Peace First Presents Duets: Brennan Lewis and Kevin Jennings

Duets is a storytelling platform that pairs leading artists, entrepreneurs, activists, and thinkers together with young people engaged in peacemaking work for powerful dialogues that explore the most important issues for our times.

We paired GLSN Founder and Arcus Foundation Executive Director Kevin Jennings with QueerNC Founder and Peace First Fellow Brennan Lewis for a discussion on the essential role of young people in LGBTQ activism, hosted by MTV’s Benjamin O’Keefe.

[Bobby] Welcome! We’re so excited to have you all here. Welcome to our launch of our new platform, Duets. We’re bringing people together for conversations; conversations that unearth new ideas, new perspectives, new insights that inspire all of us and reshape the way we see problems and the way imagine solutions.

[Benjamin] The first is Brennan Lewis, the founder of QueerNC, which is a North Carolina based nonprofit that provides a safe space in the community for youth in North Carolina to connect and empower one another. Brennan is the 2015 Peace First Prize winner.

[Brennan] When I went to high school, it suddenly was like, meeting other LGBTQ people for the first time. I wasn’t so alone, and it was really amazing. We needed a group for LGBTQ youth to come together and over the past few years we’ve grown from having monthly meetups, to leadership trainings for young people across North Carolina.

[Benjamin] Currently the Executive Director of the Arcus Foundation, in 1990 he founded Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, which seeks to end discrimination, harassment and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity for young people - please welcome Kevin Jennings.

[Kevin] One thing we know at Arcus is that we are not the experts, Brennan is the expert. So if we really want to know how to LGBTQ youth, then we have to sit down and really listen to LGBTQ youth. What really has driven my work was that sense of people who were not as lucky as I was, and that there was something more important in life than just making money.

[Brennan] So it really has been amazing to emphasize youth leadership and having youth teaching other youth how to utilize the tools and go back and spread this kind of network and influence across North Carolina and make things better.

[Brennan] We just want to do good work and be recognized for doing good things. Encourage people to think about young queer people as leaders and as changemakers. You don’t have to do something huge to change somebody's life - that’s something I’ve learned along the way.

[Kevin] Well first of all, I would disagree, I think what you’re doing is huge.

[Eric] So there are millions of Brennans out there who want to repair our communities, who want to make our world more kind, more just, more vibrant. We need to be in the Brennan business to help unleash young people’s moral imaginations.

[Benjamin] And that’s exactly what Peace First is doing - they’re empowering young people to use the skills that they already have, but to hone them in ways that they can’t do without the support of others. And that’s why I’m so happy to be apart of this.

In sharing their experiences, Kevin “was struck by how similar our stories are, even though we’re years apart.” And it’s not just because they both come from rural North Carolina – they spoke of feeling isolated and unsafe. They spoke of recognizing a culture and system that oppresses LGBTQ youth. And they both highlighted the important role of young people in changing that culture and system.

But we need more than recognition of their assets – we need to actively pursue young people and their ideas. As Brennan explained, “we are really flexible and have a lot of new ideas.” So it’s the role of adults to not just give young people a pat on the back but to create spaces that empower and support them to create change.

Right now, there are thousands and thousands of people like Brennan across the globe – young people with the ideas, with the perspective, with the compassion – they just need the opportunity and support.

If you are one of those young people, join Brennan by accepting the Peace First Challenge here.