Sixty-three years ago this month, a young and unknown Audre Lorde joined the spring ritual of graduation, collecting her diploma from Hunter College. She went on to become one of our country’s most influential writers, and a fierce advocate for social justice, civil rights, women’s rights and LGBTQI+ rights. Along the way, the legendary poet, essayist and activist taught at three CUNY colleges including her alma mater, where she served as a beloved distinguished professor.
Fast forward to today: Andrea Alejandra Gonzales, a recent graduate of CUNY’s Baruch College, has already been recognized nationally for their work in social justice advocacy, including for the LGBTQI+ community. Gonzales, who was named last year by GLAAD as one of 20 Under 20 youth shaping the future, credits Lorde as having the greatest impact on their life, inspiring them to continue creating safe, loving spaces for the LGBTQI+ community.
“She brought every aspect of her identity, her Blackness, queerness into her work as a poet, a warrior and a mother,” Gonzales told GLAAD. “Every time I read her words or listen to one of her interviews, I feel inspired to continue working towards dismantling oppressive institutions and the liberation of marginalized communities as my full, authentic self.”
Both Lorde and Gonzales, among many others, embody the long history of advocacy for the LGBTQI+ community at the City University of New York, a legacy in which we take great pride. As we celebrate Pride this month, it is important to ensure that we are supporting the next generation of leaders and activists – those, like Gonzales, who are working to ensure a more accepting and accommodating society for everybody. One way we are doing this at CUNY is with the offering of leadership and internship opportunities that ensure our LGBTQI+ students get the support they need to succeed.
We are privileged that these leadership and internship programs benefit from the guidance and support of philanthropist Mitch Draizin, founder and president of the Concordia Philanthropic Fund, president of the LGBTQI+ Advisory Council at CUNY and a longtime champion of the University’s LGBTQI+ community. Draizin and the council, which has 140 members, play a crucial role in providing co-curricular support and resources to our students. The council plans to launch a formal career mentorship program, centered on career preparation and professional development and matching students with mentoring advisers on the council. Draizin has worked hard to help fill what he calls a “support gap” that can hold LGBTQI+ students back.
“I am personally witnessing the powerful, real-life impact of our programs on the lives of students,” Draizin said. “Our commitment to career, advocacy and leadership preparation is being attained and will continue to expand.”
One of these initiatives, the CUNY LGBTQI+ Summer Internship program, launched last year to provide career engagement opportunities for LGBTQI+ students across the private, cultural and nonprofit sectors. The first cohort of students from The City College of New York, Baruch College and LaGuardia Community College will begin participation this summer.
Also for the past year, the CUNY LGBTQI+ Advocacy Academy has been training selected students to serve as advocates and leaders through a non-credit certification course taught by Queens College distinguished lecturer Jimmy Vacca, a former New York City Council member from the Bronx. Students in the course engage with guest speakers while learning about LGBTQI+ history and community engagement.
Another program, the David Mixner Fellowship, provides $5,000 grant opportunities to work with organizations at the forefront of the LGBTQI+ rights movement. The fellowship is open to full-time undergraduate City College students who identify as LGBTQI+ and want to work on LGBTQI+ advocacy. Advisers work with selected students to connect them with organizations across the city and the country, based on their areas of interest.
These initiatives are a proud continuation of CUNY’s storied history in LGBTQI+ advocacy, which also includes the creation of the Center for LGBTQ Studies in 1991 at the CUNY Graduate Center. CLAGS is the first research center of its kind in the United States to be based at a university, and serves to foster social change by sponsoring public programs, offering fellowships to scholars, and functioning as a conduit of information on LGBTQI+ issues.
It seems fitting then, that just a few weeks before the kick-off of Pride Month, the main intersection of Hunter College, E. 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, was co-named “Audre Lorde Way,” serving as a symbol of her trailblazing legacy and of the path CUNY continues to pave to ensure there’s always going to be a place here for many more Audre Lordes.
Félix Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of The City University of New York, the largest urban public university system in the United States.