The Kids Are All Right

Three students show their mettle in an online internship. (Spoiler alert: They also fight off a Zoombombing.)

Under ordinary circumstances, Dana Levy ’21 has a lot going on. 

Levy is double majoring in English and gender and queer studies (GQS) with a minor in music. He’s also a violinist and active member of the Puget Sound LGBTQ community. (Levy identifies as transmasculine.) 

Last summer, however, looked like it would be pretty quiet. The coronavirus had nixed any prospects for a summer job, and by early June, the California native was, he says, “sitting around, twiddling my thumbs.” 

Kismet intervened in the form of an email from Heather White, visiting assistant professor of religious studies and gender and queer studies, announcing summer internship opportunities at the Washington State LGBTQ Commission. Established in 2019, the commission works to improve the relationship between the LGBTQ community and the state of Washington, identify the needs of community members, and ensure they have a means of advocating for LGBTQ equity in all aspects of state government. 

“I basically responded in five minutes: ‘Please, Heather, I need to do this!’” says Levy. 

Before long, Levy and two other interns—Miles Cox ’23 and Anna Mondschean ’21, both of whom are double majors in GQS and African American studies—were working with the commission: compiling research studies on LGBTQ issues, identifying resources across the state, assisting with virtual meetings, and transcribing and closed-captioning LGBTQ Pride video messages from state leaders.

I have no idea how they did it. They found resources that were really hidden."

– Manny Santiago, Washington State LGBTQ Commission

Manny Santiago, the commission’s executive director, had been eyeing Puget Sound’s GQS program as a potential source of research on matters of concern to the LGBTQ community. When he spoke at the launch of the GQS major earlier in 2020, Santiago encouraged students to identify issues that could help shape LGBTQ policy in the state. And Omar Santana, the commission’s executive assistant, was looking for volunteers to help prepare and execute board meetings and town halls for the commission.

The GQS program, meanwhile, emphasizes experience and public scholarship, as well as theory. Majors must complete an internship with an agency dealing with issues relevant to gender, feminism, or sexuality—though Levy, Cox, and Mondschean hardly needed external motivation to do hands-on work for the commission. “I’m a theory nerd,” Levy admits. “But it was really important to do something more intentionally community oriented.” All three students received stipends through the university’s experiential learning program. 

“I’m a theory nerd,” admits Dana Levy ’21. “But it was really important to do something more intentionally community oriented.”

Because the internships were offered in the midst of a pandemic, the students did all of their work online. Levy and Cox painstakingly researched LGBTQ resources county by county, creating a database of trans support groups, LGBTQ-friendly religious services, lesbian meetups, and high school Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). In parts of rural eastern Washington that have few resources, they even found places across the border in Idaho where LGBTQ folk can go for emergency financial support or youth and family services. 

“I have no idea how they did it,” says Santiago. “They found resources that were really hidden. I had no idea that half of them even existed.” The database now powers an interactive map on the commission website: Click on a county, and a list of available resources appears. Santiago says it’s the first such list ever compiled for the state, and it will be used not only to publicize existing services but to identify gaps and target underserved areas.

The interns also were tasked with finding scholarly research on LGBTQ issues. Poring over the academic literature, they dug up and summarized studies on everything from the trials and triumphs of coming out in rural communities to the experiences of LGBTQ students of color—studies that Santiago will use to provide feedback to the governor’s office and the legislature on policies affecting the LGBTQ community. 

Perhaps just as importantly, they gave the commission the benefit of their online technical skills. Among other things, the interns ran the Zoom board during the commission’s virtual meetings: admitting people from the waiting room, managing breakout sessions, and so on. Given the Zoom experience they had accumulated in their online classes last spring, that seemed fairly straightforward. Until it wasn’t. 

At the commission’s first official meeting, a group of hackers Zoombombed the event, hijacking the forum to spew racist and homophobic slurs. “It was honestly terrifying,” Cox says. Overcoming their shock, the interns quickly figured out how to eject the online attackers and alter the meeting permissions to prevent future assaults. Says Santiago: “The students were champions.” 

For their part, Mondschean, Levy, and Cox were struck by the resilience and determination of the commissioners, who resumed their work after a brief pause and ended the meeting with a debriefing session to process what had happened. “The immediate response of the commissioners was, ‘We are still here. This is why we keep fighting,’” says Mondschean. “That was a moment I don’t think I’ll forget for a long time.” Her fellow students agree. And their experiences at the commission have only sharpened their commitment to community service. 

“I feel like I’ve proven myself a little bit,” says Cox. “I could definitely see myself doing work like this for other organizations.” 

 

By Alexander Gelfand
Photos by Sy Bean
Published Feb. 6, 2021