POV: Describe the origins of Project 10 East, the gay/straight alliance you helped found at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in 1987.
Al Ferreira: In the mid-80s I started a photography program at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. And one of my students, who I had taught for four years — he was one of these Renaissance types of young men, he was an athlete, he was a great photographer, just very popular — right after graduation he committed suicide. And a friend of his came to me afterwards and said the reason he committed suicide is that he realized he was gay and he thought he was alone in the high school. And his friend said, 'Well, I tried to convince him that there were other gay and lesbian people among the students and faculty, but I couldn't tell him who they were.' Because at that point nobody was really out. I realized that my silence and my invisibility as an educator who happened to be gay really led to his feeling of isolation and loneliness.
I was so distraught at that that I went to the principal, and I said I have two choices: either I'm going to quit teaching or I'm coming out as a gay man, and I want to provide safe spaces for kids to come to talk about gender identity and sexual orientation. At that point I started talking to some of my students, and a couple of students said that they wanted to meet and just discuss issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. I had heard that Virginia Uribe, who had started Project 10 in Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, was speaking at Harvard University. Virginia was very wonderful, very inspirational. The difference was that her program was a rescue effort to take kids who were transgendered or gay, who had been abused in the school system, to a separate program that was isolated from the mainstream. And I had always been a strong advocate that separate but equal doesn't work. I wanted to hold the institution responsible for the safety and well-being of gay youth. So that's sort of how our group started.
POV: Practically speaking, what did you do first? Did you put up signs, or call for students to come and meet?
Ferreira: The first thing I did — and it's critical for any educator — is I went to the parent organization first. So I went to the parents and said these are my concerns, how can you help me make sure the school is safe for kids? And they were phenomenal. One of them said, you should go to the local clergy association, and ask them for a letter of support. So I went [to the school administration] with a letter of recommendation for the work that I wanted to do from the parents' association and from the local clergy association. I presented that to the principal of the high school, so that he knew I wasn't doing this in isolation.
So we started meeting after school, initially, and things started to grow really quickly. I put up notices around the school about the meetings. It was always an open meeting; I never required anyone to identify themselves, their sexual orientation or their gender identity. It had to be open to all students: gay students, straight students, transgender, transsexual, anything. It didn't matter. It was a place to discuss these issues, and to feel safe about doing it.
POV: What were your expectations for Project 10 East, and how were they realized? Were you surprised by any of the early developments?
Ferreira: We started the group, and I didn't know what was going to happen. I relied on students [to tell me what they wanted] more than anything else. At the secondary level, high school students are incredibly sophisticated, and they pretty much laid out what they wanted. They wanted a safe space, and they also wanted to do social events. And I just hadn't thought of doing social events, because I had never had a social life as a gay teen — there just weren't any organizations like Project 10 East.
POV: As one of the first gay/straight groups in a high school, P10E encountered some criticism when it started, from religious groups and others in the community. Did those criticisms diminish, or change over time?
Ferreira: Initially there were some hostile responses — not from Cambridge but from Boston. That did change a little bit. One of the criticisms that came about early was that we shouldn't be discussing sex in high school like that. The focus was on the sex part of it, and I always tried to deflect that, explaining that I didn't provide sex education for my students. I wasn't qualified to do that. We had sex educators in the school system, and when students had questions about that, I was a referral person, whether it was psychiatric services or sex education or anything else. I had to constantly explain that. And my response was, don't sexualize the kids in this program. It's not about sex. It's about personal identity and the role that sexual identity has in our culture. And of course some people understand that and some don't.
POV: P10E came to serve as a model for other gay/straight alliance groups in schools both public and private. Did other groups contact you or the group for advice? What did you tell them?
Ferreira: A lot of teachers would contact me, saying I just got a job, and I want to start a gay/straight alliance, what do I do? I would say, whoa, your intentions are really good. But first of all, get into the community, get to know people, and establish yourself professionally. It was not an accident that I got the support I got. I established myself as an outstanding teacher, and someone that [parents and administrators] could rely on and trust. I think it's really important that you don't go into a school your first year of teaching and think that you're going to be the change agent for a whole system. There's an amount of humility and caution that you need to take. You need to find out where people are coming from. You find out who the allies are in the community — who are the people who are concerned about kids being harassed, or bullied, or whatever. There's always somebody. It might be the school nurse, it could be anybody, a guidance counselor. So that's the approach that you take.
