a national level, Lewis said.
Another focus of this year's conference was immigration reform as an LGBTQ issue, Lewis said. There were many workshops that taught organizations how to work better with undocumented people living in America.
The Q-community students plan to attend the conference again next year in Texas, Colon said.
Contact reporter Megan Haggerty at firstname.lastname@example.org