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Ten Questions with Rising Star Award recipient Seth Wallace

Seth Wallace has only been in New Haven a few years, but already he’s made his mark with a diverse set of efforts that include being a co-chair of the Pride New Haven revival over the past two years and bringing Lady Gaga to New Haven for an event at Yale last October. Seth’s mark is already being made, and the Rising Star award is awarded in recognition of those efforts. Center co-president Tom Donato talked to Wallace about his background, what he hopes to accomplish and his favorites parts of New Haven.

  1. What does it mean to you to receive this Rising Star Dorothy Award? I’m from Boston originally, and have only been in New Haven for about five years. Anyone who does activism of any kind knows it’s hard to move from place to place without feeling like you’re starting all over again. For me, this award is emblematic of the lifelong relationships and connections I’ve built in this state. It reminds me of how far we have come in just these five short years, and how much we’ll be able to accomplish in the future. I’m very grateful.
  2. What motivates you to be so politically active? My mother is a medical lobbyist in Massachusetts, and she met my father when they were both working at the State House. Growing up, our family dinner conversations always included something political. My parents encouraged my siblings and I to become educated consumers of information, and to care deeply about the places we live in. When I reached middle school and began going to the gay-straight alliance meetings there, my interest in queer civil and social rights emerged. I remember my mother taking me to lobby for gay marriage in Massachusetts in 2003 – it was my first taste of this kind of work, and a memory that I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life.
  3. What are some of your favorite things about New Haven? I love New Haven! I have never lived in a place that makes me feel so connected to others. My favorite thing about the city is how close we all are. I can walk out of my house and my friends live, work, and play right outside my door. I have the privilege of knowing people who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents, politicians, activists, artists, musicians, builders, business owners, software developers, and on and on. Event planning and community organizing is unique here because of how close and connected everyone is. There have been multiple “oops” moments where I thought I’d messed something up, only to find that if I ask for help, someone is always there to support.
  4. Tell us how you brought Lady Gaga to Yale. Do you ask this question to everyone? Kidding. Lady Gaga came to Yale in October of 2015 as part of the Emotion Revolution Summit, a national conference for students, educators, administrators, policymakers, and thought leaders to come together to address the emotional climate in our nation’s high schools. It was a day-long event full of workshops, discussion, and action planning. I developed and managed the event as part of my work at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. It was a great experience. I’m lucky enough to be continuing this work in partnership with Facebook, which has supported us in launching a project called InspirED (inspirED.facebook.com), a site which provides free resources to students and teachers nationwide who are interested in creating a positive emotional climate in schools. I love my work tremendously because it connects me to some of the most creative people I’ve ever met. Most of them are students! We couldn’t do this work without their voice and ambition.
  5. In your opinion, what are some of the biggest issues facing LGBT youth in this country? Statistically speaking, there are huge mental health disparities facing LGBTQ youth that need to be addressed in a variety of ways. Queer youth are also disproportionately represented in the foster care system, and in juvenile detention centers. I think it’s easy to look at these issues and focus on some of the more privileged areas, or highlight the successes while turning away from the work that still needs to be done. So many kids still need support. So many queer kids still need a place to sleep at night, or a family to love them. To begin to fix this, we need research, culturally-informed mental and physical health services, systems and policy reform, and cooperation from families, schools, service providers, and policymakers. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
  6. You were an organizer for Pride New Haven; is it important to you to stay involved in community LGBT events? Absolutely, and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I’m here. This year, I was able to pull together something called Learn@Pride, which was a series of workshops and educational opportunities to expand Pride New Haven and reach some of our community members who may have not joined us in previous years. This piece in particular is really important to me. I believe Pride New Haven is something that should reach all types of people in our city. I’m excited about the upcoming Pride, and eager to come up with new ways to grow. I absolutely couldn’t do that without the support of my fabulous co-chairpeople, the chairman emeritus, and the New Haven Pride Center leadership.
  7. Do you have a secret crush? My perpetual secret crush is my partner Kevin, who has been with me for seven years and through some of the biggest transformations in my life. I couldn’t have made it this far without his love and his faith in my ability to do this work and keep pushing ahead. As for activism, I find myself crushing on passionate and inspired queer leaders like Tiq Milan, Angelica Ross, Aydian Dowling, and the inspiring queer and trans youth who fill me with optimism for the future. I have a lot of local crushes too, because we have so many great activists here. (2016 Dorothy Award Honoree) Fleurette King was also one of my first activist crushes when I got to New Haven – I saw her speak and was so inspired by her presence, confidence, and warmth. I hope to bring that genuineness to my audiences.
  8. What is one thing that everyone can do to improve the climate for LGBT people in this country? Here’s something simple: I think we need to listen. Listen before getting overwhelmed at the long acronym that seems to grow and grow. Listen to your friends and family members when they tell you they’re questioning, or they’re queer, or they’re not sure what they are but they need your love while they figure it out. Listen to the elders of our community tell us how things were, and how hard they fought for us to be able to even stand here today. Listen to our children tell us how they see the world, and what kind of future they want to live in. Listen to those whose identities and expressions might be foreign or unknown to you. Listen before you ask that question on the tip of your tongue. It’s simple, and yet it’s the foundation of everything we hope to accomplish.
  9. What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? “Slow down.” I tell it to myself all the time, although I’m not so good at taking my own advice. I’m the kind of person who isn’t happy unless I’m going somewhere. I can get negative or impatient with my own progress. At first, activism was hard for me because I was carrying around this burning, angry sense of injustice. I wanted to go a million miles an hour, to fix everything and to be the loudest voice in the movement. I burnt a lot of bridges in my early years, telling people what they were doing wrong or how I thought things should be. It took a hard look at myself to realize that the best way forward is by inviting those around me to engage in this work together, not to break each other down. We are doing this work in the house that others built, and no one person can do it alone. “Slow down” reminds me to take a breath, to feel some gratitude, and to be mindful of my next step forward.
  10. Where do you hope to be in five years? Done with my MSW! That will be a relief! I hope I’m still in New Haven, or if I’m not, that I left because of an opportunity to do really meaningful work. I will absolutely still be working for queer civil and social rights. I will absolutely still be working to uplift the voices of the unheard. That’s a non-negotiable. The rest is an exciting mystery.
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Kenn Hopkins

February 24, 2016 11:01 pm Reply

Seth first off CONGRATULATIONS! Second it was such a pleasure to meet you at the Kick off of Gay Prode in New Haven. You impressed me in so very many ways. I enjoyed your interview answers above tremendously & seriously “Lady Gaga”?!?! You are a mover & a shaker as well as an inspiration to our younger generations & to our entire community as well. Thank you for being who you are and for advocating for us all.

LOVE&OPTIMISM!!

Kenn Hopkins

Robin River

March 1, 2016 6:26 pm Reply

Seth, you are amazing in your insight, energy and motivation. It is such a pleasure working with you through InspirED and the Yale initiative. My students with whom you have begun working are so inspired by you. You have made some very important connections with these kids, you made them feel valued and respected. You are a true role model. I feel so honored to have met you and, even better, to get to work with you on the InspirED project. Congratulations on this wonderful recognition. And thank you for all you do for so many.
With great appreciation
-Robin