The Power of Relationships
First UCC Northfield helps build a web of support for LGBTQ youth
In 2016, members of the Northfield Promise, a community movement to help young people thrive, discovered that area youth who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) reported significantly lower “positive identity and outlook” scores compared to other youth in the Minnesota Student Survey (MSS). (Note: the MSS lists LGB as its categories.)
Several members of First UCC Northfield who were deeply involved with Northfield Promise put their heads together with Rev. Abby Henderson, now Director of Leadership Development at the Minnesota Conference UCC, who was then associate pastor at First UCC. They quickly identified a lack of supportive resources and activities for youth who identified as LGBTQ and launched CYAN, a group whose dual meaning is “Community Youth Activity Night” and the color halfway between green and blue. Over the past three years, more than 60 young people have been part of CYAN.
Henderson engaged young, openly queer and transgender adults to participate in the program, which combines structured discussions and guest speakers with time for youth and adults to simply hang out, she says. “We wanted to build pride, joy and affirmation. We of course acknowledged the challenges we have had as openly queer people, but we also wanted youth to have the experience of belonging to a community and to imagine a positive future.” And, Henderson says, they wanted to change the trajectory of the poor MSS scores.
Fast forward to the 2019 MSS: In 2016, LGB youth reported a 25% “Positive Identity and Outlook” score compared to 60% of all youth. Amazingly, in 2019, the score grew to 43% for LGB youth, compared to a score of 51% for all youth. The “Social Competence” score grew from 55% to 63% for LGB youth, compared to 70% to 74% growth for all youth.
“Abby started something absolutely remarkable,” says Meleah Follen, a member of First UCC and part of the action team for the Northfield Promise. “She tapped into a conversation that was ready to happen, and the church was completely open to having this conversation, even if there was risk associated. We all understood that this was Pastor Abby’s work in the community and that children of God deserve a space where they can be supported and support each other. She was a champion for youth when they needed it most and she helped the conversation in our community by being an authentic role model.”
Follen says that the engagement of adults who had walked the path before the youth provided a powerful and visible model for the young people. “They had a place where they could talk to adults who had gone through the same things they were going through, who could answer questions. Those adults showed them hope and happiness was possible.”
Siri Hoff agrees. Now a freshman at Macalester College, she was one of the early participants in CYAN. “I was one of the first people to come out in my high school and before CYAN we really didn’t have a way to connect with adults in our community who also were openly out,” she says. “CYAN was a place to form solidarity with others who shared our experiences. I am forever grateful to Pastor Abby for starting this group. It kept me going in high school.”
Hoff says that CYAN is especially important for youth who do not have supportive families. “It is a totally accepting space where we don’t have to answer questions about our identities. We just show up and be who we were. Oh, and we always have pizza.” Hoff says last year she, with a driver’s license, frequently gave rides to younger youth. “I was a bit of a soccer mom. I really enjoyed watching kids who were super quiet and uncomfortable at first begin to open up and share after a month or two.”
Today, CYAN is still running strong, with ever-evolving leadership and growing numbers. Both Follen and Henderson marvel at the group’s impact. “This is what happens when you strengthen relationships,” says Henderson. “This is the work of the church and the Conference. I was able to do this work because I was a minister empowered by my UCC church and denomination.”
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