UNM student Alray Nelson said an incident of school bullying while he was a junior at Ganado Middle School in Arizona changed his life.
“My junior year in high school was the first time that someone called me a fag and I remember during that time, nothing was done, there were no resources. I was questioning myself and it was hard,” Nelson said. “Suicide was an option for me at that time because no one would listen to me.”
Nelson, now a senior at UNM, is the founder of We Are One, a nonprofit organization that aims to create safe zone programs to promote a friendlier environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) students in schools throughout the Navajo Nation in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Nelson said he is pushing for more school safe zones because there are no school policies for bullying in Navajo Nation schools. He said with a rise in teenage suicides during the past few years, safety zone programs are needed.
“I have seen an increase in suicides in Navajo Nation. I’ll never know if any of those students were LGBT or not, we will never know that,” he said. “All that we know from here is that regardless of someone’s sexual identity or sexual orientation, a life is a life.”
Nelson’s interest in starting We Are One began after he worked as a student intern for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Washington D.C. in spring 2012. He also spent the semester studying at George Washington University, and while he was there he applied and joined the Young People For (YPF) fellowship, which encourages members to get involved with their community in progressive movements. Nelson said that after speaking to a few members of the fellowship in April, he was able to start his nonprofit organization.
Nelson is the only New Mexican student who is a member of the national organization.
Nelson returned to New Mexico after spending last week in the nation’s capital to promote his organization at the 2013 YPF National Summit. He was supposed to meet President Obama, but because the president was too busy, Nelson presented his organization to representatives Obama sent. Nelson met with his personal mentor Dolores Huerta, who is a recipient of the Medal of Freedom, and the White House Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement Ronnie Cho.
Nelson said he is working with high school principals in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico to implement the We Are One program. Nelson said he is proud that Ganado High School will be the first to implement his program.
“It means no student will have to question themselves and ask ‘Am I alone?’ No student would have to feel unsafe, and all students at my school will know that they have an ally,” he said. “Speaking to a teacher and having them becoming an ally, and having a rainbow sticker on their door or a rainbow flag in their classroom sends a huge symbol for the school, it will impact so many lives and that’s what we’re doing.”
YPF Program Organizer William Dennis said Nelson’s work with YPF and We Are One brings to life a Navajo Nation community that has been underrepresented.
“With him standing up for the LGBT community and really wanting to educate people who may have never had the opportunity to talk about LGBT issues … the actual work he’s doing in his community is really amazing and will have a great impact,” Dennis said.
If you are interested in joining We Are One, head to facebook.com/weareonecampaign.