It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are few things more uncomfortable than a high school dance -- unless maybe it's an assembly. But that's what the Colorado Queer Youth Summit, an annual conference that gathers more than 200 LGBTQ youth ages twelve to 24, occasionally felt like to its teen attendees.
So this year, they took it over.
The conference's fourth incarnation, which takes place on Saturday, was developed and organized entirely by its youth constituency, with their adult counterparts acting only as facilitators. Preparation began in Denver in September and eventually branched out to include LGBT youth groups across the state. By building an event through its target demographic, organizers hoped to move public discussion away from dour statistics such as teen suicide and on to the ways their members have affected their communities.
But first, they tackled the awkwardness. "A lot of time, there's a DJ at some after-party, and they feel painfully awkward -- like at a school dance," says Eleanor Dewey, youth violence prevention director at the Colorado Anti-Violence Program. "They don't want an assembly-style summit or a school dance after-party, and we want what they want. This will be an all-ages club experience that is powerful to be at, not just another after-school party."
Along with Dewey's group, Denver's Branching Seedz of Resistance, the group is organized by Rainbow Alley, the Youth HIV Advocacy Coalition, the Stvrain Valleys United Gay Straight Alliance Network, Boulder County OASOS and Project PAVE (Promoting Alternatives to Violence Through Education). Newly formed LGBTQ youth organization Out Front will also visit for one of its first mass events. Colorado teens and young adults will spend the day learning, educating and networking to fulfill this year's four vision statements: network, catalyze, mobilize and liberate.
Although national issues inside the youth community, such as bullying and suicide, have dominated discussion in recent years, Dewey and her team at Branching Seedz targeted the summit toward showcasing positive, youth-led changes in Colorado developed through social media, public surveys and awareness programs. Instead of traditional workshops on coming out and the battle between faith and sex, this year's summit teaches attendees drag and flash mob skills. Curated by Colorado youth, the roster includes nods to hip-hop, the Native American community and the option of not coming out at all.
The panels and workshops channel art and media to increase the level of creativity seen in previous years without straying away from the serious side. And after attendees break for dinner, the night will not end in a school dance. For the after-party, this year's organizers brought in Cuban hip-hop group Krudas Cubensi and Denver outfit Wheelchair Sports Camp to perform, along with drag performers, DJs and other artists.
"When we were writing out vision, the idea to catalyze means just really just capturing that day," Dewey says. "It's rare for these groups to get time together, and we shouldn't ignore the benefit of making friends. If nothing else happens but that, it's a success."
Thanks to the level of youth involvement seen in this year's summit, Branching Seedz of Resistance will begin brainstorming earlier for 2013 through a summer retreat this August. While previous efforts to funnel the efforts through the youth themselves occasionally proved uncomfortable, Dewey watched as the core group of twenty shrugged that off and completely revamped the summit programming.
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"They're seeing their friends and their coworkers and other people know stepping up and taking the lead, so they feel comfortable doing the same," Dewey says. "It's not just a few National Honor Society kids. It's everyone, and the results are one giant 'a-ha' moment, meeting someone who inspires you to create art or make change or affect your lives or your friends lives. It should be a day of inspiration and of connection, so that you can take that day and plug it into different youth projects to make more days like that. "
Thanks to the success of this year's planning, Branching Seedz and its partner organizations have developed their summit brainstorming sessions into a year-long series of events. In coming months, that will include joint screenings across the state to play films created by LGBTQ youth. Additional drag performances, music showcases and a low-rider show are also in the works.
The Colorado Queer Youth Summit takes places tomorrow from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. at St. Cajetan's, 900 Auraria Pkwy, on the Auraria Campus. The main event costs $5-10, and the after party is $5.
More from our Politics archive: "Eleanor Dewey of Colorado Anti-Violence Program on the power of the (young) people."