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Louie Ortiz-Fonseca knows how great it feels when a mentor sees potential in someone and helps grow and blossom that potential, almost like a beautiful plant that takes time and care. Ortiz-Fonseca, who considers themselves “a child by nonprofits,” has worked in advocacy for their entire professional life, starting as a peer youth educator doing HIV workshops during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. They now are the Director of LGBTQ Health & Rights at the organization Advocates for Youth, where they works with community based organizations throughout the country to strengthen their capacity in working with LGBTQ young people, among many other things. MenLiving’s Patrick McKenna got to speak with Ortiz-Fonseca about the legacy of Advocates for Youth, working in advocacy in 2022, the power of inclusive sexual education and much more.

Patrick:
Can you tell me a little bit about Advocates for Youth and your role in the organization?

Louie:
Advocates for Youth has been around for over 40 years, and we’re primarily known for reproductive justice and providing health and rights education. But obviously over the years our work has expanded because we can’t talk about reproductive health and rights without talking about HIV prevention and treatment and advocacy, or without talking about LGBTQ health and rights with youth. Advocates works with agencies, groups, and young people throughout the country to make sure that young people have access to affirming sex-ed and access to healthcare and treatment.

We also work with young people to advocate for the things that they need in their particular communities. We have more than eight youth cohorts, where we work with young people who are writers, creators, or folks who are working on policy at the local state and national level.

Patrick:
Wow, that’s fantastic.

Louie:
We work with them throughout the organizing year. Some do work on the college campuses, and some of them do work in the community. Every year, we bring them to Washington DC. This September will be our first time doing it since 2019.

Patrick:

That’s so exciting!

Louie:

Yes. We have about 45 young people in our youth activists’ group that work, and they get to meet each other. You have folks from rural parts of the country who only communicate with other queer and trans young people on the internet, and then we have folks from the big city who are doing some progressive forward stuff that some communities wish they had the possibility to.

Patrick:
That’s great. How did you end up working for Advocates and what made you want to work for an organization like them?

Louie:
I always tell people that I’m a child raised by nonprofit. I started working July 8th, 1995, so my anniversary is coming up. I was born and raised in Philadelphia. Like a lot of young black and brown people in Philadelphia, I struggled.  I struggled in school because schools weren’t as affirming as they are now. We still have a long way to go, so we can only imagine what that experience was like in the early nineties.

Patrick:
Right.

Louie:
I was a middle school dropout who was idealistic, who watched a lot of ACT UP documentaries and had that great opportunity to come on board to an agency in Philadelphia as a peer youth educator in 1995 doing HIV workshops. That changed the trajectory of my life because it allowed me to go back to school and it allowed me to go to graduate school. It just gave me some focus. So that’s why I tell people that I was raised by nonprofit.

I stayed in the field because I was a young person that adult mentors poured into. I know what that does, what the possibilities are and what it’s like when people believe in you and give you an opportunity to develop a voice so that you can use your voice to create change.

Patrick:
Yeah, absolutely.

Louie:
I was doing that for many, many years in Philadelphia doing GSA work. Then Advocates for Youth found me. They did a workshop at one of the organizations I worked for, and I made a connection. Then a couple of years later, they reached out and said, “Hey, are you interested in, interviewing for a position, working with school districts?” And I was like, “Absolutely.” I’ve been there since. It’s going to be seven years on July 22nd.

Patrick:
I really love what you said about your story being a direct result of a mentor or a person seeing something in you and wanting to flourish that. That becoming your own experience for other younger people is such a beautiful thing.

Louie:
Oh yeah. I grew up in a house that was affirming. My mother always had queer folks around. But in my teen years what really helped – especially in the HIV world – was the older gay men. Having those queer, gay men, oftentimes living with HIV, pour into a young person like myself, was again…It changed the trajectory of my life, and I will forever be humbled. I’m full of gratitude that I had that opportunity because I know a lot of young folks like myself did not have that opportunity.

Patrick:
Absolutely. We’re living in a scary time where constitutional rights for people are being stripped away. For you working for an organization like Advocates for Youth, what kind of urgency does that bring to you and how you approach your work? Particularly with what’s going on right now in the last couple months in the U.S. with reproductive rights and attacks on body autonomy?

Louie:
You know, there’s always an urgency in our work. I think now it’s felt in a different kind of way now. It’s very clear at least. I would say four years ago, the urgency was to get programs started so that we don’t regress to where we were, right?

Patrick:
Right.

