History & Founders
Youth Pride, Inc.: Origins
Youth Pride, Inc. was originally founded as a weekly support group called “The Way Out,” a project of the YWCA of Greater Rhode Island.
In fact, the seed that became YPI was planted at a meeting in 1992 between Tony Maione, then Executive Director of the Samaritans, and Maggie Smith, then Executive Director of the YWCA. During the meeting, Tony mentioned that the Samaritans’ suicide prevention hotline had nowhere to refer LGBTQQ youth in crisis, and was getting many requests for help. Maggie believed that finding a solution fell within the values and abilities of the Y, so she discussed the need for services with YWCA staff member (and YPI founder) Wendy Becker, who was immediately interested in creating such a resource. With the support and encouragement of key community allies, Wendy formed a weekly support group, which held its first meeting during a snowstorm at Brown University’s Sarah Doyle Women’s Center in 1993.
The first support group had four youth members, who named it “The Way Out.” Participants could identify anywhere on the spectrum of LGBTQQ. The weekly group quickly grew until young people were packing the space of Sarah Doyle, prompting a move to rented space on Waterman Street in Providence and, later, to a first floor apartment on George M. Cohan Boulevard. Meanwhile, Wendy was joined by Ann-Marie Harrington, YPI’s second staff member. The young people attending the group quickly created a second day of programming intended to help them venture as a group out into the larger world to do fun things together, which they called “Friday Activity Night.”
The YWCA organized and funded YPI during its early days. As requests to join the group grew, it quickly became evident that YPI should file for its own incorporation and tax exempt status, becoming a separate nonprofit organization. The youth participants struggled over choosing a name for their organization, but ultimately chose Youth Pride, Inc.
Many people in Rhode Island’s LGBT and straight allied communities stepped forward to help the new organization grow. The original Board of Directors included Bill Eyman, Judy McDonnell, Donna M. Nesselbush, Mary Norton, and a number of youth participants. With the help of Senator Claiborne Pell’s office, YPI was granted its federal tax exempt status in only three weeks. Meanwhile, the YWCA secured a VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) grant to fund YPI’s basic programming; when YPI became its own entity, the Y allowed the grant to be transferred to the new organization. Over time, responding to participants’ concerns, the young organization added HIV prevention/ awareness programs and education policy reform efforts to its workload.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Youth Pride, Inc. continued to grow. The organization moved twice more, first from its rented quarters on George M. Cohan Boulevard (off of Wickenden Street in Providence) to 95 Cedar Street (near Federal Hill), and in 2006, to its present home at 171 Chestnut Street in Providence (in Providence’s Historic Jewelry District), more than doubling its available program space with each move.
In the late 90's, a “Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Youth” met at the Rhode Island Department of Education and included an informal group of advocates, including then State Representative (now Providence Mayor) David N. Cicilline. This same group organized the first student speak out (held at Brown University’s List Auditorium) which, after gaining local and regional media coverage, produced a written report that led to the Board of Regents adopting its policy statement prohibiting discrimination against queer students in the mid-1990s. This YPI-led advocacy work is still the legal policy basis for student rights and most enforcement actions in Rhode Island’s schools.
YPI’s programs also grew. For several years, YPI youth did HIV peer education and street outreach in partnership with AIDS Care Ocean State (ACOS). For a few years, YPI was Rhode Island’s only youth HIV test site, made possible through collaborative work with ACOS and the Miriam Hospital (because the program ended, we now refer out for testing). YPI added OUTspoken, a year-long peer education and leadership development program, in 2002, graduating dozens of well-trained young leaders. In the early and mid-2000s, through its Safe Zone Program, Youth Pride helped to promote and negotiate safety in learning environments throughout the state (this program later developed into the GSA Coalition organizing project now housed at YPI). In 2006, YPI created a statewide, multidisciplinary Task Force on LGBTQQ Youth which is hard at work today identifying policies addressing the safety and visibility of LGBTQQ youth wherever they live, work, learn, play, and pray.
Since its inception, YPI has excelled at empowering young people to learn that they have the ability to lead, and to become agents of change.
Empowerment: Cultivating Youth Leadership
Youth participants were heavily involved in all decision-making affecting every aspect of Youth Pride, Inc.’s early operations. They named the organization, defined the need for the early programs, helped to design solutions to meet these needs, sat on the Board, and took leadership for many operational needs. The space that YPI occupied was theirs; the organization was theirs; the policy change they sought to achieve through activism was theirs. Many young people also did college and graduate school internships at YPI, and many early youth staff members (including Elisa DelBonis, Jared Leary, Lauren Nocera, and Tim Ryan) have become activists and community leaders, here and elsewhere in the U.S. In fact, Youth Pride, Inc. has a proud tradition of cultivating youth leadership which extends as participants age into every aspect of their future lives as community members (from joining their neighborhood associations and running campaigns to helping to shape policy that affects healthcare consumers).
Advocacy: Becoming Agents of Change
From YPI’s earliest days, promoting activism for social justice and human rights were key organizational values. Early on, a team of community activists met monthly with staff and youth to provide support, clarification, and direction for systems change work (participants included Bill Eyman, Marty Perry, Julie Smith, and Shirley Smith). Since YPI was founded, its youth participants have helped to educate peers, organize marches, attend rallies, testify at the State House, organize special community meetings to raise public awareness of issues faced by LGBTQQ youth, and even convene ongoing groups of policy makers to improve policies, allowing LGBTQQ youth to safely grow, work, learn, and play. Achievements have included:
- Providing support and resources for Rhode Island high school students and faculty to create the first GSAs (gay-straight alliances) in Rhode Island schools (many were started by YPI participants).
- Organizing public speak-outs about the discrimination faced by LGBTQQ youth in the state’s schools, and bringing these stories to average citizens through the media (press), including the Providence Journal.
- Creating reports for policymakers which documented problems faced by LGBTQQ youth, the need for change, and potential policy-based solutions.
- Helping Rhode Island General Assembly members understand why it was necessary to pass legislation to protect LGBTQQ people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and working to support (or oppose) legislation responding to other issues of concern to LGBTQQ youth (including marriage equality).
- Creating OUTspoken, a peer performance, education and leadership development program working to eliminate homophobia.
- Working with individual school districts to create safer learning environments for everyone.
- Creating a Resource Guide (now in its third edition) for educators and students offering concrete ways to create support and safety for LGBTQQ youth in educational settings; this resource guide is now used throughout the U.S. and abroad.
- Organizing the first statewide Task Force on LGBTQQ Youth, uniting key members of child welfare, education, health, and advocacy communities in a multiyear project to strategically improve the living, learning and other social environments of queer youth.
Youth Pride, Inc. looks forward to the day when all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth, and their straight allies, are affirmed and viewed as equally important in comprising the fabric of society—the day when no one must grow up invisible. History is written best by those who live it, and to this end, we invite all who are alive to share in our vision of youth development, promoting youth leadership, and in helping to recreate the world as a better, safer, more affirming place for us all.