What the Just Us program really means
A room full of 30 adults from places with lofty acronyms like USDA and DCS stared at them. They sat where divinity students, lawyers and government officials had just led panels since 10 that morning. Yet, when their panel concluded, they were the only group to receive a tearful standing ovation.
In this summit hosted by the federal government, five LGBT high school students related wrenching accounts of estrangement, isolation and rejection—of self-harm and suicide attempts. But because of one program, two women and forty high schoolers like them, they then shared redemptive stories of inclusion, love and acceptance.
That's the power of positive reinforcement. That's the result of having a place to be authentically yourself. That's the Just Us program. These 15-18 year-olds confidently answered personal questions some adults still struggle with, such as "What's your coming out story?" and "Why is it important to be openly gay?" Their responses held such power that many in the audience were reduced to tears.
One attendee asked, "Do you feel safer in urban areas than you do in rural areas?" senior Leslie proudly answered: "I feel safe everywhere because I believe in myself." That kind of self-assurance is hard to come by in any high schooler, let alone an 18-year-old transgender student. And, to be sure, it didn't come by accident.
Just Us, a program of the OASIS Center launched in 2011 by activist Pam Sheffer, owns most of the responsibility for that confidence. Through three distinct groups—Lounge, Students of Stonewall and TYME—the program empowers LGBT high schoolers to discover and love their authentic selves.
Just Us is the only program specifically for LGBT high schoolers in Middle Tennessee. As such, some of its members drive as far as 70 miles to get there to attend a two hour meeting called Called.
"The only place I feel authentically myself is here," said freshman Cyrus, 15, who identifies as a gay male.
Attendance averages thirteen high schoolers per session, a far cry from the three boasted by the program in its fledgling days. Total membership now runs in the neighborhood of forty, with no signs of stopping its growth.
If it were merely a support group, LGBT kids wouldn't travel as far as they do for it. If it were simply an activist education group, these students wouldn't keep coming back. Certainly, Lounge combines those two things well. But it runs deeper than that.
"Just Us has been a lifesaver," said Leslie. "I didn't have anything close to this before. You get a sense of family and community."
Another student, Charlie, a transgender gay male who preferred not to share his high school, expressed how Just Us rescued him from his dark nights of self-harm to the bright days of self-confidence he now experiences. "I was able to talk about what I felt, use my preferred pronouns and not have anyone question my identity," he said. "[My first day] was the best day of my life." Just Us members, he said, are his second family.
Program specialist Paige Regan, then, is the “mother” of this family. She leads the biweekly Lounge meeting, guiding the discussions and creating a space for them to feel safe and empowered. She assumes many roles—counselor, friend, teacher—and her coworkers and students love her for all of them. She also coordinates the other two Just Us programs and reaches out to the community.
And as a former English teacher, she concerns herself just as much with the students' education as their emotional well-being, two things she maintains are inextricably linked. She says students must first feel safe, both within their own skin and their classroom, before they can succeed. Without that feeling of security, students cannot be expected to excel.
She tries in their meetings to avoid "empowerment in a vacuum," she said. Everything Just Us does is geared towards helping students realize their full potential, with the hopes they'll then go out and help others do the same. Think of it as a support group salted with a dash of activism.
Regan and founder Sheffer lead by example and maintain an activist presence in Nashville, with participation in March's summit being just the most recent example. Together, they lead training sessions which teach educators how to navigate culturally diverse classrooms, with emphasis placed on sexual minorities. Recently, they landed a contract with Metro Nashville Public Schools to train every middle and high school teacher in the district.
But if all that sounds too ideological, Regan stresses the importance of maintaining a fun environment for the young people. After the summit, four of the five students gathered for an interview—or, more accurately, a free-for-all hangout interrupted periodically by questions. Once they left the spotlight, they also left behind their business-like attitudes and seriousness, trading them for fun and frivolity—typical teen stuff.
They stole spare moments between interview questions to glance at their phones; every question asked ran the risk of going out of control as the students rattled off anecdotes and jabs. They laughed with each other, they loved on each other. And if labels must be used, then "friends" simply would not suffice.
Indeed, Just Us is their second home. And these kids are family. "We create community," said Regan. "Hands down, it's what we do best."
Photo credit: Paige Regan