Vanessa Davis

Last June, Vanessa Davis organized a prom at The Andy Warhol Museum. A prom that celebrated youth pride. In fact, for the last four years, Davis has been one of the  strongest advocates for LGBT issues in the city. She has served as the chapter director of the national Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in Pittsburgh and has successfully worked toward creating safe school environments for LGBT students in the region.

According to GLSEN surveys, 8 out of 10 LGBT students in Pennsylvania experienced verbal harassment based on their sexual orientation while at school. The majority feel left out and many experience more aggressive forms of harassment. Moreover, 60% of students who have experienced harassment never report it and of those who do, only 37% say that there was appropriate intervention by staff as a result.

This is what Davis wants to change. She has worked with educators to provide training to staff and include LGBT curriculum in schools.

What does LGBT curriculum include? “For example, for K-5, the objective is to help young children understand that there is diversity all around them and understand how name calling can be harmful,” Davis says. “In middle schools and high schools, we also work with gay-straight alliances that are student-led, to help them in their own advocacy.

Pittsburgh Youth Pride Prom at The Andy Warhol Museum. Photo courtesy of GLSEN Pittsburgh.

Davis also works to change policy and she praises the inroads that have been made in Pittsburgh. “In the region, the Pittsburgh Public Schools are the best positioned right now. They have been including LGBT curriculum for 6 years. They have also adopted an anti-harassment policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.”

What’s the biggest opportunity for Pittsburgh in LGBT advocacy? “One of the great places that we need to start is to educate college students who are looking to go into teaching positions and raise their awareness before they teach at our schools.”

Davis moved to Pittsburgh four years ago and last year has taken on the full time role of leading GLSEN’s local chapter—as a volunteer.  It’s a cause that she is clearly passionate about. “I have a strong sense of importance of the work and the need for equality. As I do this work I see how it opens up doors and has impacted everyone. It has certainly impacted me in a really important way.”

Leah Lizarondo

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment....