Lincoln Park High School (LPHS) has become the home base for a new LGBT mentorship program, the first of its kind in the Chicago area. The dean of students — a straight, married woman — created the Lincoln Park Youth Society to provide a safe space for LGBT teenagers to socialize with individuals who can offer help and advice to those struggling with bullying and homophobia. With the vast interest in mentoring and its enormous expansion throughout the community, the Lincoln Park Youth Society has amazing potential to influence people across the country to start similar programs that address issues facing students in their own cities.
Christy Walker, the 28-year-old dean of students at LPHS, realized the school needed this program in just her first month at the school in 2012. The school has no gay-straight alliance club and few opportunities exist in the city for LGBT students to interact with like-minded individuals. A LPHS student had tried to start a gay-straight alliance last year, but they graduated before the idea took hold.
"When I came to Lincoln Park [High School this past September], it was just natural for me; I saw that there wasn't really anything in place for LGBT students," said Walker. "Within the first three weeks of being here, I had a young lesbian come in [to my office] and saw that she didn't have a mentor in her life. So this is a population that I wanted to create a support network for here at Lincoln Park."
The Lincoln Park Youth Society, similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters, kicked off earlier this year to rousing success. It holds monthly social events in addition to providing LGBT students with local college or graduate student mentors who also identify as LGBT.
Walker's involvement in the program didn't just start with the lesbian student she encountered at school — her entire life has been devoted to the cause.
"My background in research is working with LGBT students and identity development; that was a big area that I focused on while I was in graduate school at Indiana University," she said. "This is something that I've always been passionate about, and in education I think it's really important that we're teaching inclusion and equality."
Walker reached out to DePaul University graduate student Nico Lang, an LGBT community activist and noted blogger, for help starting the organization. Together, they identified the root issues facing LGBT students, including the lack of role models, rampant bullying, and an overall lack of commitment to maintaining a program like this. The fall of the gay-straight alliance club at LPHS bore testament to this issue.
Now, Lang receives dozens of emails from students who are interested in getting involved as mentors. Both he and Walker are optimistic that the program will raise awareness for LGBT rights and could perhaps even branch into the community in other forms.
"Let this be a platform for other Chicago area schools to create awareness and education about folks with diverse identities, and this will prepare them for the next step, a huge one: life," wrote ChicagoNow blogger Lenox Magee.
There are myriad issues facing students of all backgrounds, whether they be LGBT, racial, or even family-related, and the quick success of the Lincoln Park Youth Society should drive others around the United States to take action as well. Walker wants this program to influence the entire Chicago public school system, but it has implications to take hold across the country.