An Interview with AMLE Board Chair, Dr. Lisa Harrison
As we celebrate Pride Month this June, I wanted to use the opportunity to highlight an AMLE leader who has had a tremendously positive impact not just on AMLE but on me personally as well. I sat down with Dr. Lisa Harrison, Chair of the AMLE Board of Trustees, to learn more about supporting LGBTQ youth and educators and what this month means to her.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
SS: Tell me, Lisa, what does Pride Month mean to you?
LH: Pride month, for me, is a time of celebration. It’s a time for people to gather. Particularly when you think about a group who has been historically marginalized and had to operate in invisible ways, this month to say we’re here and we’re part of society. To move from that silence and invisibility to hypervisibility.
It’s also a time for advocacy. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, but that we still have much more we need to do. Other months, like Black History Month, are also prideful, but oftentimes can be more reflective and historical. Pride Month is more about being here and letting people know we exist.
SS: In the context of your role as an educator and a leader in the field of education and within AMLE, how have you leveraged your involvement to support LGBTQ students and educators?
LH: From my career standpoint, it’s bringing attention to students who research says do not have positive experiences in school spaces. For me, that’s trying to create more inclusive, supportive environments for students and for educators. You still have plenty of educators who don’t feel comfortable expressing that they’re part of the LGBTQ community. We’re talking about needing more male or more BIPOC educators in school spaces, the same could be said about needing LGBTQ educators. But for that to happen we also have to create school environments where teachers feel safe sharing and being who they are.
While a lot of my research focuses on Black girls, I’m thinking about all students and making all students feel safe. When we wrote The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, we were intentional about making sure that we labeled LGBTQ youth. When we had our conference in Florida, it was thinking about how we could team with Equality Florida to make sure we had representation there, including a student panel. For me, it’s about being very strategic with how I can make a difference and how I can use my expertise to make a difference. As a researcher, I’m currently doing a study looking at LGBTQ youth and yesterday I had two interviews, one with a student who identifies as pansexual and another who is transgender. It was amazing just to be in community with them.
If I’m part of an organization, when I go to the conference I want to see sessions that speak toward LGBTQ youth. Historically, that hasn’t always been the case. Some people choose to exit spaces when they don’t see themselves represented. For me, it just meant I needed to be closer. Instead of asking how do I leave that space, it’s how do I transform that space? How do I make sure that LGBTQ youth voices are heard? I believe this organization has the power to make change. I’ve been very proud of AMLE. It’s been having the right people at the right tables to support these things to happen.
SS: It can be challenging when you represent such a broad group of educators to take a stand on issues, especially when they’re so politically charged. But you’ve talked in the past about how neutrality is, itself, taking a position. Can you speak more to your philosophy on that?
LH: Of course, there will always be naysayers. In those instances, I approach it by saying, “Yes, I understand, but this is important.” As a queer person of color, sometimes I leverage my own identity and story to help people realize that something is important. For example, I got married in Florida because at the time I couldn’t get married in Ohio. If we’re going to make change we need to be in community together.
I’m a firm believe that you have to meet people where they’re at. When I teach about how to support LGBTQ students in my class, I start from the point that when you’re an educator, you need to do what’s best for all students. No matter your personal beliefs, you have the duty to support your LGBTQ students. I wholeheartedly believe that educators want what’s best for their students. So that’s always my starting point.
Even though I make my opinions known, I try to be approachable. History tells me that people have to stand up to make changes. The question is, how do you push? You don’t push by telling someone their values are wrong or their religion is wrong. I’m not going to win that. But I can start with a conversation, say with a parent, about what’s best for your kid. Is your kid happy? Is your kid socially adjusted? Is your kid performing academically? Are those things that you want for your kid or your students? If so, let’s address the elephant in the room and how certain policies or practices are not feeding those outcomes. We have a shared goal. My goal isn’t an LGBTQ agenda, it’s a students being successful agenda. Now, I happen to know that there are certain things that a student needs to be successful, and I can use that as a starting point. It’s also about providing thoughtful counter-arguments. Be clear, have research to support your position, and always look for common ground.
SS: Now thinking about your role as a Professor who helps prepare the next generation of teachers. What advice would you give to a first-year LGBTQ teacher?
LH: Understand your state policies and what rights you have. LGBTQ people’s rights are being corroded, in my opinion. Understand your school culture. I’m not ignorant to think that in some school cultures it would be unsafe to share who you are. If that’s important to you, realize that you might need to work in another school. But sometimes our fear is stronger than reality. Check your fear, but also be courageous.
Regardless of whether you’re open or not, your kids need you because you’re going to be an ally. We are the best allies when we can be our authentic selves. I would say if you are in a space where you could be open, be open because students are looking at you. One of the students I interviewed yesterday said, “I knew my teacher was queer. She never said she was queer. But I knew. Because I knew, I felt safe.” Even not being out, that teacher was able to be an ally for her kids. I would say be that ally, work to be that support system for kids. Being an LGBTQ teacher that is open matters. All kids need role models who look like them. The research I’ve done also shows that LGBTQ teachers tend to be more inclusive across all historically marginalized groups. They come with that type of ideology and disposition. LGBTQ teachers have a distinct role and value within schools because it matters. You are needed and you can make a difference.
SS: We’re always seeking to grow and improve at AMLE as an organization. What can we do as a membership community to continue to support LGBTQ students and teachers. What’s next?
LH: As you know, right now we’re in the process of creating a policy agenda for middle level education. I would think there would be space within that work to make sure that when we talk about young adolescents we mean every young adolescent. Unfortunately, sometimes when we say every young adolescent we forget about marginalized students. It’s important to mention and label those students specifically.
We also have our Schools of Distinction program. We can tease out schools that are doing great work around supporting LGBTQ youth to elevate and highlight them. Schools in which the professional climate among staff is particularly positive can be highlighted too. A good school culture and climate isn’t one where just students feel supported, but one where all members of the community feel supported.
I think we can continue to provide professional development on these topics. The LGBTQ student panel we hosted at our last annual conference was amazing and well attended. There was actually an LGBTQ teacher that attended who got up during the session and talked about his heart being full. The students talked about how they felt validated, but that teacher felt validated too. I think that really matters. I think it matters to have a Chair of the Board of Trustees who is a queer woman. That matters to people. Particularly to people that are of that identity when they wonder whether a particular space is for them.
SS: Any final thoughts?
LH: AMLE is growing and there’s still more work to do. I think the ticket is, are you actively working toward your goals? Are LGBTQ students centered in our thoughts and conversation? I think for us, it is. I think we’re in a space where it’s part of the conversation and that matters.