Illustration by Leigh Douglas

Four months ago, a few friends thought it would be a great idea to create an outreach program for LGBTQ youth in Santa Cruz County. What began as a casual conversation has become an up-and-coming organization set out to do just that. They call themselves ImPower.

ImPower is the first program at UC Santa Cruz to reach out to LGBTQ-identified high school students. The group was created in January 2012 and is currently comprised of 15 members, with new members joining weekly.

Simone Vincent, a film and digital media transfer student and one of the founders of ImPower, talked about the group’s mission.

“ImPower holds an inclusive safe space for LGBTQ youth to be celebrated and recognized — they are not alone,” Vincent said in an email interview. “We want to be able to provide an outlet that showcases higher education as an option for everyone. Our own members have each taken unique paths to be able to attend UCSC and we feel passionate about making it an obtainable option for all.”

ImPower is currently planning an unnamed event for May 19 that will bring high school students from all over the county to the UCSC campus. It is one of many LGBTQ events in May, including the seventh annual campus-wide Kresge Pride march and festival also on May 19.

On March 10, in order to gather student input for their May 19 event, ImPower tabled and held a Q&A workshop with high school youth at the Safe Empowered X-traordinary Youth (SEXY) Conference at Soquel High. A voluntary survey asked high school students questions to help ImPower structure the event.

Vincent said feedback from surveys would be seriously considered in determining the course of the event.

“We want to bring the students up and give them a college and social justice tour of the campus to learn about each department and what it has to offer them as potential UCSC students, as well as the LGBTQ resource centers on campus such as the Cantú Queer Center,” Vincent said. “We will have a couple of LGBTQ-identifying students and/or faculty guest speakers attending and will finish the event off in participation with Kresge Pride.”

In addition to attending the SEXY conference, ImPower joined and was asked to speak at other local events. On April 20, they rallied together with other Santa Cruzans downtown at the end of the national Day of Silence, an LGBTQ event to protest against harassment and abuse in school.

Vincent and fellow ImPower member Joel Vann were asked to speak at the rally. Vincent sang “Crazy For You” by Adele. Vann shared a personal story of a time when she was bullied in high school.

Ginger Haggerty is a fourth-year transfer student and a founder of ImPower. She said ImPower has progressed since its beginning.

“The group itself has grown in size steadily and has become a place where UCSC students come together around a common cause that we all believe in,” Haggerty said. “Many people in the group had never really been involved in a campus organization, but we have all steadily grown together and we all take responsibility for the work that ImPower is doing.”

Though ImPower is still in its infancy, members regularly attend every two-hour Thursday night meeting.

“Our Thursday meetings are sometimes the highlight of my week,” Haggerty said.

The May 19 event will set the stage for the group’s success and establish a foundation for the members continuing on next school year.

Chris Blessing, a fourth-year legal studies and politics double major and a founder of ImPower thinks that reaching out to high school students is especially important.

“So much of high school depends on the sense of community that one has,” Blessing said. “Kids who are ostracized, especially for reasons of perceived difference, often have terrible high school experiences. By reaching out to queer youth, we broaden their sense of community and help validate the individuality that might otherwise be met with derision. We want students to be excited about pursuing higher education. The more they know what that experience will be like, the more likely they will be to pursue it.”