Eastern Michigan University students volunteer with Campus Pride for Alternative Service Learning Break, Feb 25 to March 1

Written by Olivia Cessna, EMU Senior

My Alternative Break group from Eastern Michigan University was fortunate enough to travel with the mission of assisting Campus Pride, an absolutely amazing organization. Along with myself, I was joined by my amazing colleagues Ris (They/Them), John (He/Him), Avery (She/Her), Austin (He/His), and Hannah (She/Her). We came into this trip from all different perspectives, roles in the LGBTQ community and majors. It proved to make us an extremely strong, communicative group.

Day One:

The first day we arrived to the beautiful Charlotte, North Carolina, was our cultural immersion day. Coming from the snow, ice, and sadness that plagues Michigan we collectively decided we’d spend part of our day outside at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S. I’d recommend this breathtaking nature experience to anyone visiting from a colder climate. The Garden was quite large so not only did we soak in the immediate attractions but we hiked the trail outlining the property. Disclaimer: We did get pretty muddy, but what is a learning experience without obstacles!

When we left we decided to get wild and go get bagels across the border in South Carolina at this eclectic joint, Bagel Boat. ¡Era muy fantasticó! After stuffing our faces with amazing bagels and coffee we journeyed to where we were staying, The United Church of Christ. I can not understate how amazing this venue was for us to stay at. Down to the hospitality, our amazing coordinator Dawn, and the accommodations, we were absolutely blown away.

Day Two:

Hi Ho Hi Ho! Off to work we go! We reported for duty around 1pm where we met the Co-Founder of Campus Pride, Shane Windmeyer. Speaking for myself, Shane has accomplished so much in the LGBTQ+ community, you’d think it’d be intimidating but he was extremely approachable and overtly excited about collaborating with us.

Shane explained a lot of the history of Charlotte as well as what to expect for the next couple of days. The area is extremely progressive which is contrary to popular belief because of the HB2 bill issue a couple years ago. Being in such an inclusive area really made me confront my own preconceived notions about the south in general.

The most amazing part of the day was speaking with Roberta Dunn, an amazing trans woman advocate to say the least. She shared her emotional, familial, and professional journey with us and the experience was just absolutely beautiful. What she’s accomplished and the confidence in herself was truly inspiring to a student (me) who is intimidated easily. When she inevitably had to leave she thanked me for my questions and hugged us all. These are the type of experiences you walk away from feeling like you learned so much.

Day Three:

On our third day we decided to start riding the train into the city. Detroit doesn’t have ample public transportation so the Light Rail was a great way to avoid the inescapable meltdowns that would come after attempting to park in the city. Plus, it gave me a time to collect my thoughts before the day, and decompress when the day was over.

We met at Ally Bank to start the day and if you don’t know Ally Bank, KNOW THEM. They’re an extraordinary company. Before you roll your eyes at the word ‘bank,’ look them up. In regards to LGBTQ+ culture, they make extreme measures to be inclusive and avoid being money hungry like other banks. We had the pleasure of speaking with an employee there, Bryan, about his professional journey and what inclusivity looks like in a bank setting.

Next up on the itinerary was sitting down with several executives, conducting a panel that discussed their companies and how they navigated being inclusive/striving for better. I could rave about this panel all day, every day, for the rest of my life but for the sake of efficiency I’ll give a solid summary. All the panelists offered a different perspective to the discussion, and I was honestly blown away about how supportive their work environments seemed (through LGBTQ+ inclusivity lens) and how they were still looking to improve. I had no idea that work environments like these existed. Coming from a social work perspective and my job back home, I experience first-hand and vicarious trauma with absolutely no resources to unpack it. I shared this with the panel and got extremely emotional. The amazing panelists spoke to what I was saying and empathized. It felt like a very safe space for open dialogue and education.

After our panel was completed, our team worked on a particularly interesting aspect of the Campus Pride website, the Shame List. To summarize, the Shame List identifies colleges/schools all over the country who have filed or been granted title ix exemption (right to discriminate based on religious beliefs), or who are reported to unlawfully discriminate against LGBTQ community. Our mission was to gather updated data on the status of Title ix requests. Honestly, this was very emotionally taxing for the group. Having to find specifics on how higher education institutions discriminate against a community in which most people in our group affiliate with, not fun (but important for the public to know).

I noticed how eye opening it was to work on the Shame List project and then go back to The United Church of Christ feeling completely and 100% safe and welcomed as a part of the LGBTQ community. A church that not only “tolerates” this community but advocates and provides outreach is a church that deserves to be recognized.

Day 4:

On Thursday we really dove into research. Shane wanted us to gather reputable information on the HIV/AIDS Positive Latinx LGBTQ community as well as other intersections of that population. What makes a safe, trusting space for this community? What specific barriers does this population face? How can it be different when the conversation includes Latinx immigrants? Along with providing the targeted information, I learned so much through this research that I will continue to educate my colleagues about after I leave.

After a long day of work, Shane took us out for pizza. But it wasn’t just any ordinary pizza place no, no, no. It was indescribably delicious. It was called Pure Pizza in the “Gay-borhood” of Charlotte. Fresh ingredients, spearheading inclusivity in the area, vegan options…. I am home! It was a constant joke among our group that we all were going to end up in Charlotte within a year because we loved it so much and the locals talked so highly of it.

Day 5:

The final countdown! Every day went by so fast it kind of seemed like “Pass out, drank (coffee), Wake up, drank (coffee), faded (on coffee).” Our first task of the day was to give feedback on the panel held a couple days prior. We got the opportunity to unpack what we learned, where there were opportunities for growth and what we loved. Shane’s wonderful colleague Don facilitated the panel, our discussion and how to navigate Noda for when we had lunch together after! We all loved exploring the area and realized there is so much to Charlotte!

Then the day continues to myself, presently, writing this blog post reflecting on this enriching experience.

So to be blatant and frank, we are ALL moving to Charlotte. I think we all fell in love with this area, how progressive it is, and Campus Pride as a whole. There are so many things we learned on this trip but I think it’s worth reiterating the feeling of genuine love and celebration we received from The United Church of Christ. Most of our group members identify with the LGBTQ community and have had negative experiences with religion and churches. This experience challenged those walls we built in front of ourselves. Thank you Shane, thank you Campus Pride for everything you do. I have no more words to articulate how incredible this experience was, to conclude, I’d come back in a heartbeat (and maybe I will!).

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