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Summit brings together students, legislators

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“Normal people, not lobbyists, influence legislature - real people,” state Rep. Patty Kim (Harrisburg, 3rd District) told The Central Voice on Oct. 26 at a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Youth Mini-Summit held in York County.

The idea for the summit “began about six months ago, the brainchild of the South-Central PA Democratic Caucus’ three chiefs of staff,” said state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans (York County, 95th District). Besides Hill-Evans and Kim, state Rep. Michael Sturla (Lancaster County, 96th District) is a member of the caucus and co-hosted the event.

Some of the legislators’ staff, according to Hill-Evans, “are living it, identifying with it,” referring to her chief of staff, James Sawor, MPA. He saw the mini-summit as an “opportunity to help the youth speak up for themselves, empowering them to lead peer-on-peer discussions.” Sawor also personally cooked the two meals served to summit attendees.

For the regional legislative caucus, the mini-summit became as extension of the question “What do we want to do to show support?” The caucus is already involved with Pride events like Central PA Pride Festival and York’s Equality Fest, and the Lancaster Alliance. So the idea of the summit “fit right in,” Hill-Evans said.

All organizers share in the hope that the training provided would become “a seed that [the youth] will sprout across the Commonwealth.” Topics ranged from LGBTQ+ Homelessness to Building Safe Spaces through Gaming along with how to handle Bullying as well as Religion and Spirituality as queer individuals.

Students from York Suburban, Cedar Cliff, William Penn, Lincoln Charter, and Penn State York College attended the event. Many lead their local GSA groups, including Rainbow Pulse President Catie Noble of Penn State York. She learned of the summit from the club’s advisor, and was not sure what to expect. While enjoying a discussion on Transitioning and Identities Beyond the Q/+, Noble acknowledged that “it’s good to be around people going through the same things, to be respected, and to get educated on different topics and interests.” She also attended the Healthy Relationships discussion led by Amber Brown, Planned Parenthood Keystone’s Director of Training, Community Outreach, and Education.

Audra Lapp and Stephen Queenan, co-advisors to William Penn’s GSA, accompanied three students and one parent looking to “become more of a proactive voice and advocate” within the community. Queenan expressed his view that LGBTQ rights today are “where civil rights were in the 1950s and 1960s.” Lapp, in agreement, suggested that “there are so many battles left, the main one being winning over hearts and minds.” They and their students expressed excitement for this first mini-summit, seeing it as “a great idea and start” and an opportunity to “get involved with other schools.” Ultimately, the goal of their GSA is to “pull in a lot of the kids that are out there, to know that there is a safe place for them, and to help them get out there.” They welcome students that are “gay, straight, or anywhere in between.”

While leading the topic on Moving Legislation Forward, Hill-Evans expressed that she is “anxious to hear stories, because compelling stories lead to changes.” In explaining the legislative process to both students and advisors, Kim advised “We [being legislators] are responsible for creating, influencing, and legislating, but we need information from our constituents, from you.” That is why Hill-Evans is “always willing to listen to stories.”

She noted that as a representative, she needed to know: What is your life like? What are we as legislators not doing that you need? How do we fit into your life, not you into our lives?

Both Kim and Hill-Evans agreed that “to effect change is to be change, and to be consistent. We must, as legislators, continually be in the forefront of legislation, of resources, training, and support - of the real issues that effect our constituents.”