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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 17, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 20x
EmPOWerment in South King County - Innovative youth group builds community and saves lives
Section One
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EmPOWerment in South King County - Innovative youth group builds community and saves lives

by Jennifer Gess - Special to the SGN

'POW helped me find hope and community to prevent me from committing suicide.' 'I don't use marijuana on days that I come to POW.' 'I feel like I belong when I'm here.'

These words, from the youth I'm privileged to work with, inspire me each day to advocate for equality. As a counselor and consultant for the LGBTQ community, I started POW! (Proud Out Wonderful), an LGBTQ and allied youth support, advocacy, and leadership development program in Burien. POW welcomes youth ages 13-21 to the weekly group where the youth lead projects to raise awareness and educate the public, helping to increase the safety and acceptance of LGBTQ people in South King County. POW's mission is to provide a safe space for LGBTQ and allied youth to build community and promote social justice through empowerment, leadership, and advocacy.

In our heteronormative society, many LGBTQ youth have experienced parental rejection, homelessness, harassment, discrimination, and trauma, which often lead to mental-health issues, substance abuse, and suicide. Eighty percent of LGBT students in Washington have experienced verbal harassment because of their sexual orientation; 60% have been verbally harassed because of how they expressed their gender. In Washington, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24. Youth identifying as Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. LGBTQ youth are often marginalized and stigmatized by the broader community, and have limited support compared with their heterosexual and cisgendered peers (GLSEN, 2009; Washington State Dept. of Health, 2003; Massachusetts Dept. of Education, 2009).

POW is a community that accepts, supports, and advocates for all youth regardless of sexual orientation and gender expression, providing a space for youth to fully develop their capacities and express themselves. POW youth state weekly, 'I wish POW was everyday' or 'POW is my highlight of the week.' One member who has reported suicidal ideation identifies POW as his reason for being alive. Another member has reduced marijuana use since joining POW. Yet another has received a scholarship from the GSBA after being encouraged to apply by POW.

I started POW in April of 2011, and it now has grown to approximately 50 diverse members of various gender, sexual, ethnic, and class identities. Roughly 15 members attend the weekly group and approximately 75 to 100 youth attend the events POW hosts, including the Sex and Health Event, POW Prom, Summer Celebration, and Winter Social. POW also participates actively in Seattle Pride and South Seattle Pride, and at various functions throughout the year. These events allow POW youth to celebrate their true selves, develop friendships and community, and increase safety and acceptance of LGBTQ people.

POW's weekly group is centered on the LGBTQ Youth Curriculum that I developed over the past two years through my experience with POW. The curriculum is based on the youths' needs and interests, and includes units on Identity, Oppression, Holistic Health, and Social Justice. The curriculum includes one year's worth of lesson plans, the group format POW uses, various checklists, and more. POW's weekly group also focuses on projects the youth decide to partake in. A recent project included painting a bus stop mural with LGBTQ-affirming messages; another included partnering with the City of Seattle for an 'It Gets Better' video.

POW is passionate about expanding awareness of the LGBTQ community in South King County and spreading its vision of a community that accepts, supports, and advocates for all youth regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. Through the weekly group and various advocacy projects and events, LGBTQ youth programs such as POW decrease the rejection and trauma LGBTQ youth experience while increasing safety, community, and leadership among LGBTQ youth. Perhaps most importantly, POW saves lives. If you're interested in having a LGBTQ youth group at your nonprofit, community center, school, or other venue, please contact me at info@jennifergess.com.

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