Louie:
But there was always an urgency around say training as many teachers.  It was, “Let’s talk to and support as many parents and adult allies. Let’s support and work in partnership with as many queer and trans young people so that we don’t fall back to where we were 10 or even 20 years ago.” The urgency is always there because the threat is always there. I think that now in the past year we have more than 200 anti-trans bills that have been introduced in this country. And now with the Roe v. Wade reversal rule, it’s now like the urgency is like, “How do we pivot?” Part of it is like, this is what we do not want to happen. But we were always prepared. Sadly, right?

Patrick:
Yeah.

Louie:
You’re always preparing for the absolute worse. I think the urgency now is especially with working with our youth activist network this year. It’s really recommitting ourselves to working with young people and exploring and examining all of the ways that we can do that. Things like what has worked in the past and what are the new approaches that young people are bringing to the work. Also, what are some opportunities to build partnerships that we may not have thought of before. Right? Usually when these kinds of things happen, it’s felt by many. There are more people who are like, “How can I support this work? How can I plug in?”

Patrick:
Very true. That at least is encouraging.

Louie:
And it’s about like, “How do we make those connections and keep those people in the work and keep those people supporting the work even when we are having great wins.”

Patrick:
I know on the Advocates for Youth website it says that your organization founded the first online space for LGBTQ plus youth. What is the importance of having a space for queer youth to be able to talk and share openly and honestly?

Louie:
Youth Resource was the…It’s so wild that I work at a place where we can say, “Wow, that was the first online LGBTQ resource.” Wow. It’s mind boggling. Youth resource is now one of our youth cohorts. Now we have young people who identify as LGBTQ+ who are themselves the resources and provide support to their peers, but also who help us do training for school districts and so on. So, Youth Resource has developed into this whole other thing that’s absolutely amazing.

Patrick:
To kind of pivot back to sexual education, what are some of the biggest positives that come from young people getting a more inclusive curriculum, a more inclusive teaching of sexual education that includes all different relationships, gender identities and sexual identities?

Louie:
I think there are many benefits. The first thing that comes to my mind is being seen. And just being acknowledged in that kind of indirect way. Because it opens up young people to ask questions. I know when I was growing up, the relationships that I had were secret. I didn’t necessarily have a trusted adult to say, “Hey, prepare me for my first date.” Or like, “I wanted to jump off a bridge because this person didn’t call me back, help me manage my feelings.”  I had to manage those alone or with other young people my age.

As a parent, because I have a 19-year-old son, it would be a detriment to me if he went through that by himself. So that puts in perspective what I went through that as a young person, and what my friends went through that as a young people. We thought that was normal because we didn’t know any other possibility. Also, with inclusive sex ed, I think people automatically think sex like the act.

Patrick:
Right.

Louie:
But really, it includes relationships and also exploring what is happening with our bodies, along with self-esteem, and self-worth. When it’s more inclusive, we create a safer space in schools. And young queer and trans people would want to go to school more. By that in itself, it’s a way to reduce risk for queer trans young people. So, I think just being seen and creating that trusted relationship, not just with the teacher or the instructor, but also with the institution that young people are in for eight hours a day, is really important.

Patrick:

It sounds like you work with a lot of younger activists. What are some of the most exciting things that you get to witness through this role? I’m sure seeing younger people go from informed to activists is big.

Louie:

Obviously yes, I think that is a great frame. Because it’s one thing to know information or to be coachable and like a sponge. It’s a different kind of thing to learn how to share that information or how to build community. I’m always humbled when I see that kind of stuff. The cohort that I support is ECHO, which is “Engaging Communities around HIV Organizing.” It’s a cohort of 10 young people living with HIV. When I came to Advocates for Youth and I saw that they had all these organizing groups, I was like, “Why do we not have one for young people living with HIV?” As a person living with HIV, I was like, “I would’ve loved this.” As a kid I had an amazing experience with adult mentors, but I would’ve loved something like this. Right?

Patrick:
Yeah, definitely.

Louie:

They thought it was a great idea and made it happen. ECHO was literally a dream come true for me. We work with young people who are newly diagnosed and are just looking for community. So, we watch some of our young people who initially like, “Well, I’m not sure if I want to disclose publicly. I support the work from behind the scenes,” to them becoming a face that is recognizable in their communities where other young people are not disclosing their status. Or who even have become more courageous in their health into getting HIV testing.

It’s always amazing to see that growth in a person, but also seeing how it impacts the world around that, and how that then trickles down to other parts of their community. Because again, I was a product of that. One of the greatest things besides being a father and a Mariah fan is that I get to be the mentor that I had as a kid to young people that I work with now.

Patrick:

MenLiving works to foster an environment with healthier, more inclusive forms of masculinity on display and for that to become the norm. What kind of work do you think men can do for themselves to combat unhealthy displays of masculinity and the negative things that come as a result of that behavior?

