by Lauren Means | photos courtesy Joseph Clark, Oasis Center
There have been many positive changes made within the youth support in the LGBTQ+ community in recent years. There has been an increase in acceptance and also more discussion around what kind of support our youth need as they navigate the ups and downs of adolescent and teenage years. Oasis Center in Nashville works hard to fulfill the support needs of the LGBTQ+ youth in Middle Tennessee. Over the years they have been at the forefront of many groundbreaking programs such as Just Us, Students of Stonewall, T.Y.M.E (Trans Youth Meet to Empower), and More to Me (M2M).
Oasis Center has recently announced a new youth empowerment program designed specifically for middle school students who identify within the LGBTQ+ spectrum called Becoming Us. We spoke with Joseph Clark who is the Program Coordinator for Just Us at Oasis Center about this new program, what it means for Middle Tennessee youth, and the future of LGBT+ youth programming.
Focus Middle Tennessee: What is Becoming Us?
Joseph Clark: Becoming Us is a positive youth development program specifically for LGBTQ+ middle school youth. It provides space for youth to explore and celebrate their identities, build community and connection, engage in project-based service-learning and to live authentically.
As the only full-time staffed and intentional program for LGBTQ+ middle school youth in the state of Tennessee, Becoming Us, most importantly, provides the opportunity for queer youth to simply be in [a] space with their peers who are also navigating the world of adolescence and an LGBTQ+ identity.
FMT: How does Becoming Us differ from Just Us and other programs at Oasis Center?
JC: Most of our programs, including Just Us, focus primarily on high school-aged youth. Becoming Us was intentionally created to deliver programming specifically for middle school students 10 to 14 years old. The goal is to provide a space for middle school youth to develop the skills needed to be active participants in their worlds and build the confidence and self-esteem necessary to grow and thrive into young adulthood and beyond.
FMT: Why was Becoming Us developed? Where was the need for this type of program found?
JC: Becoming Us was developed as a response to the overwhelming amount of phone calls and emails I received from parents, school counselors and teachers who were looking for a program similar to Just Us, but for their middle school youth. I grew frustrated in only being able to offer the possibility of their young person attending a high school program once they became high school age. For some of our youth, especially those who are in fifth or sixth grade, high school is too far down the road and they cannot see that light at the end of the tunnel. They need something now.
After several months of research and planning, I launched Just Camp, a week-long summer program for LGBTQ+ middle school youth in June 2019, as a test run for a middle school program. Within 48 hours of announcing the program online, all of the spots were full with a waiting list. Just Camp engaged 10 youth in almost 300 hours of team building, service-learning, and personal storytelling, ultimately reinforcing the need for a school year program and serving as the catalyst for Becoming Us.
FMT: What type of successes have come from these programs at Oasis Center?
JC: More often than not, being in Becoming Us is shared as the high of their week during our circle check-in. Hearing young people express that they now feel accepted and part of a community, or that they feel more comfortable being themselves is an incredible measure of success. For almost all of our young people, this may be the only outlet they have to be themselves freely and authentically. Being able to create and provide the space for any queer youth to grow, celebrate who they are, and to bloom is an invaluable success.
FMT: What are some of the unique needs you have found with this age group?
JC: Other than having a bit more energy than the high school group, their needs really are not that different from anyone else’s. They have the universal need to feel respect, affirmation and belonging. They want to be spoken to as young adults, not children and have the need for accurate information. Ultimately, they want and need to be seen as having a valuable voice and opinion, and they expect to be treated as active community stakeholders, not passive recipients of services. Everything we do in Becoming Us is centered around their interests and input, this program is not for me, it is for them.
FMT: Do you see a future where a program like this will be needed for the elementary age?
JC: Yes, completely. I see the need for an elementary program, at least one that serves fourth-graders, now. Young people know who they are from a very early age, and we as adults need to do our best to meet their needs and offer support as soon as possible. The earlier LGBTQ+ youth can connect to a community of their own and feel seen, valid, and worthy, the more likely they are to grow and thrive sooner. I believe programs such as Becoming Us and Just Us help to keep queer youth in school, reduce self-harm and suicidality rates, feel a connection to their community, and increase their personal belief that it actually does get better.
FMT: Anything else you would like to add?
JC: As with all of our programs at Oasis, Becoming Us is free of charge to all youth. We meet on the first and third Wednesday of each month from 5:00 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., and any LGBTQ+ middle school youth is welcome to join. Email Joseph Clark, Program Coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org or check out www.justusoasis.org for more info.
Thank you to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services for providing funds to support Becoming Us.
About Joseph Clark
Joseph Clark is the Program Coordinator for Just Us at Oasis Center. Just Us is a positive youth development program that focuses exclusively on LGBTQ+ middle and high school students throughout Middle Tennessee. With over 10 years of positive youth development and direct service experience, Joseph strives to create a safe and affirming space where LGBTQ+ youth feel empowered to explore and celebrate their identities, build community, and express themselves authentically.
Joseph is responsible for developing and delivering programming through three distinct programs – Just Us for high school students, Becoming Us for middle school students, T.Y.M.E (Trans Youth Meet to Empower) for young people who identify somewhere on the spectrum of trans identities. In addition, Joseph leads a team of youth in advocacy and leadership – Students of Stonewall. In 2019, the Students of Stonewall were honored for their work by being selected as the Grand Marshals for the Nashville Pride Parade.