Youth Advocate: “I Need to Share What I’ve Learned With Our Future”

Haddy Sowe • Los Angeles, CA

Editors’ Note: Haddy Sowe is an alumna of LGBT-U, the program run by Freedom for All Americans to train tomorrow’s leaders in the LGBTQ non-discrimination movement.

Living in California, a state often ahead of the curve on issues relative to the LGBTQ community, one might think they would be much less likely to experience discrimination, especially since there are statewide non-discrimination protections in housing, employment, and public accommodations. However, Haddy Sowe says that even though it might not be evident, subtle discrimination still exists.

“When I went on the job hunt, a lot of the work near the top of my resume was work I’d done in the LGBTQ community, specifically a couple of years that I’d spent at the Los Angeles LGBT Center as a youth advocate,” she explained. “When I would go into interviews, the interviewers would blow right by that and start asking about other work experiences. I had to feature it because it was the work I’d been doing. It’s something I became very conscious of.”

Eventually, Haddy attained the position she works at today — Program Director, Youth & Teen at the West Valley YMCA in Los Angeles.. Ironically, it was the very work she’d done in the LGBTQ community that helped her land the job.

As a West African immigrant who is a member of the LGBTQ community, Haddy has a unique
perspective on how she approaches her work.

“I feel like I came into the world with three strikes,” she says. “I feel like the different oppressions change sometimes for me as a black, African, gay woman. I try and control the controllables, the oppression changes, but I don’t, I can’t change myself. I can’t say, ‘I’m just going to bring the black side today, I’m just going to be West African today.’ I’ve had to almost be overly conscious of who I am. I navigate it by being visible —Every opportunity I’ve had, I have had to create, I had to seek it. Nothing has been given to me because of these ‘strikes’. More often than not, opportunities are not being made for us so I make the conscious choice to be visible in places where we are underrepresented. I became what I wanted to be. I am authentically myself in every space I enter.”

Haddy’s home country of Gambia does not have any non-discrimination policies in place, and it is in part because of this that she has continued to be a fierce advocate.

“I moved here when I was 9. I knew before I moved here that I was gay, and that it was ‘wrong’ in my country. I’ve taken a stance to start to talk about the discrimination issues there, if I can be an inspiration or an example to a Gambian girl or boy about how to live openly and accept yourself, I certainly want to do that.”

Although Haddy has done work as an advocate for LGBTQ people, it was only through the experience of LGBT University’s Apprenticeship program that she was able to gain an understanding of the importance of the LGBTQ non-discrimination movement for the first time.

LGBT University, or LGBT-U, is Freedom for All Americans’ educational program aimed at training the next wave of leaders in the movement for LGBTQ non-discrimination. Through leadership training, skill-building, and hands-on campaign experience, a cohort of apprentices are taken through the steps of building and maintaining a successful campaign. Only a handful of applicants are chosen, with many going on to attain significant jobs in or tangential to the LGBTQ non-discrimination movement; past alumni have been recruited by the ACLU, Equality California, and by Freedom for All Americans itself.  

“Being given the opportunity to be chosen from hundreds of applicants, being able to sit with my peers from all different walks of life and talk about non-discrimination issues was important to see: how it was done, and all the moving parts, and to be forced to work together and learn different working styles. It helped me prepare for the work I’m doing now.”

In addition to learning more about the importance of non-discrimination issues, Haddy says the program also set her up for success in her personal and professional lives.

“One of the biggest takeaways was it helped me gain skills and knowledge on how to present myself in the professional world, and know it’s ok to ask for what I deserve and to ask for what I need. I feel I leveled up in my professional life; my career trajectory just shot up.”

Most importantly, Haddy says her time at LGBT-U made her aware that there is still much progress to be made in securing protections for all LGBTQ people, and she is excited to contribute to that work.

“[The experience] opened up my eyes that there is still work to be done, even within our own community, to make sure everyone’s being heard and thought of. I’m working with our future, and I need to make sure the things I learned, I’m able to bring to a generation of new leaders who need to know these things. I’ve gained the knowledge to be able to be a better advocate, and now, everything’s
come full circle for me.”

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