Louie:
That is a great question. We talk about that in ECHO and Youth Resource and even with our youth activists as a whole. I think what it comes down to is that it’s easy for us to say we should do some self-examination. And yes, I do think we should do that. I think that we grow in immense ways when we do that. But there’s not always a self-support system for people to do that, and there’s not always time or a place for people to do that. We try to create that space and time for that in our work. Personally, even now, I turned 45 and I like to think that anything that I needed to work on, I kind of already did.

Patrick:
Yeah.

Louie:
But still, this was a story from a couple of years ago. I love floral print. I’m in old Navy with my son and we’re in the women’s section. And they had these pants, great floral pants, that were stretchy. And I was like, “Wow, these pants are so cute, I wish they made them in mens.” And my son, who was like 14 or 13 at the time, said, “Well then why don’t you buy your size?”

It had never occurred to me, and I’m doing workshops around gender! I’m doing workshops around examining toxic masculinity or what the possibilities are for men to expand social expectations. And even then! That was the simplest thing. I don’t know how I did not think about it. It was like, it never occurred to me that I could do that.

Patrick:
Wow. It just shows how deep the socialization is.

Louie:
Right? It’s just a secondary thought. He presented it to me not as a possibility, but as something like, “You can do this.” I thought, “Okay, I’m going to buy eight different pairs of these four pants.” And I did, and the way I shop now has now changed because of that moment. When I’m on TikTok…my old ass (laughs)…I see that kind of thing being the norm for young people, and I’m thankful that my son invited me into that world and that possibility.

So, I wish that for more men. That they can hear something like that from someone they trust, and they don’t hear it as a joke or a sly comment. Because it just shows something that small is something I had to unlearn. Like I haven’t been wearing these floral pants because of a social construct? And they’re on sale??

Patrick:
I love it. So, for anyone who wants to educate themselves further and become more active allies to the queer population, are there any favorite resources or other organizations that you would recommend someone start with?

Louie:
I would recommend checking out The Trevor Project, which is a project that supports LGBTQ young people. I think when people think about the Trevor project who know it, they think only about suicide prevention. That is a large part of their work, but they have tons of resources around how to support LGBTQ young people before they get to that point. But also, when they are there because that’s not a good thing or bad thing—it’s a reality. They have very good tips on how to support those young people and how to check in.

we have tons of resources at Advocates for Youth and we a “Youth Activist Toolkit” that provides different resources about how to start conversations with young people in your life or what you can do both intentionally and something like how particular posters up can be a deterrent or can make the space more inviting. We have our medical mentorship toolkit for young people living with HIV that provides tips like how to support LGBTQ young people and young people living with HIV when we’re talking about healthcare. Things like how you can be of support by offering them a ride to their appointment or asking them how their appointment went.

Patrick:

That’s great.

Louie:

We also just released our “Get Your Life” curriculum. It’s a curriculum that has great, great activities that we developed for working with young Latinx and black gay, trans or bi boys from ages 14 to 19 on how to talk about sex.

If you’re thinking about sex, it’s to help talk about it. What is it like being a young man or a boy in this world? what is expected of you? What is expected of you as a young boy of color? What is expected of you as a young boy of color who identifies queer? It has all these great conversation prompts and great activities that you can also use in more and in larger groups.

Patrick:

To finish up, what advice do you have for young people on how to remain activate, motivated and also healthy mentally in the face of what is going on right now in our country? Because it can be so overwhelming, and you can absolutely feel powerless. What would you tell them?

Louie:
I would say that it’s okay to mourn and be hurt and be disappointed. If that requires you to rest, sit back and grieve, that’s okay. Because losing hope, even if temporary, feels like a loss. And we need time to grieve that and then recover. So, I would invite young people and those who are supporting young people to provide them that opportunity and know it’s okay. If you’re a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) sponsor, or if you are hosting youth groups, just have a drop in where people can come and sit in silence or just be mad. Right?

Patrick:
Yeah, totally.

Louie:
I am still learning to do that. I tend to be fixer. When I see something wrong, I’m like, “Okay, let’s do a plan.” I’ve had to learn to say, “Let’s just sit and let’s cry, and then we’ll come back.

The other thing is that sadly, we’ve been here before, and we’ll probably be here again. I think part of this work is holding on to hope in the world that we are trying to build. Hope is a discipline. I heard someone say that to me and it blew my mind because it really is. Hope is a discipline. I think that young people are building a world that we all deserve, that we can all live free and be affirmed in. So, we have to hold steadfast to that, right? The more people we bring into this work, the more opportunities we have to step back and rest. Because there’s still people doing the work.

Patrick:
Right.

Louie:
Part of the reason why we invite other people into this work and why we share this work is so that we can go in and out of the work when we need to. Young people have always led movements, and even in this time, I know that this is temporary.

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