After winning marriage, the next question that’s typically asked is: “What’s next?”

For Equality New Mexico, this question has a multitude of answers. From providing support for the Coalition for Navajo Equality and their efforts to repeal the Diné Marriage Act of 2005 to supporting the Respect ABQ Women campaign that defeated a ballot initiative to restrict reproductive rights — EQNM has worked hard to be a multi-issue organization.

Recently, they have taken on some exciting new work — advocating for safe schools. We caught up with Amber Royster, Executive Director of Equality New Mexico, to learn more about this program.

Equality Federation: What are Equality New Mexico’s priorities for its safe schools program?
Amber Royster of Equality New Mexico: There are so many facets of creating safe schools, and we are fortunate in New Mexico to have a number of people and organizations invested in this work. Right now, EQNM is most needed in the policy advocacy arena, so we are dedicating and seeking resources to support filling critical holes in our state’s bullying prevention statutes, and to encourage early adoption of GLSEN best practices for trans* students in our public school systems — which we intend to eventually lead to a legislative effort to mandate adoption statewide.

But, as our organizational focus has broadened to be more concerned with intersectional issues, we intend for our programmatic work to follow. In the case of safe schools, for instance, we have to address student and teacher bullying and abuse based on race and ethnicity, just as we do on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We are concerned with the militarization of our schools through excessive law enforcement presence — we need counselors, not cops. And, zero-tolerance policies are anathema to reducing school pushout, so we have a lot of work to do at the local level to examine and remedy existing policies.

EF: Why is restorative justice and ending school pushout a part of your safe schools work?
AR: I personally think of restorative justice in two ways: first, it focuses on human and community needs, rather than punitive measures. This is important because it removes the application of “justice” from our state-sanctioned institutions, which more often than not perpetuate injustice. It’s also important because, employed well, restorative justice helps address the causes of harm and explores the underlying needs, assumptions, and relationships at play; versus, justice that only addresses violated rights and subsequent punishment, without considering the larger systemic (institutional) injustices that likely instigated or contributed to harm in the first place.

Second, restorative justice encourages human connection and intentional communication as a means to address injustice, conflict, and other harm.  The benefits of this practice among our future generations, on both micro and macro levels, are countless.

So, in those frames, restorative justice can’t just be “a part” of our safe schools work; rather, it is the crux. Not only does it reduce the subsequent harm of punitive “justice,” it promotes a culture shift among our future generations for how we communicate, connect, and address conflict.

Restorative Justice is also a pathway to reducing and ending school pushout, as it encourages a departure from the highly punitive, “zero-tolerance” approach to school discipline and conflict resolution. And, like Restorative Justice, focusing on school pushout provides the opportunity for significant culture shift toward equity and justice. Now, of course young people don’t solely exist in the public school system — we can’t end racism, transphobia, poverty, sexism, homelessness, homophobia, hunger, etc., by only doing work in the schools. Nevertheless, it’s quite a different world to imagine in which students are encouraged, supported, and honored for who they are by their teachers, faculty, and peers, regardless of the demographic boxes they could check. It’s quite a different world to imagine in which public schools are safe havens for the challenges of identity, place, and adolescence, and with more resources allocated to counseling and behavioral health services than to campus police and security.

EF: Why is focusing on safe schools so important given the demographic makeup of New Mexico?
AR: New Mexico holds the unfortunate mantle of being the worst state in which to raise a child. We are afflicted with poverty and have the highest number of children of any state living in extreme poverty. And, New Mexico is now ranked as the most food-insecure state in the country for children. Obviously, we have some very serious problems in New Mexico when it comes to providing for and protecting our future generations.

As we know, school environment can play a significant role in mitigating some of this reality. As is the case with every state, many children receive their only meals at school.  School-based counseling services may be the only resource for addressing serious problems of abuse and neglect. But, as is also the case with most (if not every) state, we simply don’t allocate adequate resources to sustain and grow these efforts — or to address their cause, for that matter.

Safe schools are important to New Mexico because our youth need them more than ever.

EF: What partnerships have you created in working towards creating a safe and just climate for all students to learn and succeed?
AR: We have grown our partnerships with a multitude of organizations and coalitions that are concerned with safe schools.  We are in close partnership with Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, Southwest Women’s Law Center, Strong Families New Mexico, UNM LGBTQ Resource Center, and Young Women United — all of which work directly with public school boards and administrators to encourage and advocate for safe schools issues. We also work closely with Santa Fe Mountain Center, the home of our state’s GSA Network. We are fortunate that an Albuquerque Chapter of GLSEN has recently formed, and we have already begun collaborating on safe schools work.

On the policy side, we have grown and maintained strong relationships with key local and state lawmakers that are involved in policymaking as it pertains to our public school systems.

EF: What other priorities does Equality New Mexico have this year?
AR: We are definitely doing much more “non-marriage” work this year than last, though we have long-strived to be more than a one-issue organization and address LGBTQ community needs from a “whole person” perspective. 

Today, our goals are focused on building a meaningful statewide reach, trans* community inclusion and awareness, LGBTQ community wellness, organizational sustainability, and continuing advocacy on specific and intersectional LGBTQ issues and policies. Our most tangible programmatic work includes shoring up our state’s bullying prevention statutes, working for adoption of the GLSEN best practice model for trans* students in our public school systems, increasing access to health care coverage and services for LGBTQ people — especially our trans* community, and surfacing and addressing civic participation, gender-based violence, and policing issues as they pertain to LGBTQ people of color.

Thank you to Equality New Mexico for all your hard work for the LGBT community in your state! We look forward to the many state and local wins to come!

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Jenn Curtin

Jenn is the Program Associate at Equality Federation. In her role, she strengthens our major donor program, assists the communications team in the implementation of digital media programs and provides support to the board as board liaison.

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