Building our beloved community with Project Safe Zone

Brendan Morrisey, City Year Philadelphia ’06-’07 alum and current Program Operations Manager, discusses Project Safe Zone, an initiative that has existed at City Year Philadelphia since 2003. Each month, more than 30 corps and staff members meet to discuss challenges that corps members are facing around homophobia, bullying and LGBTQ issues in schools and on teams.

Brendan Morrisey (third from the left) with corps members who are part of leading Project Safe Zone.

Q: What is Project Safe Zone?

A: Project Safe Zone is a corps led initiative that started in 2003 in Philadelphia; we are a group of LGBTQ staff and corps members and straight-supportive allies.  The mission is to create safe spaces and cultivate allies who have the courage, awareness and leadership skills to powerfully ensure the full inclusion of and respect for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and questioning people at City Year Greater Philadelphia and in our communities. Project Safe Zone works to ensure that the people we serve feel safe and comfortable regardless of presumed or actual sexual orientation, gender, race, nationality, religion, creed, socio-economic status, or physical ability or appearance.

Q: What are some activities that Project Safe Zone engages in?

A: We  focus on developing trainings and tools for the corps to use in their service to combat homophobia and advocate for LGBTQ youth that may be facing challenges.  We have also planned various other initiatives in the past including corps member recruitment at LGBTQ events (Pride, OUTfest, the Equality Forum, and the Philadelphia TransHealth Conference), facilitating workshops for the City Heroes Program, service projects at LGBTQ agencies like the Attic Youth Center, and a citywide essay contest for high school students that awarded small scholarships to the top three essay winners.

Q: Why is Project Safe Zone important for corps members?

A: Corps members should be sensitive and aware of the needs of all students, including ones who identify as LGBTQ or come from LGBTQ families.  We have a unique opportunity to be allies of LGBTQ students and model inclusive attitudes and behaviors. The dropout crisis for LGBTQ students is real: 28% of gay teens drop out of school annually, three times the national average (Henrick Martin Institute, hmi.org).

Q: What advice do you have for corps members who witness bullying in schools?

A: The best advice is to interrupt bullying and homophobia EVERY time you witness it.  When we ignore homophobia or bullying, we are passively participating.  Students know that if something was wrong, an adult would stop it.  In this way, you are not only interrupting the bullying as it occurs, but you’re also empowering an LGBTQ student who may witness you take action.

The tool that we encourage corps members to use is the 15 Second Response to Homophobia:

I want to remind you that [insert word or insult] is insulting to gay, lesbian and/or transpeople, and that we have some gay and lesbian people here in our school. That word makes them feel unsafe and unwelcome, and it’s important to me that everyone feels welcome here. Don’t use that word anymore.

Corps members can use the 15 second response for a variety of different insulting or hurtful words, not just ones that offend the LGBTQ community.

Q: What are some helpful resources and what do you recommend for people who want to start this at their site?

A:  In Philadelphia, we partner with the Ally Safe Schools Program for training our corps.  The first step is inviting an organization for a roundtable with corps members to discuss ways to partner.  The next step is to think about what your site needs. We created the CYGP Commitment and Expectations of LGBTQ Inclusivity statement that informs our staff and corps.  Consider hosting trainings for your staff and corps to educate them about LGBTQ youth development.

Helpful websites include:

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