National Youth Pride Services celebrates nine years, announces first hall of fame

Frank Walker introduces the event. Photo: Tony Merevick.

National Youth Pride Services, the nation’s leading membership-based advocacy organization for black gay youth, celebrated nine years of service to the community Monday at the Gold Coast neighborhood Dave & Busters and announced its first-ever hall of fame before participants took to the arcade upstairs.

The event, attended by over 50 people including longtime activist Vernita Gray and Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), highlighted the organization’s storied history, which started off as Chicago Gay Youth in October 2003 and has seen subsequent transformations before becoming National Youth Pride Services this year.

“It’s shocking that it has come to this point,” said Frank Walker, NYPS founder, of the organization’s anniversary. “I never thought it would be a national organization in all of these different places, never expected it to be this big.”

Indeed, NYPS has grown from temporary spaces in downtown Chicago churches to a network of young black gay leaders, youth and their allies spanning over 32 states and run by 17 organization staffers, many of whom are based in Chicago. Walker said he spends about half of the year working in Washington D.C., where many of the major leadership conferences take place.

“I’ve been a fan of the group for a couple of years,” said Harris before the event started. “It’s great to see young men and women organize to affirm and address. It’s great because it’s a youth-run organization.”

Gray addressing the youth. Photo: Tony Merevick

Gray shared similar thoughts on the organization, noting that it makes a difference in the lives of gay youth of color and that about 2,200 homeless youth would be on the streets that night, one third of whom are LGBT, she said.

“[NYPS] is wonderful,” Gray said. “The more youth outreach we have in our city, the better.”

Gray went on to speak to the group, sharing words of encouragement and the story of how she dropped out of high and struggled to find a job she loved before becoming the LGBT liaison to the the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. She emphasized the need for her generation to challege the status quo by forging their own queer spaces and the importance of continuing that today while remaining positive.

“If you see something around you that you think should change, then change it,” she said. “There’s a whole lot of negativity out there and we need to be prepared for that negativity.”

The group was also joined by Tim’n West, associate director of youth programs at Center on Halsted as well as Keith Green, director of federal affairs at AIDS Foundation of Chicago, who gave the evening’s keynote address. While West pledged a new partnership between COH and NYPS, Green applauded the youth for the success of the organization and repeated, “Your voice counts.”

“We count too … A national youth strategy that shows America what it’s like to be black and gay,” Green said. “What I can tell you is that what you do and what you represent … It matters across the world. Matters across the world.”

He also asked those present to think beyond what he called “the deficits” in statistical data about the HIV infection rate among gay men of color, and added that he’s tired of reading such statistics.

“We tend to focus on the deficits, but we should flips the statistics around,” he said. “One of every three are infected with HIV, but that means that two out of every three don’t.”

With celebrating nine years and looking ahead to its ten-year anniversary, the organization announced its very first class of hall of fame inductees and recognized other individuals for their contributions to the group. Seven people were named as inductees: Deron James of New Orleans, Carlissa Jackson of Chicago, Carlton Cummings of Champaign-Urbana, Ill.; Brandon Long of Chicago; Jovan Sharp of New York City and Dexter Canty of Chicago. Each of the inductees in attendance received a rose and shared their thoughts on receiving the honor, but many were in other cities at the time.

Brandon Long, a longtime member of NYPS who has seen the rapid expansion over the seven years he’s been involved, wasn’t expecting the honor from Walker.

“This is the one thing that Frankie has been able to surprise me with in all these seven years,” Long, a current NYPS board member, said. “[NYPS] has birthed so many great young members who now know what they want to do in life and know how to get there.”

After the hall of fame inductees were announced, Walker took a moment to recognize three other individuals for their contributions to the organization. Maggie de Anda, one of the original volunteer social workers in the days of Chicago Gay Youth, was one of those honored at the end of the night.

“You guys made me who I am. You guys made me into the social worker I am today. Thank you, guys,” de Anda said. “[NYPS] is a welcoming and safe place for youth to be who they are and not be ashamed. It gives them hope.”