The fifth annual Orlando Youth Empowerment Summit unites LGBTQ youth

By : Melanie Ararat
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ABOVE: City of Orlando’s Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Senior Specialist Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez gives a speech at the Orlando Youth Summit at Valencia College – West Campus. Photo by Melanie Ararat

ORLANDO | LGBTQ youth, organizations and allies were able to network, engage in interactive workshops and listen to community leaders for the fifth annual Orlando Youth Empowerment Summit (OYES) at Valencia College – West Campus on Nov. 3. A special appearance was made by Orange County Mayor and School Board Chair-Elect Teresa Jacobs.

“It’s important for our youth, our educators and our professionals to all come together and talk about the best ways to help our youth as they discover who they are and how they can make sure that they can live their authentic selves in our community,” Jacobs says.

The event, sponsored by the City of Orlando, collaborated with the Zebra Coalition’s Robin Daily, the planning committee chairperson for OYES, along with several other LGBTQ organizations including QLatinx, Equality Florida, Central Florida GSA Network and more. Together they looked to create a safe space to empower LGBTQ youth and provide resources and education to community members and allies about understanding, acceptance and inclusion.

“The goal was to unite LGBTQ youth and give them an opportunity to not only connect with each other but to learn more about what’s happening in the LGBTQ movement,” Zebra Coalition’s Executive Director Heather Wilkie says. “Hopefully we’ll be able to give them some tools to provide advocacy and help them with their own special needs.”

Some of the workshops that were included in the event were “Putting in Work: Preparing and Reaching Your Career Goals,” “Strength Through Empowerment,” “Health Relationships,” “LGBT and Starbucks Coffee Connections,” “Sephora: Classes for Confidence: Bold Beauty for the Transgender Community” and “Religion and LGBTQ People: Panel Discussion.”

“We’re about to attend some of these workshops and learn how to be expressive in a healthy way and to teach others how to include and respect us,” Colonial High School Student Isabella Montealegre says. “I feel like a lot of us after [Pulse] became really depressed and I was stressed all the time about expressing myself. Even my parents were stressed out and told me not to express myself and not to go to Pride.”

The workshops help to serve LGBTQ youth and let them know that they are not alone, according to Wilkie.

“I think it’s most important in today’s political climate to make sure kids not only have resources but that they know that there are adults out there who really support and love them no matter who they are,” Wilkie says. “Regardless of anything that’s happening in the media and politically.”

Recently, the New York Times announced that the Department of Health and Human Services would be called upon by the Trump Administration to remove protections for transgender individuals under U.S. civil rights laws in the military, health care and schools.

“We’ve seen an attack on LGBTQ individuals and LGBTQ youth,” QLatinx Executive Director Christopher Cuevas says. “It’s important that we are educating them on their rights, educating them on how to get civically engaged and fostering a space where they can come and just feel empowered with one another and be connected with youth across the city and the Central Florida region.”

Later in the day, a keynote panel of LGBTQIA+ community and business leaders spoke to the attendees. The panel included One Orlando Alliance Executive Director Jennifer Foster, entrepreneur Carlos Carbonell, onePulse Foundation’s Event and Community Outreach Coordinator Nikole Parker, Contigo Fund’s Program Director Marco Antonio Quiroga and the Hope and Health Center’s, and creator of The Bros in Convo Initiative, Daniel Downer.

Topics revolved around being in the LGBTQIA+ community and what it was like for them to navigate their professional lives through ignorance and discrimination.

“You bring so much value to whatever space you are in,” Downer says. “When you walk in there you spread rainbows and glitter and you were born this way and you matter. If you cannot be respected in that manner, then you have the autonomy to create the space.”

The event also offered up opportunities for more lighthearted activities like a lip sync battle and an improv show with comedian Pepe.


Photos by Melanie Ararat.

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