Sunday, February 20, 2011

Respect for All Week

I've been busy with school presentations these past two weeks with the PFLAG Safe Schools Program, speaking to over 1,000 students for Respect for All Week. I started last Wednesday at Metropolitan HS in the Bronx. Do you remember the hate crime in the Bronx from a few months ago involving a gang attack? One of the men involved went to this high school.  Obviously our message is desperately needed there.

Thursday, we went to Lyons Community School, a progressive learning institution with a very accepting and conversational, compassionate staff and student body overall. However, even in an environment like this, they have issues. In a recent experience at a school, a 7th grade student was continually bullied and taunted for being gay, to a point where he was chased off school grounds into oncoming traffic where he was hit by a car. Thankfully, it was not a fatal accident, but the incident, deemed hate crime, resonated in the school and community. We were joined by members of the NYPD at this school to help the students understand the significance of hate crimes and the extreme consequences that are added when the discrimination bias of sexual orientation and gender identity arise.

This Wednesday (during the actual RFA week), I visited George Washington HS of Law and Public Service in Washington Heights. I spoke to 4 classes and opened a really great dialogue in their school. One question I was asked 3 times was "If your sister wasn't gay, would you still be here talking to us?" To that I was able to recognize that 4 years ago when I started competing, I did not have any question or thoughts other than equality when choosing my platform in the Miss America Organization. But, the titles I have held have increased my visibility, reach and opportunities to engage in PFLAG as a public figure, adding volume to the message I want to share. I also addressed our responsibility to challenge ourselves beyond tolerance to acceptance, and even further to advocacy. Straight allies are invaluable parts of this fight for equality.

Thursday, I visited our last high school for the week, Newtown HS in Queens. We spoke to their "No Place for Hate" alliance, so in a way, we were preaching to the choir. It gave us an opportunity to empower them to be the changemakers in their school and communities. I was joined by Council Member Danny Dromm. Danny is a former teacher - the first openly gay teacher in NYC public schools - who also started the PFLAG Queens chapter along with many other LGBT and equality advocacy groups. He has been a huge advocate in the City Council for PFLAG, especially with gaining funding from the city for our work and educational outreach programs. It was a wonderful honor to speak with him.

Friday, we wrapped things up at a Respect for All Press Conference at Brooklyn International High School.  You know you're Miss New York when you attend a press conference only to find that you're speaking at it!  It was an honor to speak on behalf of PFLAG and Straight for Equality: Let's Talk, while surrounded by the Respect for All Coalition, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Schools Chancellor Cathie Black, New York City Council Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson and leaders from diverse organizations including Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Operation Respect, Anti-Defamation League, United Federation of Teachers, and many more.

Respect for All week has been successfully implemented in school curriculum in NYC in this second year, but we have to remind and challenge these students that although this is a week to highlight the importance of respect, it is only the beginning of changing attitudes in their schools for all year and years to come. The necessity for respect, dignity and equality goes beyond one week of focus an conversation. As I shared in the press conference, PFLAG spreads this message all year in our Safe Schools Program and as Chancellor Black wishes to take RFA Week nationally, I as Miss New York am taking it state-wide.

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