Inside the Georgia school where “queer kids are just kids”
As anti-LGBTQ+ bills are passed around in various states, Our Resilient Community fights for a safe learning space for queer students.
When you think of Athens, Georgia, you may think of a college town outfitted in antebellum architecture, home to the University of Georgia and alt-rock, indie heroes R.E.M. and of Montreal. It may seem like an idyllic enclave of artists, liberal thinkers, and Southern charm. But Athens sits a good 70 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta — a small pocket of blue surrounded on all sides by the deep red cities of Jefferson, Commerce, Monroe, and Colbert.
Growing up LGBTQ+ in the Bible Belt is still contentious, to say the least. Across Georgia and neighboring states, including Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Carolina, bills restricting health care for transgender youth, single-sex facilities, and participation in sports for transgender athletes feel never-ending. And it’s not just the South — nationally, the Human Rights Campaign deemed 2021 the “worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation.”
That’s why this January, Thea Canby and Nicole Gustafson set out to create a queer-centered micro-school to serve as a safe learning space for queer youth in Athens. Micro-schools are smaller schools, sometimes consisting of 10 to 15 students of varying ages. Canby and Gustafson’s school, Our Resilient Community (ORC), officially opened its doors in February.
As an Agile Learning Center, ORC is part of a network of schools that share values of self-direction and independent learning. There are no traditional grade levels, lesson plans, or curriculums. Instead, students collaborate on “offerings” led by facilitators, students, or special visitors, and even weigh in the decor in the classroom. The idea is to prioritize emotional well-being over more traditional metrics, like standardized testing or grading. While ALCs are not accredited institutions, some students do go on to higher education, though on its website ORC notes that it would be the responsibility of the student and their guardians to make sure the student is meeting any external benchmarks that would be required.
“We follow the passions of our community,” Canby tells Mic. “Some days we’re doing a puppet show, some days we’re climbing trees, some days we’re writing speeches to advocate for our rights, and some days we’re doing math in small groups.”
Canby and Gustafson met while working at another ALC together and began to ask: What would a self-directed school look like if we really committed to our values? If we went beyond “queer-friendly”? Many schools may tout their “queer-friendly” brand, Canby says, but “this means nothing now. What bathrooms do the kids in ‘queer-friendly’ schools use?” Gustafson adds that the phrase “queer-friendly” sounds “nice and lovely,” but that she and Canby have been intentional in uplifting queer identities at ORC rather than simply allowing them.
“In a queer-friendly space, queer kids are still queer kids. In a queer-centered space, queer kids are just kids,” Canby says.
Still, students do not need to demonstrate any sort of queer identity to enroll at ORC. “We definitely don’t exclude anyone,” Canby explains. “Everyone can gain a lot from queer spaces. Also, a lot of queer people are unsure of their identity, so excluding cishet students would also exclude them.” The school is open to kids ages 6 to 17; this semester, their youngest student is 11.
For many queer youth in Athens, ORC has given them a place to go after leaving schools where they experienced bullying because of their identity. “A lot of times we have kids who just need a year to recover,” Canby says. “Kids come to us because they are queer and have been bullied, so we are watching for that.” As one student told me, “In this community, you can be queer and supported and not be judged. You can find your identity. It’s a normal thing for children to do.”
Part of centering queer identity, too, means helping students to defend it. This spring, the Georgia legislature was debating Senate Bill 435, a bill that sought to ban transgender girls from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity. In response, ORC students drafted speeches to read at the Georgia Capitol in protest.
Unfortunately, the kids didn’t get to read their speeches at the Capitol due to a last-minute change in the hearing. But during their visit to the building, they did get a glimpse of the support that exists for them in Georgia. “There was a huge group, lobbyists, a whole flock of teachers there,” Gustafson says, “and they told our kids: ‘We’re here to fight for y’alls rights.’”
With Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill now in effect, Canby and Gustafson see Georgia’s take on it looming. “We need to get our punches in now,” Canby says. “This might be these kids’ only chance to be in a queer-centered school or space.”
“Our Resilient Community is doing much more than simply impacting the lives of LGBTQIA2S+ youth in Athens — they are saving lives,” Cameron Jay Harrelson, the president of Athens Pride and Queer Collective (APQC), tells Mic. “ORC is creating what so many of us needed when we were younger: a place to belong, to create, and to find community in a society that has become increasingly hostile toward queer youth and queer communities.”
APQC has committed to investing in the youth of Athens, partnering with several groups to host game nights, get-togethers, and a monthly LGBTQ+ youth group coupled with a support group for parents of queer kids. During this year’s Pride festivities, APQC held a fundraiser for ORC, donating $2,000 in funds to the school as well as necessary supplies.
In a national climate rampant with hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bills, safe havens like ORC are more crucial than ever. Canby and Gustafson are very aware of the opportunity they have to make young queer people feel safe — and the responsibility to use it well.
Gustafson adds: “Tell your queer kids that you are supporting them, that they matter. Tell them: We are fighting for you.”
To read more about Our Resilient Community or donate to their school, use the “friends and family” option on their site.