Inclusion is a right.
If the group of teens attending “Changemakers: An Empowering Enrichment Program for Youth” left with anything, that’s the message Allison Matulli said she wants them to hold most dear.
“It’s not something that is optional for people, but it’s not taught. It is a life skill. When you walk out the door and interact with others, either you’re following the laws — or you’re breaking them,” said Matulli, executive director of Legal Kid, a nonprofit created to empower kids with understanding of the law.
The five-day program was funded by The Children’s Trust in partnership with The Alliance for GLBTQ Youth, and held July 17-21 at Pridelines in Miami.
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A half-dozen teens engaged in activities and discussions meant to empower them with legal knowledge to create change in their own communities.
The Changemakers program taught them how to use their voices to humanize the issues their communities face.
“What I want is for them to understand that the law is something they have as a weapon in their arsenal,” Matulli said. “They can use their words to show who they are and be proud of who they are.”
The program goal was to set the stage for them to use their voices and eventually work on legal cases specific to the LGBT community, she said. On the last day, the teens presented their articles written for the Legal Kid magazine and the art they had created to represent them.
Matulli hopes to expand the program in the fall and hopes to someday have a Changemakers safe space where teens can meet and plan.
“It’s all about popularity contests and social media, but we want to break away from that and help them realize that their stories are powerful on their own,” she said. “And no one really knows what it’s like to walk in your shoes, unless you tell them, so we are giving them the platform to share with other kids.”
The program needs sponsors to help publish the magazines, she said. If a teenager wants more information or to contribute, they should visit legalkid.com.
Angel Torres, 17, said the program allowed him to talk openly about his sexual orientation for the first time.
“It just wasn’t something I did,” he said. “I come from a conservative family, and I was worried what they would think. Now I know that if I love myself, that’s what matters most.”
Angel’s story was about the use of the word “gay” and why it should not be used as an insult. Hearing people use the word negatively made it hard for him to come out and ultimately accept himself, he said.
“You want to call me gay? Fine. But use it correctly,” he wrote.
When he and the other Changemakers finished, Matulli gave them a backpack, a certificate and a journal to continue their stories.
“You are the civil rights movement,” she told them. “If you share your story with someone, if you speak out against injustice, every single step you make — you are planting a seed of change.”
Heidy Rodriquez, a Miami Lakes Educational Center senior, said the program inspired her to be an activist. She plans to throw the first LGBT prom at her school to make students feel safe and celebrated.
She is concerned about fundraising and finding a safe location for the dance, but Heidy, 17, said she has to try.
“This has really shown me that this is possible,” she said. “ I never thought that I could do this as a career, but now I want to.”