By Amber —

I was in the 4th grade the first time someone called me the ‘n’ word.  It was a teacher.

At the time, I didn’t know what the word meant, but I remember going home and telling my family and the shock that swept over my mother’s face when I said it.  I was immediately pulled out of school and sent to another school – despite my pleading of not wanting to leave my friends.

You see, I didn’t realize what the word even meant at the time or, the gravity of that moment. I had, however, been exposed to the bullying that accompanies being the only person of color in my entire small-town school district. From people calling me Fuzzy Wuzzy brown (like the Crayola crayon) to sticking things in my hair when they sat behind me, that was just… how it was.  I started wearing my hair straight in middle school.  I started doing a lot of things that made me “less black,” “less Indian,” “less gay” and less… different.

This continued through grade school and middle school. But in high school, I stumbled across a program, a camp that would change the course of my life forever.

Anytown Leadership Camp is the premier diversity, leadership and social-justice program – empowering youth to become change-agents in their schools and in their communities.

Over the course of 7 days in an experiential learning environment, I was exposed for the first time in my life to people who looked… like me.

I learned about issues related to racism, sexism, heterosexism classism, and other injustices that affect people’s lives and more importantly, joined a community of diverse people that listened, understood and celebrated me for simply being me.

For someone who had been struggling for nearly my entire life – not knowing where I fit, rejecting my own diversity – this impacted my life immensely.  With my new sense of self, I began being just that… me.  This included embracing my race and sexual orientation.

My first high school wasn’t supportive (of the latter) and during my sophomore year I wrote an award-winning article “I was expelled for being gay,” for my school newspaper.  The article broke headlines and before I knew it, I became a champion for equal rights in my home state.  After years of speaking on panels and at the state capitol in an effort to secure an anti-discrimination policy in schools, the law was passed.  I was awarded the Matthew Shepard scholarship (for this work), went to college, began working in the non-profit field, traveled the country and never lost my connection to Anytown.

Over the course of 18 years I always found a way to continue volunteering with this program, in every state I lived in.  I often wonder whether I would have even gone to college had it not been for the ripple that took place.

Eighteen years later, it brings me the utmost joy to say that I now serve as the Executive Director for Anytown Leadership Camp in Arizona…a dream that I most-certainly never imagined coming true.

What saved me (quite literally), was finding a sense of community in the Anytown program.  Where I carried the heavy weight of “otherness,” hate and self-loathing, Anytown replaced that weight with air, pride and love.  Instead of staying quiet, I began speaking up.  Instead of being small, I allowed myself to stand tall.  And while hate still continues and injustice still happens (especially in our world today), it continues to give me hope.

My advice to those teens that may not have a sense of community yet is to seek it, find it and never let it go.   Be sure to check out the Teen Strong resources.  From Community Programs to Education & Leadership, there’s support out there for everyone and someone always willing to listen.  It may be uncomfortable to put yourself out there but the more you that you are, the more freedom it gives others to be them.