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Our Next Generation of Leaders: HBCU Students Advancing Change

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The year 2000 seems like a lifetime ago, but for those students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who survived a swell of anti-LGBT violence that year, 2000 marked the beginning of a movement. And that movement lives strong to this day.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender student leaders from HBCUs across the country were recently here in Washington, committed to advocating for LGBT equality and social justice and to developing their personal leadership and career skills, all as part of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities Project.

The project, founded in the wake of that violence, educates and organizes students, faculty and administrators at HBCU campuses on LGBT issues specific to each institution's needs. It opens campus-wide debate on LGBT issues, often for the first time, and it trains students to lead LGBT advocacy on campus while helping them reconcile the additional cultural challenges that they face at the intersection of their race, their LGBT identity and their religion.

Having honest conversations about these intersections, which sometimes cause internal conflicts in black LGBT students, particularly those from religious backgrounds, is critically important to creating leaders on campus who feel empowered to be their whole selves and emboldened to speak from a complete and authentic voice.

Beginning this past weekend, 30 students from 14 states and 22 institutions attended HRC's HBCU LGBT Leadership and Career Summit. The annual summit, made possible this year thanks to the generous support of the PepsiCo Foundation, is part of a yearlong effort that fosters an effective group of LGBT student leaders at HBCUs.

During the four-day summit, students took part in identity development and leadership training to empower them as black LGBT leaders on campus and in their communities. Students also participated in a panel discussion on entering the workforce as LGBT people of color.

And while they were here in Washington, the students joined the Human Rights Campaign for a lobby day on Capitol Hill, where they talked to lawmakers about the critical need for workplace protections, anti-bullying legislation and immigration reform.

Over the past 10 years, alumni of the summit have not only had enriching and rewarding experiences on campus but taken their skills into their communities, enriching the lives of others. Take Bishop Oliver Clyde Allen, who says that the program taught him that being "authentic and honest" was about more than being true to himself.

Bishop Allen notes, "[The program] taught me that confidence in myself had the power to transform my life and the life of others."

He's now the leader of the Vision Church of Atlanta, where more than 3,500 congregants enjoy his gifted leadership. In addition, he's a strong advocate for LGBT equality, HIV/AIDS education and numerous other social justice issues. Along with his partner, he's also a father of two beautiful children.

Bishop Allen isn't alone. With more than 300 alumni stretching across the nation, real change is happening at HBCUs and in communities across the country, through the leadership of our participants.

As we welcomed this year's students, we also introduced a mentorship program that paired them with successful alumni and others, who can help them take their skills back to their campuses and press for real change at home.

Alumni of the program are already creating change on campus. Students have organized LGBT history classes at Morehouse and created an LGBT resource center at North Carolina Central University, which is only the second HBCU nationwide to do so. This is an important step toward fostering safety for and development of LGBT students on campus. This year, thanks to the training and mentorship that students received through this project, there's enormous potential for what they can do both on their campuses and in their communities.

While we've come a long way in our LGBT advocacy, we haven't finished yet. There are still students who fear coming out, fear retaliation from other students and even faculty and staff, and fear that being black, LGBT and religious is a hindrance instead of a point of pride. We have plenty of work to do before we reach full equality, but I feel confident that these 30 students who came to Washington are going to play a key role in getting us there.