Alumni Story: Katrina
I came upon the Attic Youth Center a bit by happenstance. I was a part of a youth videography program that trained young people to make a documentary video about an issue in their community then take action steps towards a solution. While I was part of the pilot program the first year, the program took on a twist in my second year. We had always imagined community to be synonymous with neighborhood-- the blocks and streets that made up the setting of our lives. When the Attic Youth Center joined the program the idea of community was reimagined. Here were youth coming from all over the city-- and suburbs even-- to create a space together, one narrative shaped from many.
I think this made a lot of people nervous. Someone made the wise decision to lead a sensitivity training for all the youth who would be involved with the program that second year. Attic youth who were part of the Speaker’s Bureau told their stories of loneliness and joy, of coming out and staying in the closet. Instead of the rejection that I think some were imagining, the sensitivity training led to a lot of young people coming out, including myself. I heard my own life in their stories, saw the same desire and missed connections. I learned a new vocabulary to describe my own experiences.
My first trip to the Attic space was terrifying--as I think it is for many. It is a little bit like walking through the wardrobe in Narnia. There is no way to imagine this world on the other side until you step into it for yourself. The first thing I noticed were the hugs, the physical closeness of people my age. Have you ever had a moment when you didn’t realize something was missing from your life until it is there? I didn’t know what it mean to be connected to someone intimately, but not sexually. For the first time in my life I was greeted with warm hugs daily.
Looking back I see why this new world felt so terrifying and exhilarating all at once. I had walked into a world where the uneasiness I had felt alone could be turned into confidence shared with a community. This was a place where we could read a future in the story of our lives, where characters just like us could envision a world we had never experienced before. My narrative expanded to include opportunities, relationships, connections that just had not existed in the realm of possibility beforehand. I could be close to someone, physically, emotionally. I could talk about sex and desire and not feel ashamed. My view of the world shifted to include people like me. In a time when everyone seemed to know a queer youth who had committed suicide, we had a place where we could reimagine living.
At the time I was a member of the Attic there was less programming than there is today. I spent a lot of time lounging on a sofa watching the same 90s queer movies on repeat or reading Rita Mae Brown, dancing in the courtyard or making jokes in the lobby. And while I completely appreciate the programming of today’s Attic, I don’t want to underestimate the power of those moments and what they created for me in my life. I recently read an essay by author Walter Dean Myers as he wrote about the importance of culturally relevant stories. As he reflected on these stories on the reader he said they provided “a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are”. This is exactly what the Attic was for me. The Attic was a group of deeply caring people who held a mirror up to my very existence and I saw my self reflected back. And my self was wholly good. Because of this experience I was able to know I was alive and important and full of agency.
I learned to speak loudly at the Attic. I shouted chants to raise money for Thesbians and Drama Queens to travel to San Francisco. I remember SpiralQ partnering with us as we marched through the streets of Center City with giant puppets to take back the night. I saw my body and mind as important and worth protecting. I raised my voice to the towering buildings and I felt like the night was truly mine.
Today I get to pass on these same feelings to my students in the School District of Philadelphia. I teach them they are worthy of respect and kindness, that the world they see on the outside should reflect the dreams they have for themselves in the quiet recesses of their own minds. I teach them to speak, as loudly as they can, even if it feels no one is listening just yet. Because someone is listening. Someon
e who once walked into a place alone and quiet and scared of what was possible, but now believes in the possibility of making the world her own.