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VCU’s Lavender Summit: Empowering the Next Generation of LGBTQ Leaders

At a weekend retreat, LGBTQ college students learn to respect and advocate for themselves and each other, while toasting marshmallows over a campfire.

Sage Cannady | October 5, 2018

From September 28th to September 30th, VCU’s Lavender Empowerment Summit shuttled a group of LGBTQ college students to Williamsburg, VA. The stated goal of the Lavender Empowerment Summit is to “engage LGBTQIA+ students by encouraging their development as leaders” and “provide a safe space to share experiences and learn about issues within the LGBTQIA+ community, and also addresses how to raise awareness about those issues to others.” Open to all LGBTQ college students, regardless of age, Lav Summit participants ranged from older adults in their 50s to young adults having just turned 18.

This year’s summit was the third annual summit at the Jamestown 4-H Educational Center, and it totally lived up to its goals, providing a weekend away from the city and into the woods with an overall feeling of safety and of validation between peers and chaperones. I befriended college students and VCU staff easily, and was quickly invited to attend informal gatherings outside the conference schedule, even by those I’d only recently met.

I learned a variety of things about myself and about others during my time at the summit. For me, the most engaging workshop was one presented by Professor Bee Coston, who works in the Gender and Women’s Studies department at VCU. Coston’s presentation was on the importance of neurodivergent and disabled perspectives in social justice work. It pointed out ways that the disabled and neurodiverse are underrepresented in social justice groups, and that advocacy groups tend towards excluding those who are marginalized in multiple ways.

Coston and some participants described ableism within and outside of the classroom, and I learned a great deal about ableism and what ableism looks like, both at VCU and at the summit itself.  Participants pointed out things that might escape notice for those who are not disabled, such as lack of benches on the walk to class, lack of provisions for missing class due to illness, and other issues that Coston hopes to address within the institution of VCU.

While not doing so perfectly, the Lavender Empowerment Summit made efforts to cater toward minorities within the LGBTQ+ community, particularly people of color, by providing workshops exclusive to QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color). On Saturday, participants were separated by race for a Racial Institute, in which white attendees and attendees of color held separate discussions on racism. At the end of the event, the two groups joined together to listen to a series of demands presented by the QTPOC group, which included listening to people of color without judgment about whether or not the person of color “fits” their racialized category.

The Racial Institute was an emotional experience, but it was necessary in order to get across the notion that racism still exists and is still prevalent within the LGBTQ community. In particular, it helped bring QTPOC participants together over the weekend; at dinner Saturday night, they established a special table for QTPOC for building community and safe space.

Other workshops I attended included LGBT Politics in America, Adversity to Advocacy, and Pre-Stonewall Queer History, each of which were led by LGBTQ students. LGBT Politics in America covered several aspects of the current political landscape, including various modern political events that relate to the LGBTQ community, an outline of the Obama’s administration policy in relation to LGBTQ rights, and which local delegates are up for office in various districts.

Adversity to Advocacy was a workshop about how to plan direct actions and social justice movements effectively. Pre-Stonewall Queer History outlined various events relating to LGBTQ rights that led up to Stonewall, ending with Sylvia Rivera’s confrontational speech at a 1973 gay liberation rally, advocating for the rights of members of the community, particularly trans people, who weren’t being respected by the gay establishment at the time.

Overall, 2018′s Lavender Summit was a wonderful weekend of education, empowerment, and friendship. Campfires were made, s’mores were roasted, and canoes were paddled under the moonlight. All of us at the summit learned a great deal about each other’s perspectives, experiences, and challenges. Most importantly, we strove to better understand how we can all work together to help each other in our individual and community struggles, and build a better world at college and beyond.

Photo via VCU