This I Believe

Glimpse the inner spirit of GSAFE 2012 Educator of the Year 
Abra Bankendorf Vigna to understand how she helps 
LGBTQ teens find their balance and embrace their strengths 
as group facilitator of Teens Like Us.

I believe in the power of our stories.

I believe that our stories of how and why structure our experiences of the world. Moreover, I believe that we each possess limitless power over our stories and thus our experiences of the world. If your story of how the world works and your place in it does not leave you excited to be a part of the world, then that story does not serve you. In that case, you owe it to yourself to explore alternative versions of the story of “why,” and to be open to revisions until you have a story that fills you with comfort, hope, wonder, and gratitude.

At around age 13, most brains begin developing the capacities for perspective-taking and life-story-writing that are considered hallmarks of adult functioning. The dawning of these developments is overwhelming. People struggle significantly with the enormous task of writing a new story and/or adapting the ones they are given—if and when they have access to sufficient resources/privileges that allow them to contend with these new capacities rather than remain absorbed with issues of basic survival.

It is both a privilege and an honor to be in a position to support and aid young people as they begin the hard work of engaging with their stories. Sometimes our stories are awesome, but more often, and particularly for LGBTQ youth, our stories are painful. I believe that many, if not most, of us try our best not to tell a story of shameful certainty that there is something inherently flawed inside of us. Sometimes the shameful storyline involves the belief that we are permanently damaged by our specific traumas. Sometimes it is an unshakable and unbearable conviction that we are simply not enough: not good enough, not smart enough, not talented enough, not attractive enough, etc.

Contrary to this commonly reinforced story, I believe that we are each sufficient unto our own joy. In other words, I believe we are each enough.

However, our consumer- and hierarchy-based power structures are reliant upon a populace that accepts and perpetuates stories of its own inadequacies, and one of the main stories that we use to police ourselves and others is about how we fall short of allegedly biologically and therefore divinely essentialized ideals of manhood and womanhood (and that those are the only possibilities).

The various context-specific details of one another’s inadequacy create much despair within and denigration among those who balk at the very heart of gender norms: members of the LGBTQ community. I believe that, whatever your community, the less you conform to your community’s expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman, the more your very existence calls into question the truth as your community tells it.

I believe that within most communities is a strong, pervasive, and very well-guarded story that to be feminine is to be weak, and that this is undesirable. This story is delimiting and destructive to all people, not just to those who are either dominantly feminine-identified or expressive. Although the queer community resists owning this, I believe that such disdain for the feminine is a story that serves as a palpable organizing principle that structures power and possibility within this community as well.

Further, I believe that we oppress one another with stories of different identities’ inherent limitations and inadequacies. These stories keep us caged and afraid and ultimately maintain the status quo of power differentials that are stratified by categories of race and class. This domination-based certainty that only the people who possess the desirable characteristics can or should have access to resources (such as power) is the cause of much individual suffering. These dynamics silently fragment our relationships with ourselves, and therefore each other. However, I believe that by changing the self, we produce change in the world.

I believe that it is wholly possible to integrate all parts of the self, and by proxy, to transform and transcend many experiences of suffering (at least for periods of time). In this pursuit, I believe in the healing power of: releasing judgment for the self and others, practicing gratitude and limitless curiosity in place of judgment, focusing on the breath and the present moment, and holding space for the entirety of each other’s experiences.

I believe in holding space for one another.

Holding space for one another can take many forms. Sometimes it looks like listening with openness and acceptance for what the other has to say. Sometimes it looks like giving the topics to which we commonly assign shame a place of honor and therefore value and relevance in our daily lives. Topics like sex, sexual violence, gender identity, sexuality, and coping mechanisms punctuate transformative moments in almost everyone’s life, and there are too few venues that welcome these topics in normalizing, inclusive, or life-affirming ways.

