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The Why Behind Project RAI

The goal at Project RAI is to reduce the risk of suicide in queer youth by planning events where kids can come hang out, do fun activities, and be themselves in a relaxed and non-judgmental space. We also work with whoever they consider a supportive adult; they could be a parent, teacher, guardian, or friend. Project RAI brings this group together to discuss issues, concerns, or successes they have experienced while raising or supporting a queer child.

I was speaking at the drag show during winter pride this year and someone in the crowd asked me why. Why did I choose to get into this work, start this organization, and walk this path. I told him that I am an educator at heart, graduating from MSUM with a degree in elementary education with a specialty in early childhood education. I worked in child care programs as a director and saw the need to provide education to adults on developmentally appropriate practice related to gender and gender identity. I am now a graduate student at the University of Jamestown about to finish my program in non-profit leadership, I am hoping to combine these two worlds to ensure that Project RAI is positioned to serve queer children for the foreseeable future.

I say this statistic a lot when speaking about my work; research shows that one supportive adult in a queer child’s life can reduce the risk of suicide by 40%. In the last two years I have met some incredibly courageous kids and families. Families who join us at Project RAI events want the best for their children, they want to learn how to support them, understand what they might be going through, and most importantly they have an interest in meeting their child where they are. The adults who participate in Project RAI events discuss how learning is part of the process and mistakes at least show that they are trying. These are just a few examples of what it looks like to affirm and support a queer child; these parents refuse to be their child’s first bully.

2023 brought the 68th legislative session in North Dakota and with it an unrelenting assault on the rights of queer people. House bill 1254 was signed in April blocking gender-affirming care for queer youth; denying lifesaving healthcare to those who need it the most. Queer adolescents are thought to be at higher risk of suicidality due to stigma and discrimination from family, peers, professionals, and society at large. Misinformation has spread around the country allowing people to believe queer children are receiving surgical procedures from doctors who want to rake in the money by taking advantage of youth. We have fought this messaging every day since the legislative session opened and even though we have had some worthwhile conversations with legislators, we have found others who continue to believe the rhetoric no matter what facts or professionals we present. It has been a difficult journey this year to say the least.

Regardless of anti-queer legislation and efforts to silence parent, teacher, and medical support of queer youth; research shows that all kids, especially in school settings, succeed when gender-affirming policies and procedures are put in place. Positive and queer affirming school climates, as opposed to general positive school climates is an important factor in decreasing suicidality among queer adolescents; supportive staff and teachers provide a sense of safety and support while gay-straight alliances and inclusive curricula promote visibility. LGBTQ youth depend on supportive adults to see them when they are down, to reach out when they might be slipping in school, and to recognize when their life might be in danger. Queer kids are still kids, and even though the adults in their lives might not understand what they are experiencing, they need to know they will always have someone to turn to when they need.

The legislative session closed this week, but our fight is not over. We need to keep leading and moving forward to ensure North Dakota stays a place where everyone is welcome. Since being in grad school, I have found that I tend to be a servant leader and use this style of leadership to serve my Project RAI families. Servant leaders listen, are empathetic, heal, are aware of the struggles someone might be facing, they are committed to the growth of people, but most importantly, a servant leader works to build community. This community allows people to identify with something greater than themselves, provides a place where people can feel safe, connected with others, and are valued. These are the values I continue to hold for Project RAI and values I hope we all can keep in mind when telling our stories and advocating for the safety of queer people.

I challenge you

to find ways to show your support for queer youth; put your pronouns in your signature, put a pride flag in your yard, show up at rallies or volunteer at our events. You never know who will see it and then know that you are a safe person to turn to. I challenge you to be that servant leader and work to connect and serve our queer friends, family, and youth who are feeling scared and in danger.

I hope I have sparked a tiny bit of energy to keep fighting and moving forward. I will leave you with a quote from a trans boy from a Fargo middle school; he and his mom came to Project RAI’s first advocacy night after the legislative session started, and when I asked if anyone wanted to tell their story they came to the front of the church to speak. He was speaking to those who didn’t understand what it meant to be trans and said, “I just want you all to know that I am not a bad guy if you get to know me”. After wiping my tears, I gathered myself back to the microphone to keep the program going, and told everyone, he is why we fight, so we can preserve his childhood as one with toys, books, and happy memories. Let’s work together to serve these kids and ensure they know they are not alone. They will always have someone rooting for them.

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