BreakOUT! is a youth-led New Orleans organization dedicated to ending the criminalization of LGBTQ youth.
True Colors Fund Deputy Executive Director Jama Shelton spoke with Outreach Coordinator Ja’Leah Shavers about BreakOUT!’s work, challenges, and successes.
What does BreakOUT! do?
BreakOUT! is a youth-led, membership-based organization in New Orleans, LA that is ending the criminalization of LGBTQ youth through youth organizing, leadership development, and healing justice programs. We have two main local campaigns, We Deserve Better is working to end discriminatory policing practices by the New Orleans Police Department against LGBTQ youth of color and Vice to ICE is our partnership with the Congress of Day Laborers to work in solidarity with undocumented workers in New Orleans and develop a shared strategy to end criminalization because in a lot of ways, our fight is the same.
We also co-anchor Get Yr Rights, a national network of over 30 LGBTQ youth organizations doing Know Your Rights work, with our New York partners at Streetwise and Safe . Through our work with the Get Yr Rights Network, we were able to launch a website that collects Know Your Rights resources for LGBTQ youth to stay safe with the police, and release a Campaign Toolkit.
Some of the other stuff we do at BreakOUT! is a Building Our Power Institute, which teaches LGBTQ youth in New Orleans skills around grassroots organizing, movement building, and political education, and our HiSET program (formerly the GED) called the Posh Academy.
We also have a healing program called Healing As Resistance Together (H.A.R.T.) and are working on a media campaign called #BlackTransLivesMatter because so far this year, there have already been 10 transgender women murdered, including a young woman in New Orleans, Penny Proud.
We also do some training for local youth service providers because we believe that we know best what LGBTQ youth of color need in the city and we want to increase opportunities for other LGBTQ youth in New Orleans. There aren’t very many places for LGBTQ youth of color in New Orleans.
How did you get involved?
I was a member at BreakOUT! before coming on to staff through a partnership with the AmeriCorps program, Louisiana Delta Service Corps. A friend of mine pulled me into the organization while I was having trouble finding my identity within the LGBTQ community, and I just started coming to membership meetings. I have always been interested in community organizing, so when the opportunity came up to work at the organization, I jumped on it!
What have been your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge I have faced since beginning my position here at BreakOUT! has been surrounding myself with work that I am directly connected to andaffected by on a daily basis. When things are rough or the system fails the LGBTQ community, it fails me also. While it has definitely been a change for the better to invest my time in work that is meaningful, it can be hard to be so deeply connected to my work.
Tell me about a recent success.
In addition to the Get Yr Rights Toolkit, we also recently released a report called We Deserve Better: A Report on Policing in New Orleans By and For Queer and Trans Youth of Color, which was a research project we did about LGBTQ youth experiences with policing in New Orleans, mostly young Black transgender women. We also included recommendations for what the City needs to do to keep people safe- New Orleans keeps putting more money into the police department, private patrols, cracking down on curfew laws, and even bringing the State Troopers in to patrol the City. But that’s just making it worse. What we really need is jobs, housing, and educational opportunities.
That’s one reason we approached Covenant House in New Orleans, too. We know that the lack of housing for youth in New Orleans is a contributing factor toward criminalization. Covenant House is the only shelter that will take youth in New Orleans and has historically been really anti-LGBTQ. But we just got an LGBTQ policy in there and trained all the staff – now we’re working on implementing the policy and organizing with the youth there so they can really be the ones to lead the effort.