Back to (Safe) Schools with Education Manager Louie Ortiz

This past year the "It Gets Better" campaign focused national attention on the issue of bullying and harassment and the devastating impact it can have on young people, particularly those who identify (or are identified by peers) as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  While LGBT students tend to bear the brunt of school bullying, we know that bullying is not just an issue for gay and lesbian kids.

Since 1998 Mazzoni Center's Ally Safe Schools Program, funded through the William Penn Foundation, has been working with staff and young people within Philadelphia schools and out-of-school time programs to help create safer, more welcoming, and more inclusive climates for LGBTQ youth, and for all students.  The Ally Safe Schools Program coordinates the Philadelphia-area network of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), offering resources, technical assistance, and programmatic support to the 46 schools currently participating in the program.

This fall we are delighted to welcome Louie Ortiz as the new head of our Ally/Safe School program.  He takes over from Allison Buehler, who did a tremendous job managing the program for seven years, and recently began a graduate school program in North Carolina.  A native of North Philadelphia, Louie’s background is in organizational and program development and prior to Mazzoni Center he worked at the Youth Health Empowerment Project (also known as Y-HEP).

Louie actually started with us in July, so he’s had some time to prepare for the start of the school year, which is always a busy time.  Fortunately for him, he will be joined this year by Khaliah Pitts, our new Ally Program Associate, whose role will be to support the program and coordinate local GSA meetings and activities, allowing Louie to focus more of his time on program development and expansion, as well as supporting GSAs throughout the state.  

“What’s going to be exciting is that we will have more staff to support this movement,” Louie says.  
In addition to the regular meetings that each school’s GSA program will hold, Louie and his team will host a Citywide GSA meeting once a month at the Broad Street Ministry - an ideal forum for students from different schools and neighborhoods to interact with one another, to share ideas and compare experiences. He has already confirmed this year’s student leadership board, which includes ten youth leaders from schools across the city.  

Louie’s enthusiasm for the Ally/Safe School program is infectious, as when he talks about the positive effect of a successful GSA program on day-to-day life for students at a middle school or high school – whether not they are directly involved with the group. “It’s remarkable,” Louie says, “how one after-school program can impact an entire school environmentally.”

Among his goals for this year, he says, “is to focus on schools that don’t necessarily have a lot of resources in place.”  He has also talked about ‘pairing’ schools in different neighborhoods, or with very different circumstances – Masterman High School and University City High School, for example – so that those students might learn from one another’s experiences, challenges, and success stories.  

He also hopes to engage students and teachers in a discussion of the various overlapping or interrelated cultural factors that can impact students’ experience at their school: “things like bullying, sexism, and poverty,” he explains.   

If this sounds like an ambitious agenda – especially in a time of severe budget cuts to the public school system -  that is exactly what Louie Ortiz has in mind.  “In times like this I think it’s even more important to help students feel empowered,” he says.  “The message is, ‘you fought for this group – and this year you may have to fight for your school.’”

The lasting impact of involvement in GSA programs has been demonstrated by studies showing that students who are engaged in extracurricular and leadership activities at their schools are far more likely to further their education.  

Or as Louie puts it: “This kind of program changes lives, and ultimately it changes the world.”