Eleanor Dewey of Colorado Anti-Violence Program on the power of the (young) people
Editor's note: This is the latest profile in Kelsey Whipple's ongoing series highlighting local political activists.
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When Eleanor Dewey dropped out of Aurora's Grandview High School her sophomore year, the decision was an easy one. As a young trans woman who felt no connection to her coursework, her peers and her teachers, she felt she had nowhere to go but away.
Today, as the youth violence prevention organizer for the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, she might not encourage the same decision in the teens she works with. But six years ago, it was time.
"Because of my gender, because I identify as queer, people think, 'Oh, you must have been bullied,'" Dewey says. "Well, that was part of it. But it was really about feeling unwelcome and looking for a better fit somewhere out there."
After moving to Denver, Dewey found that fit at the Colorado Anti-Violence Center, where she began volunteering at age seventeen. She describes her first day of training as "eye-opening and spirit-opening," an opportunity to connect with people who looked, talked and acted like her, and more importantly, who worried about the same things. In the years following her departure from high school, Dewey led classes of her own, trekking to the library and meeting regularly with friends to learn about poetry, Euclid's geometry and the history of liberation movements including LGBTQ groups and the Black Panthers.
When Dewey was hired to oversee the nonprofit's youth programming in 2009, she felt it was important to embody the group with which she worked. Now 23, Dewey channels her own history in the community and her relatively young age to maintain a program created and led by Denver's LGBTQ youth themselves, teenage representatives of what she calls "all that alphabet soup."
"I think there's a common narrative we're hearing in the media about bullying and suicide, but it doesn't incorporate things like family and school administration and a lack of community and all those other factors that contribute," Dewey says. "It oversimplifies the issue in an extreme way, whereas we hope to connect to it immediately and always be sure to include all the realities."
At the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, the youth sector lives under the offshoot Branching Seedz of Resistance, a completely youth-led operation founded in 2009 with funding from the Third Wave Foundation and the Queer Youth Fund. BSeedz, as its fifteen most loyal youth members refer to it, took roughly two years to decide on its public persona before jumping into any larger projects.
In 2010, BSeedz confronted the issue of LGBTQ teen suicide with a "die-in" at the Market Street Station: Three hundred people laid down on the sidewalk and waited as their bodies were chalked onto it. Conceived by the teen members themselves, the die-in served the same purpose as a candlelight vigil with a more aggressive response.
Annually, the organization contributes to events such as the fourth annual Colorado Queer Youth Summit, held this year on March 31, and a younger mindset pushes group leaders to focus on making sure all of the topics involved are still relevant. "A lot of times adults have really great intentions but then miss the mark by a lot," Dewey says. "Youth see bullshit from a mile away and have no patience for it. If I don't make these presentations and workshops interesting and powerful and relevant, they'll just leave."
Recently, for example, the group altered a regular panel on "coming out" to include the option of not coming out at all.
"It's like, 'How many times do I have I come out in my life?'" says Dewey, whose extended family is strict Mormon. Although her parents left the church when she was a toddler, both sides of Dewey's family emigrated from Scotland to Utah generations ago to practice the faith. Today, Dewey's Mormon grandmother gets along with her girlfriend. "Too many times to count. I've been out to myself since I was fourteen, but it's important to me that in 2012, our members can do this however they want to."
In June, BSeedz will lend its presence to the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, where the group will participate in a networking experiment entitled "Werk It." In the months leading up to that date, members of the Denver organization are touring the city for a youth-led research project that surveys community members about the ways Denver's LGBTQ youth keep themselves safe. The results of the ongoing survey are scheduled for a June release, and the project continues to draw its members closer together.
"They don't want to make friends," Dewey says of the youth she works with. "They want to make a family. If I suddenly left, even as the only staff member, they'd continue on just fine, and that's an amazing thing."
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More from our Politics archive: "Miriam Pena of Colorado Progressive Coalition has personal experience with the racial divide."