In The Classroom

Students to Illinois’ Education Policymakers: ‘Eliminate Barriers for Gender Minority Youth’

Taylor Pauken is a third-year Adler University Chicago Campus student pursuing a doctor of psychology (Psy.D) degree in clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and adolescents. She was among a group of a dozen students who advocated for specific causes — in her case, gender minority youth — this past spring at the Illinois State Board of Education. The effort was part of an advanced child and adolescent psychotherapy course taught by Professor Joshua Wolff, Ph.D., who has a background working alongside policymakers.

Each student maintains ongoing projects including pushing for after-school program funding, identifying opportunities to train teachers working with children who have autism, supporting women suffering from postpartum depression, helping improve kids’ health and nutrition, and others.

Pauken’s passion project centers on achieving resources and equality for gender minority youth; particularly, those who identify as transgender and/or non-binary.

“While we’ve made great strides in recent years for LGBTQ+ individuals, gender identity issues remain highly contested, especially in light of recent sociopolitical events,” she said. “I know both patients and friends who struggle with gender-related issues related to systemic barriers that prevent their equal access to resources, such as bathrooms that correspond with their gender identities. This prompted me to see what I could do at any policy level to combat barriers in school settings.”

Wolff’s class voted to support Pauken’s project during their ISBE visit. They also selected one set forth by peer Juan Barriga that centered on factors perpetuating the “school-to-prison pipeline” – the fact that students in certain communities are more likely than others to enter the juvenile or adult criminal justice system after offenses on school properties.

We asked both Pauken and Barriga to share their state board experiences and the driving factors for their activism. This feature is the second in a two-part series about the students’ ongoing work.

How did you decide where and who you were going to talk to about these issues?

My original action step included a plan to contact the Tuscaloosa County Board of Education — the decision-makers for my alma mater in Alabama — because I knew Chicago Public Schools had already adopted inclusive policies allowing students to access restroom facilities that correspond with their gender identities.

But after my topic was chosen, I worked with Dr. Wolff to modify my target audience. We wanted everyone in class to have an opportunity to take an active role in carrying out my action step. That’s why we decided to connect with ISBE members about the need to implement inclusive policies in public schools on a statewide level. The board’s Chicago location made setting up a meeting relatively seamless.

How did you and your classmates prepare for your meeting at the ISBE?

Dr. Wolff and I met to discuss the best way to present my proposed policy changes. I reviewed my project’s proposal and cherry-picked the most relevant background information, current initiatives, and my own suggestions for policies moving forward. All of this provided the outline for my state board presentation.

The document then went through a series of revisions. My classmates added real-life examples involving individuals they’d worked with who face related barriers. Then, we all met on the day of the meeting to review and practice what each of us planned to say.

What was your desired outcome from the meeting or advocating for these issues, in general?

I was hoping we could bring more awareness to issues that are often swept under the rug or not frequently considered by policymakers. The fact is: Everyone needs to use restrooms. But many people do not think about the considerable stress such a seemingly routine activity evokes in individuals who do not fit nicely into society’s gender binary. Aware that this is a controversial topic, I was not expecting the board to immediately rewrite policy. Rather, I hoped to introduce knowledge and considerations that members could apply when making policy changes or additions in the future.

What happened at the meeting? Who did you talk to? How did they respond?

We met with two members of the ISBE, Jeffrey Aranowski and Hannah Rosenthal. Jeffrey is the executive director of the Safe and Healthy Climate initiative and Hannah is the principal consultant for the Office of Communications. We all sat around a long table, introduced ourselves, and then several students shared stories about clients affected by the issues we were addressing. Then, I spoke about challenges that transgender and non-binary youth face in school settings; particularly, those tied to bathroom access.

Jeffrey and Hannah asked questions throughout the meeting and appeared interested in the issue. They accepted our background materials and shared their contact information so we could all remain in touch. Each seemed willing to work continuously on policy related to the presentations by both me and Juan — he shared his proposal after me — and said they would follow up with us in the future.

What were you and your classmates thinking and feeling after the meeting?

I felt honored for the opportunity to speak about an issue so dear to me, especially considering that my words could positively impact people’s lives. I became hopeful and excited at the prospect of continuing to work with the board on more inclusive policies; Jeffrey and Hannah seemed committed to conversations beyond the day’s meeting.

In my weeks spent preparing, I felt incredibly nervous to speak in front of the board. But afterward, I was overwhelmed with pride and a sense of accomplishment. The experience really made me think more about incorporating advocacy work into my future career.

What do you plan to do next with advocating for these issues?

Beyond remaining in touch with Jeffrey and Hannah, I plan to do everything I can to continue advocating for sexual and gender minority youth in school settings. I do not want to allow any related issues to be dismissed. My next practicum involves a school and I want to assess its policies to determine whether they warrant a conversation with administrators.

Is there anything else you’d like the Adler community to know about your efforts?

Don’t let fear hold you back from standing up for what you believe in! This was an incredible learning experience for me and I am so thankful. I was pushed to grow in a new and unfamiliar arena, and it’s one I may now consider as a cornerstone for my future career.