Maine was lacking a youth-led support system for LGBTQ+ youth. In response, three students - Saga Hart, Abigail Young, and Sam McKay - founded Youth-Oriented Queer Collective (YOQC), a safe space for high school students to connect. Creating YOQC during a pandemic while in school was a challenge (“High school is no joke!”). But, propelled by need, the students built out a base through outreach and involvement with other youth-led networks, including JustME for JustUS, Maine Youth for Climate Justice, Maine Environmental Changemakers, and Maine Youth Power. Abigail explained how a highlight of the work has been “making new connections with organizations we’ve partnered with, and having a network of people to help support each other. We’ve met so many new people through this, and it's been so wonderful getting to know everyone. That’s what it was really about to begin with.”
Through their relationship-building YOQC has already established itself as an active presence in Maine. They have presented at the Maine Youth Action Network conference and the Changemakers Gathering. They cosponsored a youth forum with Maine Youth Power that asked politicians from around the state about LGBTQ+ rights, climate justice, and affordable housing. YOQC is partnering on advocacy around implementing gender-neutral bathrooms statewide. The group is even helping out with a $10,000 grant from It Gets Better to create an informational video about pronouns for schools. The group is an active player in the state landscape, and Abigail noted the significance of having young people involved in these larger conversations. “It’s really important to hear youth voices because the future directly impacts us, and we’re the ones who have to live with the decisions that are being made now.”
The JMJU Micro Grant has supported individual and organization-wide needs. Saga, Abigail, and Sam have been able to get paid for their time. As Saga said, “It really helps us when we can get reimbursed for the work we’re doing.” YOQC is focused on building out its online community, so they will also be using the money to purchase a Zoom account to host “huge meetings with lots of people.” In the future, they are hoping to secure more funding to be able to have booths at Pride events and to provide signs for protests in rural parts of the state.
Despite these successes, there have been challenges that come with organizing in rural spaces. Abigail and Sam spoke to the polarization in their communities, with a split in those who support initiatives like the rainbow crosswalk and single stall community bathrooms and those who strongly push back. A unifying force, however, for Saga, has been nature. “Nature is the one thing in my town, which is very divided politically and socially… that brings the entire community together, like walking on trails, land trust volunteering, that kind of thing. Climate justice affects LGBTQ people, but also everyone in the entire world. If the climate is completely destroyed… there is no point in doing this social justice work if there is no place to do it. [Climate justice] is the living, breathing force, and if we don’t start tackling that issue we can’t tackle any other issue.” YOQC’s intersectional approach to social justice is reflected in the group’s early successes in collaboration with other youth-led justice organizations in Maine. In the future, they hope to hold active meetings in which students can come together to brainstorm solutions to issues in their communities and schools. Generation Z faces unique challenges due to technology, so convening young people with shared experience is crucial for solving today’s problems.