Celebrating 20 Years of Engaging With LGBTQ+ HBCU Students

by Leslie Hall

Eight years ago, I joined the Human Rights Campaign to lead the Historically Black Colleges and Universities program in what became a pivotal moment in my career journey.

Just a month into my role, I had the privilege of hosting 40 HBCU LGBTQ+ student leaders at our National HBCU Leadership Summit, which led to a surprising realization: Despite being a two-time HBCU alum, the leadership summit was completely off my radar. This sparked my primary mission: to boost the summit's visibility and share the inspiring stories of our student leaders who have triumphed over daunting challenges.

Over the past eight years, our concerted efforts have significantly raised the summit's profile and widened its impact. I am constantly reminded of the 700+ students who have attended the National HBCU Leadership Summit and are now making a significant impact in their communities.

Student group photo at the 2013 HBCU summit
Students attending the 2019 HBCU summit

The HBCU Program plays a crucial part in the overarching mission of the Human Rights Campaign - combating LGBTQ+ discrimination and striving for a world where LGBTQ+ people have access to equal rights — free of discrimination and stigma. Some of our proudest achievements include expanding our partnerships with HBCUs to over 40 institutions and increasing the number of trans* and gender-expansive students who have participated in the leadership summit by 20%.

Another unique aspect of the leadership summit is the focus on nurturing participants' identity development while addressing internal oppression and empowering students to recognize their innate worth as leaders. Additionally, we have bolstered our leadership development curriculum, equipping our student leaders with essential skills to navigate the complexities of their identities.

What makes the summit special for me is that I can chart my own personal and professional growth alongside the growth of the summit from year to year. It teaches powerful lessons that demonstrate the importance of resilience and overcoming challenges in leadership. The past couple of years have posed unprecedented challenges, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, we swiftly adapted to a virtual format, reimagining our engagement strategies. Despite these hurdles, in 2022, we joyously welcomed our students back to Washington, D.C., for an in-person summit — a significant occasion that reignited our energy and sense of unity and purpose.

The 2023 HBCU summit group sitting at the steps of HRC's headquarters

Looking ahead, I am excited to enter a consequential year for our country and movement under the dynamic leadership of HRC President Kelley Robinson. I look forward to continuing to lead the HBCU Program during such a critical time, which includes working to re-elect President Joe Biden, building power through our capacity-building programs, and disrupting institutional structures that have never served us.

Our upcoming plans also involve enhancing the leadership summit to meet the needs of today's students. One of the ways we intend to achieve this is by adding a workforce readiness component. The post-pandemic work landscape has dramatically shifted, urging us to equip LGBTQ+ students with the tools to excel professionally and face future challenges confidently.

The HBCU Program began as an annual leadership summit, which was conceived after HRC convened a group of LGBTQ+ students at Johnson C. Smith University in 2003 following a string of violent anti-LGBTQ+ incidents across several HBCU campuses. The goal of the meeting was simply to speak directly with students about their experiences being queer students and identify challenges and needs for support.

The National HBCU Leadership Summit, led by the HBCU Program, is the only program of its kind that serves as a platform for leadership development and advocacy training for LGBTQ+ HBCU students. It empowers these students to become agents of change within their campuses and communities, adeptly navigating various intersections of identity.

This national summit remains unparalleled, designed specifically for LGBTQ+ HBCU students, fostering an environment where they can embrace their diverse identities, especially at the intersection of being Black and LGBTQ+. The transformative experience offered by these summits forges a collective of HBCU LGBTQ+ student activists committed to advancing equity, inclusion and justice.

As we celebrate 20 years of HBCU engagement, we honor the progress achieved and recommit ourselves to the enduring fight for equality.