Support Learn by Doing
By Danica Liang
Cal Poly Class of 2019 graduate
Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies
Growing up in a rural community in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina provided quite the challenge navigating topics of sexuality, gender, and their intersections with spirituality for Samuel Neil Byrd. In search of a sense of reconciliation and justice, Byrd embarked on a seeker’s journey that immersed them in diverse communities around the world, including those in the halls of Vatican City, where they studied faith, spirituality, and the development of western civilization.
Aside from their theological and interfaith work, Byrd has served as an educational consultant, psychotherapist, college counselor, college lecturer, public school teacher, and community activist over the past twelve years with particular emphasis on gender and sexuality. Those experiences helped prepare Byrd for their current role as Lead Coordinator of LGBTQ+ Initiatives, where they help build inclusive communities for members of the LGBTQ+ community and promotes social justice here at Cal Poly.
Byrd recently sat down with us to give a glimpse of their role, the intersection of their LGBTQ+ and interfaith work, and what they envision for the future of the Pride Center.
Tell me about your role as the Lead Coordinator of LGBTQ+ Initiatives. What inspired you to join Cal Poly?
Upon completion of four wonderful years as an LGBTQ+ professional at UC Berkeley, I underwent a nationwide search for LGBTQ+ Center director positions. My professional career up to this point was guiding me in that direction- developing community centers that work to support students, engage with faculty and staff, and helping influence societal change, especially in the area of sexuality and gender.
I visited many different universities but I really noticed that the students, faculty, and staff I interacted with at Cal Poly really wanted me here. They saw how engaged I was in the work, and the many angles of the work and they shared with me about how great it would be to have someone doing that work here. I really like this community and thought this could be a place I could make meaningful change, not just on campus but in the local community. The Cross Cultural Centers offered the opportunity to be very intersectional. I’m particularly interested in doing anti-racism work. I wanted to come in and utilize the privileged and visible identities that I hold to engage folks in conversations that would challenge our campus to grow in new ways, and also support my peers who have been doing amazing work on this campus.
What is the most important aspect of your job?
The most important aspect of all my roles is to serve LGBTQ+ students. However, my role here is a mesh of several roles that exist in other universities. You have your advocate role, the person who meets individually to support students and supervises staff; the programmer, someone who’s actually cultivating events and services; the campus educator and consultant, who helps by providing strategic direction; and then there’s the work that occurs off-campus but impacts students’ lives.
I do a lot of work to support students in San Luis Obispo. I sit on the Police and Community Together committee with the San Luis Obispo Police Department. I’m one of the educating consultants for #OutForMentalHealth, assisting in writing inclusive policy for the county at large. I serve on the Interfaith Community Council and I meet regularly with local clergy and chaplains to talk about access, equity, and inclusion of LGBTQ+ community members within religious and faith spaces. It’s a very big job, so I would say being a touchpoint is really the most important part of my role – touching all of these different areas of campus and community life and helping to streamline those spaces and resources into the campus to support our students.
That’s really what I see for the Pride Center. I see it as being a touchstone, not just for LGBTQ+ students, but for all students, faculty, and staff. It’s a campus-wide resource and community center. At some point in your Cal Poly journey, you’re going to interact with us, whether it’s at SLO Days, a quick drop-in to grab safe sex supplies, or attending one of our many signature events.
It is important for me to be a person who has connected with so many different people. I want to be able to bring people in and build coalitions so that my students and I know we are not doing this work by ourselves. The only way to do this work is to be in solidarity and be in community.
How does your experience as an interfaith chaplain intersect with your current role?
It is essential to my personal and professional identity and shapes my existential perspective of social justice. As an interfaith chaplain, I am geared toward learning to find that common thread of humanity among all people, through all of the different identities we hold and the traditions that we use to mark time in our lives. Our traditions help shape and frame how we experience this world. For many of us, our faith traditions give us a sense of value and an understanding ethics and morality. They also give us hope.
So when I look at my experience as an interfaith chaplain, I am not focused on indoctrination, but instead on meeting another person where they’re at in any moment of time on their journey, in whatever the circumstance, and practice pastoral care with love, empathy, and respect. My background as a therapist really shows up more there because, in those moments, we both engage in making meaning of our life experiences together.
The same thing is true in my current role. For students who are navigating the coming out process, it is important to know they are not alone but also to help them make meaning with their own identities and challenges. There’s so much overlap.
If we’re talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion for LGBTQ+ people, we cannot leave out spirituality. Sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression work through and are influenced by race and ethnicity, culture, age, ability status, class, faith and other social characteristics. Spirituality is an aspect of holistic wellness. If we address emotional, intellectual, physical, social, environmental, and financial wellness, we must also address spiritual wellness. That’s how it intersects for me.
What kind of impact do you hope to see the Pride Center make on the Cal Poly community?
My goal is to build the Pride Center into a cultural center that serves the entire Cal Poly community - faculty, staff, students of all sexualities and genders engaging with one another. I want it to be diverse, open, and again that public touchstone to explore issues of sexual and gender identity, practices, and politics.
Our socio-political culture right now is not the most affirming of queer and trans people, so we have to address how external factors impact our campus. Whether that is looking at national rhetoric and miseducation about members of our community, or examining new legislation and its impacts on our campus. For example, the California Gender Recognition Act (SB 179) changes how we understand sex and gender in California – though it’s a positive change for our LGBTQ+ community, we must do the work to ensure all areas of our campus no longer are organized around a binary gender structure.
We also want to cultivate student leadership. I want to see queer and trans leaders in all our campus spaces – as RAs, WOW leaders, student assistants. I want to see queer and trans folks in intentionally designed study abroad options, or a service trip that focuses on queer and trans needs. We can continue to do a lot of work around not only educating others about queer culture and our history, but also the major health disparities that are affecting our community, and other structural issues that prevent equity, access, and inclusion for our students. I would like to see the Pride Center help build workplace equity so that queer and trans faculty and staff feel like they have a community they can lean on and advocates on their behalf.
This year we created a volunteer, internship, and practicum program because I would like to promote academic excellence through Learn by Doing opportunities. Our program provides students with opportunities to get engaged in any of our Cross Cultural Centers and potentially get academic credit for the remarkable things they help us do. This allows students to do projects, take on portfolios, and actually create that change they want to see on campus.
The last thing is community resources. One of the things I want to do for the Pride Center is to streamline the things that we do in the community. Working with our community partners such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of the Central Coast and 5 Cities Hope, I hope to streamline our efforts and get more students, faculty, and staff into their spaces and bring more community members into our spaces to generate a greater sense of community.
The Pride Center also educates, advocates, and supports all genders and sexualities by promoting intentional intersectional learning opportunities through dialogue and community building on and off campus. I really think we need to broaden our scope. We don’t just serve underrepresented students. We focus on underrepresented students, but we serve all students. We’re hoping that every student who comes through Cal Poly at least has some sort of touch with us to gain awareness of gender and sexuality and to be better informed when they go off and do great things in the world.
We especially want our underrepresented students to feel like they have a community. My goal is for queer and trans students to think very highly of their experience when they leave Cal Poly. I want them to be able to thrive here, and then go out and take the learning and the formation that occurred here and help transform their disciplines, their institutions, and their communities. That’s my vision.
Interested in supporting LGBTQ+ initiatves at Cal Poly? Visit the Student Affairs giving page. To learn more about Cal Poly's Cross Cultural Centers, please visit culture.calpoly.edu.
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