I believe that celebrating expressions of unfettered and unabashed silliness, joy, or grief is a profoundly transformative act. Recognizing and accepting one’s own fallibilities in finding common humanity in those you enjoy the least and in extending compassion in every direction, but to the self first and foremost, are practices that offer the foundation for creating a more nourishing experience in the world.

I believe that every person needs at least one individual in their life story (preferably many people) who they believe sees them as they are and nonetheless holds them in unconditional positive regard*, and the best person for this job is yourself.

I believe the simple act of bearing witness to each other’s lives without rejection is the core function of family.

If it is not part of your story to have this need met by members of your family of origin, you will be provided with opportunities to find it elsewhere. Youth groups are one possible place to seek and find community and/or chosen family to fulfill this function, and to learn how to provide this sort of unconditional positive regard for yourself. At the end of the day, it is because of a desire to provide access to such connection that I have remained in the realm of youth work for as long as I have (nine years and counting). Supporting young people is an inherently challenging—and often frustrating—endeavor, which means it is also work that is brimming with immense possibility for healing, inspiration, and growth for everyone involved.

Working with young people means working with their life story in its current draft. It is a labor of infusing that life-story writing and revising with fearlessness, hope, determination, celebration, and humility. Although the role of the youth worker alternates among that of educator, coach, cheerleader, mentor, crisis worker, or babysitter, it is always ultimately that of possible life story role model.

I believe that my greatest impact on the lives of the youth I have served will be found not in the resonance of my words, but in the sharing of my life story.

My biggest impact will be in sharing a draft of my life story that integrates experiences of violence, hatred, and despair with experiences of forgiveness, generosity, and delight. My story and how I tell it in my movements through the world subvert the idea that people who strongly embody feminine energy are vapid, vain, uncritical, naïve, or powerless. I believe that through sharing the process of writing and revising my many stories in an open and reflective manner, I am validating an alternative definition of strength.

I believe there is no final draft, no certainty, and no one truth to uncover. I believe the quest to uncover the self has no end, because we are ever-changing and always true. Plotting your life course is not necessarily a process of following a map or a specific path. Rather, we are like comets, ever streaming forward, pulled in one direction and then another by the gravity of other celestial bodies we find ourselves drawn to on our journey.

More and more, I believe that the point of life is to revel in your own creation. I believe that we create our experiences of our lives through our stories and that when we feel free to self-determine, we feel the most capable, satisfied, and enchanted with life itself.

I believe that the draft we choose to share with the world at any given time is our offering, and that that this offering is at best a mirror of what we each are capable of. Or, at least, that is my story, and I am sticking to it (pending my next revision, that is).

* Note: Unconditional positive regard is not a state of boundarylessness or unaccountability. Rather, unconditional positive regard is the sentiment that no matter what you do or say to me or to the world, I believe you are deserving of love and connection. It means supporting one another when we make decisions others cannot fathom, trusting that others know what pain they need to cause themselves on their journey, and most of all, holding on to your kindness if and when it is necessary to dissolve or reformulate a relationship. HOWEVER, unconditional positive regard is not relevant in life-threatening situations/relationships. When someone’s behavior threatens someone else’s existence, this is called a crisis situation, and a totally different set of behaviors and responses to one another are appropriate in situations of survival.

About Teens Like Us

Abra Bankendorf Vigna is an LBGTQ Youth Group Facilitator for Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin, Teens Like Us–Madison. Teens Like Us (TLU) is social, educational, and supportive youth group that has been providing safe spaces for Madison-area youth (ages 13–19) to feel safe, explore their identities, find similar others, and learn important life skills for over 20 years. Run by two dedicated group facilitators, adult volunteers, and Youth Health Promoters, TLU welcomes close to 100 new youth to group each year, and provides both formal and informal outreach to upwards of 300 youth a year. TLU focuses on developing healthy interpersonal relationship skills, communication skills, and stress-management skills, and instilling safer-sex practices in their group members as well as in the larger Madison community.