Metro Weekly

SMYAL Fall Brunch to stress importance of support for LGBTQ youth amid social distancing

Annual fundraising event hopes to highlight benefits of SMYAL's youth programming amid the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic

SMYAL Brunch with Sultan Shakir (center) — Photo: Ward Morrison/file photo

Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, the nonprofit organization dedicated to providing support services to LGBTQ youth in the D.C. area and engaging them in activism on behalf of their communities, will hold its 23rd annual SMYAL Fall Brunch virtually via Facebook Live on Sunday, Oct. 11.

Each year, the brunch celebrates the success of SMYAL’s programs and draws hundreds of donors and LGBTQ advocates who support the organization’s mission, and are interested to receive updates on its latest initiatives. Funds raised for the brunch directly benefit SMYAL’s programming, including its virtual meet-ups, support groups, leadership trainings, and housing and social services for LGBTQ youth experiencing housing insecurity.

The organization will also present its Todd Peterson Award, named in honor of a longtime SMYAL board member, to entrepreneur and activist Eboné Bell, in recognition of her long-standing support of LGBTQ youth and for being a leader in the queer women’s community.

This year’s brunch will particularly focus on the challenges SMYAL has had to overcome in order to keep its programs functioning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left many youth — particularly those living in homes where their LGBTQ identity is not embraced — vulnerable and desiring contact with other LGBTQ people. Other youth who have since left home have been affected by unemployment or reduced work hours due to closures caused by the pandemic or the economic downturn, leaving them facing housing instability, possible eviction, and higher rates of anxiety and depression.

“The brunch is really an opportunity to bring the community together to talk about the really great work that’s happened over the past year, and the support that we need from the community moving forward, which is more important right now given COVID, high unemployment, and just the general sense of isolation that people are feeling, especially young people who are at home or are isolated,” says SMYAL Executive Director Sultan Shakir. “Now is the time to rally the community, to thank them for their support and to let them know that we not only appreciate it, but need it.”

Shakir adds that despite being hampered by COVID-induced social distancing, SMYAL has been working with its clients as they engage in and lead movements centered around social justice activism.

“We did the “Rise Up” activist conference earlier this year,” Shakir notes. “That’s a weeklong conference with over 70 young activists from across the country, that provides a really great opportunity for them to connect with their peers and share the passion that they have for activism, to learn from each other, and to create opportunities for collaboration. We also launched a grant program for young activists were part of the conference.

“There’s really great work happening  with young people, not work that we’re doing at SMYAL, but youth-led,” he adds. “People are really taking ownership of trying to address some of the really real challenges that are out in the world, everything from addressing racial inequality and getting involved in the Black Lives Matter movement to figuring out what we can do about the environment, and the fact that the world is literally on fire right now.”

SMYAL has also lobbied the D.C. Council to allot funding for programs aimed at trans and gender-nonconforming youth, including a youth workforce program; an extended transitional housing program to support youth with higher needs and allow them to receive support for up to six years from a local organization; and has increased funding for a survey around transgender discrimination in the District. The organization had also advocated for more funding for the District’s Office of Human Rights so that it will be able to resolve a backlog of complaints alleging anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

SMYAL has also worked with the Greater Washington Community Foundation to launch a COVID Relief Fund to support youth who are experiencing dire financial straits due to the pandemic. In total, the fund has provided $77,604 to people throughout the D.C. region.

“There are so many youth across the region who have been impacted by COVID, everything from people who’ve lost jobs, to young people who were planning to go to school and then had no place to go because they would have to come back to transphobic or homophobic households, to youth who needed to travel to another jurisdiction because they couldn’t afford to live in D.C. anymore,” says Shakir.

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SMYAL is also holding a town hall on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. focusing on workplace discrimination, an issue that has gained prominence due to large levels of unemployment in the LGBTQ community as a result of the global pandemic, whose members could soon find themselves searching for a new job.

“The town hall is part of a series put on by the Greater Washington Community Foundation, to look at some pressing issues in the district, many of which are exasperated by COVID,” says Shakir, who will be speaking as part of a panel at the event. “Tomorrow’s event will also feature a young Black trans woman who is in SMYAL’s programs and has experienced workplace discrimination. We’ll be talking about how employers can really help not only extend [nondiscrimination] policies, but put them into practice in the workplace. “

Other speakers include Robert Burns, a senior vice president and manager of the Greater Washington and Boston markets for Citigroup’s Community Investing and Development arm; Laura Durso, the chief learning officer for Whitman-Walker Institute; and Benton Murphy, an associate vice president of community investment at the Greater Washington Community Foundation. The panel will be moderated by Tonia Wellons, the president and CEO of the Greater Washington Community Foundation.

Besides Shakir, the Fall Brunch will feature remarks from Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle and his wife Eireann Dolan, both allies of the LGBTQ community, MSNBC’s Joshua Johnson, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and others, including youth who have benefitted from SMYAL’s programs.

“The brunch presents a unique opportunity to hear from the youth participants in our programs,” notes SMYAL Development Director Jason Laney. “So we have youth from our Little SMYALs program, which supports youth six to 12, youth in our housing program, youth who participated in the Rise Up conference, and youth who have been Youth Leadership Award winners, who are going to be able to tell their stories through virtual video, and talk about the impact that SMYAL has had on them.”

SMYAL’s annual Fall Brunch will be held on Sunday, Oct. 11, at 12 p.m via Facebook Live. To register or join the event live, contact Development Director Jason Laney at or Communications Manager Hancie Stokes at

For more information on SMYAL’s upcoming programming and events, visit

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