June is Pride Month and today we welcome Andrew Barnett, Executive Director of SMYAL (Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders) to 7 Questions! SMYAL supports and empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth in the Washington, DC metropolitan region through youth leadership development, community service, and advocacy. While working at SMYAL over the past 9 years, Andrew served on the Mayor’s Bullying Prevention Task Force, worked diligently to strengthen in-school GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliance), and developed SMYAL into an influential organization.
1. What motivated you to begin working with your organization?
I first became involved in advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth when I co-founded a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) as a senior in high school. When I graduated college, I knew that I wanted to get more involved in the LGBT movement and I moved to DC to find a way to do that, which led me to an internship at SMYAL. One of the aspects of SMYAL’s work that drew me in was the organization’s focus on addressing intersectional issues. The majority of the youth we serve are African-American and low-income, and so face challenges due not only to their sexual orientation or gender identity but also due to institutionalized racism and economic factors. I greatly valued (and still do!) the way in which SMYAL’s programs incorporated an understanding of how different systems of oppressions impact youth’s lives. As my internship was winding down, a staff position opened up, and I joined the team.
2. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?
Last year, we teamed up with a California-based organization, GSA Network, to launch a major new initiative: the DC Regional GSA Network. This new effort focuses on empowering LGBTQ youth leaders to organize and promote positive change in their schools and communities through GSA clubs. The program has challenged us to shift our thinking in two major ways: (1) incorporating youth leaders into the program at all levels, including program facilitation, and (2) using a network-based model in which we are not only creating a safe space for LGBTQ youth to be who they are but also working with youth to create affirming spaces wherever they are. As an Executive Director, it’s been exciting to see our youth develop and articulate their own visions for the program, their schools, and their communities.
3. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?
There are many people who inspire me and whom I admire. In the landscape of LGBT youth organizations, I am particularly inspired by Carolyn Laub, the Executive Director of GSA Network, and Grace Sterling Stowell, the Executive Director of the Boston Alliance of GLBT Youth (BAGLY). I am also a huge admirer of the work of Dr. Caitlin Ryan and the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.
In addition, what sustains me day to day is the inspiration I take from the people I work with–the SMYAL Board, staff, volunteers, and, most importantly, our LGBTQ youth. I consider myself so fortunate to work with amazing, talented people who are so passionate about the work that we do.
4. What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?
For the past two years, SMYAL has been a member of the Mayor’s Bullying Prevention Task Force here in DC. The Task Force was charged with developing of a model bullying prevention policy and then assisting with its implementation in our schools and other youth-serving providers. I have been so impressed with the way in which the DC Office of Human Rights has spearheaded this effort through engaging a diverse pool of stakeholders (ranging from folks who work at DC Department of Parks and Recreation to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) while also keeping us on task and ensuring we adhered to the timetable for speedy implementation. I believe that the model bullying prevention policy that the District adopted is very strong and the ways in which the work is being coordinated across the city will serve as a model for other cities in the future.
5. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?
The greatest challenge we face is probably similar to many other community-based nonprofits, which is that there is always more need than resources. We strive to be strategic in how we develop programs and focus our time in order to ensure that we are able to maximize our impact. Unfortunately, this means that we cannot be everything to everyone and that sometimes we have to say no to opportunities for collaboration and partnership because we just don’t have the bandwidth to take on a new initiative.
6. What advice do you have for other people in your position?
When I first became Executive Director of SMYAL, I took a class at the Center for Nonprofit Advancement for new EDs. The instructor hung a banner at the front of the classroom each session which said, It’s all about relationships. I have reflected back on that banner over the years and I have to say I think it is true–as EDs, the relationships we build with our Board members, staff members, community stakeholders, and constituents are central to our ability to do our jobs. Another piece of advice I would offer is never to be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
7. What’s next/coming up for you or your organization?
This year is an exciting one for SMYAL–we are celebrating our 30th Anniversary! To commemorate this milestone, we have been recording the history of SMYAL through our alums–former youth participants, Board members, volunteers, and staff. We just released a publication, 30 Years of SMYAL Stories, that collects several of these interviews and will be putting out a podcast later in the year. Programmatically, we are continuing to build our DC Regional GSA Network and preparing for the second school year of implementation.
A major change for me is that I will be stepping down from SMYAL in August to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the George Washington University. It is certainly bittersweet, as I will be very sad to leave this organization that has meant so much to me since I joined the staff 9 years ago. However, I am excited to see how SMYAL continues to grow in the years to come. The Board is in the midst of a search for the next Executive Director, so I would encourage anyone who is interested to apply!