And you don't do it alone. When you're ready to approach the leadership about a gay/straight alliance, you go with a plan of action, which involves parental notification, local organizations like clergy or other local groups supportive of providing education about gender and sexual orientation. Even if you go with a group that's not a major denomination, like the Unitarian Universalists or an independent church — you're certainly not going to get a letter of support from the Catholic Church. Nobody has to do this alone, and it's an issue that enough people care about, and there are enough gay and lesbian kids out there who have parents who have witnessed the difficulties that they've experienced. And they want to make things different. There are enough gay and lesbian people that want things to be different.
POV: Project 10 East began as one of the first gay/straight alliances in the nation, at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. How has the organization's work changed in recent years?
Ashlee Reed: At times, we'll start to branch off and do different things, but we always end up coming back to our mission, which is to create and sustain safe space in schools and communities. That's really what we're doing now. Over the past three years, we've begun working a lot more with Boston public schools. And because we're now working with a much more racially and ethnically diverse group of students, we've found that that brings a whole new realm of issues to light. It's definitely a population that has been underserved for a long time, and so over these past couple years, we've received some funding specifically to work with LGBT youth of color.
POV: When you talk about creating safe space, what do you mean? How do you do that?
Reed: Our mission is to create and sustain safe space, but our main tool in fighting oppression is creating and sustaining gay/straight alliances (GSAs) in Massachusetts schools. Ideally, what we like to do is go into a school and work with them for a year, and leave them with a format and a structure, so that we can kind of walk away and know that they're going to be able to sustain themselves independently, and not need us as a resource anymore. But what happens, because of teacher and staff turnover, and leadership turnover with the young people graduating and new people coming in, there's always a need to pull us back in. What we'll do is send in a facilitator — a volunteer or intern or staff member — to go to the school on a weekly basis and help coordinate the meetings with them, help set up the structure with them, and really be there to help them to start the gay/straight alliance and to get it moving.
POV: Who typically initiates these contacts — students or teachers?
Reed: The majority of the time it's teachers contacting me. When it's young people, they've usually heard about us through their friends. They may have friends in neighboring communities, and they may talk about what's going on at their school, and someone may say, we've got Project 10 coming into our school, why don't you call them and they'll come help you guys out. But the majority of times it's teachers contacting us. I get phone calls from teachers on a weekly basis.
POV: You said that gay/straight alliances were your main tool. What else does P10E do?
Reed: We definitely stay in touch. We have a network of GSA advisors that we communicate with via email and phone calls. We have monthly GSA advisor meetings, where GSA advisors are invited to come together and talk about what's going on in their communities. But at the same time, ideally, after the year of us working with them, they're able to sustain themselves and we're able to step back and move into new communities. The other things that we do branch off from the GSAs. They may hold events or community forums, or panel discussions, or workshops at local conferences. They may have poetry slams, or dances, things to kind of network with each other. But our main tool is the gay/straight alliances. And that's what makes us kind of different from other Boston area LGBT youth organizations: we work directly with the young people in their schools.
POV: If I came to you for advice on how to start a GSA in my school, what would you tell me?
Reed: What I would do first is to learn more about you, and to learn about your school specifically. So I might ask you questions: Why do you want to start this program? What's going on at your school that makes you think that this would be something that your school needs? Have you spoken with teachers or staff or administration about the possibility of starting a program? The big thing that happens when teachers and students come to me initially is to talk about, first of all, where their school is at — what they're doing now, and what's going on that makes them want to start this GSA. And talking about what levels of support they have. One of the most important things is to get the administration's support. Because if you don't have your administrators behind you, you're going to run into a lot of trouble.
And then once you get approval but if they do get the administrators' approval, which is ideal, then the next step would be to start organizing and advertising and looking a month ahead and getting information out in the daily bulletins and over the announcements, and trying to make sure as many people as possible know about the group, and that they understand that the group is going to be meeting, and what the purpose of the group is going to be. And then once the initial group gets together, a lot of times it's just like two or three students and one staff member. So those initial conversations are about thinking what we can do for the school. What does the school need to be a safer place for LGBT youth? Do we need to change policies? Do we need to create a coed bathroom? Do we need to put up information in the hallways saying harassment is against the law? It depends on what's going on at that school, and what the needs are for that school.
Al Ferreira has been an art teacher in the Cambridge, Massachusetts public schools for 30 years. At Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in 1987, he founded Project 10 East, which became a model for gay/straight alliance groups across the country. In 1992 he represented Massachusetts public schools on the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, and he has provided advice on how to start gay/straight alliances to schools across the country.
Ashlee Reed earned her master's degree in social work at Boston College. She has been the executive director of Project 10 East since 2002.