David Johns said he would always remember the dates of the first White House Summit on African American LGBTQ Youth. It took place June 9-11.
“Why will I never forget the dates?” he said. “Because what happened on the 11th? The Pulse massacre in Orlando. We went from the day before celebrating all of our babies to then having to talk about the consequences of them not having safe spaces.”
Johns, the openly gay director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, remembered the students hosting a dance party the night before news broke about the mass shooting at the LGBT nightclub on Latin night.
“We are obligated to create safe spaces that affirm and support the cognitive, social and emotional development of our babies,” he said. “It is not enough for us to talk to them about the ability to read and write if we don’t honor that they need to be socially and emotionally whole, happy and healthy.”
Johns shared the outcome of the first White House summit for black queer students with about 100 leaders from human rights agencies across the country. They all gathered Aug. 8 in Philadelphia for the first day of the 67th annual conference for the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies.
Beverly Watts, who spoke before Johns, said the event helps human rights workers share information, but also maintain an open mind.
"We must be evergreen and growing, which means we must continually learn,” said Watts, director of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission.
This year’s conference spotlighted LGBT rights for the first time. Rue Landau, director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, spearheaded the push for the focus and organized many of the week’s activities.
Johns said any adults who want to advocate for young people should make sure to ask them what they would suggest as useful programs, policies or practices. He added social media like Twitter is a great way to create an “echo chamber” for ideas and expand the audience for them.
“We found it really important to remind people that as long as there have been black people, there have been black gay people,” Johns said. “We often assume that when we’re talking about gay kids, they’re all white, and when we’re talking about black kids, they’re all straight. We wanted to highlight the importance of intersectionality.”
Johns said young people have an easier time sitting in uncomfortable spaces and having uncomfortable conversations. Adults should look to young people as experts on their own experiences, he said.
Johns noted many black students he’s met — whether gay or straight, transgender or cisgender — have all operated with a fascination for the idea of proving the world wrong. He said adults should pay attention to the emotional costs of such an outlook.
For more information on the outcomes of the White House summit, Johns directed people to visit sites.ed.gov/whieeaa.