Most with the Least

This Tiny Group Makes Oregon Schools Safer for LGBTQ Students

Oregon Safe Schools is advocating for the city's LGBTQ students.

By Margaret Seiler October 23, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Sara Wong

Nearly 20 years ago, the Oregon Department of Education convened its first-ever state-funded workshop on meeting the needs of LGBTQ students. For many of the educators and advocates who attended—including Joy Wallace, who had spent her career on equity-in-education issues—the discussion was too important to stop there.

“We were all so enthusiastic about the topic, about wanting to continue the work, and so [we] made a commitment to continue meeting on a monthly basis in Portland,” she says. By 2003, this casual group was an official nonprofit, Oregon Safe Schools and Communities Coalition. Its mission focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity issues, but the ultimate aim is nothing less than ending all “prejudice and hate-motivated violence.”

The work takes many forms, including the publication of an annual Safe Schools Report that tracks incidents of bullying, intimidation, assault, abuse, and suicide attempts affecting LGBTQ students in the state. It also offers tips and resources on how a teacher can become “a visible supportive educator for vulnerable youth.” OSSCC supports school-based Gay Straight Alliance–type organizations, helping them generate ideas or just connect to other similar groups. And if someone suspects a child is being harassed and doesn’t think the school is responding appropriately, they can contact OSSCC for support, which could culminate in a representative from the state department of education being dispatched. “Typically, principals and superintendents listen!” says Wallace.

The group’s statewide focus “is very important,” says Wallace, “but it’s also very difficult and very complex.” With an annual budget of just $22,000 and zero staff members, OSSCC counts on its enthusiasm being contagious. (“If you want to know what a working board is like, come and join us,” says Wallace, the current board chair.) Much like the origin of the nonprofit itself, an OSSCC-convened discussion group in the Bend-Madras area has recently sprouted into its own task force of community members, community college representatives, teachers, and administrators who get together every other month to talk about ways to support LGBTQ students in their area.

One more key effort of the group? OSSCC’s Safe School Awards, which shine a light on other people and groups making a difference for LGBTQ students. “We think it’s important for us all to have good examples of what can be done,” says Wallace, “and to recognize the effort that goes into that.”

The 15th Annual Light a Fire Awards

6 p.m., November 21, Oregon Convention Center


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