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Jun 12, 2024

EmpowerMT: Cultivating Confidence and Community Among LGBTQ+ Youth

My hope for LGBTQ+ youth in Montana is being able to exist without fear of discrimination, hate, or violence, and having accepting spaces dedicated to joy and having fun…I love seeing the same spark I had for social change as a middle and elementary student in the participants of Be You Crew.

Mars Jaeger, Queer Youth Specialist, EmpowerMT

June is PRIDE Month, and as a foundation dedicated to improving the health of kids and families in Western Montana, we proudly invest in organizations that uplift and empower LGBTQ+ youth. Among these is EmpowerMT, a Missoula-based organization committed to creating a more just and inclusive society. EmpowerMT focuses on developing leaders who work to end mistreatment, address systemic inequities, and strengthen communities across Montana and beyond. 

EmpowerMT engages youth through leadership development, mentorship, and advocacy training, addressing the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ youth while building their self-advocacy and leadership skills. Their programs offer different levels of involvement, from one-time events and affinity groups to deeper engagement through clubs like Be You Crew for middle schoolers, and Youth Forward for high schoolers. Their Youth Advisory Council provides leadership opportunities, guiding events and programming.

A summer highlight of EmpowerMT’s offerings is the Empowering Youth Leadership Institute. This camp is a train-the-trainer experience that focuses on positive identity development, resilience, and building skills to interrupt mistreatment and encourage positive communication. Additionally, EmpowerMT supports the GSA Network across Montana, helping to create powerful spaces for LGBTQ+ youth in schools statewide.

We sat down with Youth Engagement Specialist, Jessica Monis-Hernandez (she/her/ella) to discuss the power of youth leadership and mentorship and how EmpowerMT is making a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth. 


What is your hope for LGBTQ+ youth in Montana, and what has working with EmpowerMT meant to you personally?

My hope for LGBTQ+ youth in Montana is that they will have the opportunity to thrive socially, emotionally, academically and economically! As a teenager, I experienced a lot of challenges. As an adult, I have been passionate about supporting adolescents – they’re at a critical turning point. When I was that age, I saw friends end up in situations and really struggle. I feel lucky that I didn’t end up in those situations and I want to be at that intersection to support kids and build leadership. It’s so important to have access to knowledge and skills and to have a network of supportive adults. 

What unique challenges do LGBTQ+ youth face in Montana and how does EmpowerMT help address those challenges?

In school, I did a Community Needs Assessment on LGBTQ+ youth in Montana and a few key things came up – needing a place to be themselves, feeling affirmed by their healthcare providers and needing more comprehensive, inclusive sex education and more supportive adults in their lives. And then there’s the political landscape. Some of the laws that have been introduced are disheartening and have empowered people to perpetrate more discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, including youth in schools. Adults working with youth in learning environments may not always have the skills to interrupt such harm. EmpowerMT aims to provide resources for educators so they can create a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students. 

How does a sense of belonging and community contribute to the health, wellbeing and leadership development of LGBTQ+ youth?

A sense of belonging means that youth have a meaningful voice in decision making and creating cultural and political structures so they can thrive and succeed in them. It’s important to center youth and uplift their voice and provide guidance when they’re at that developmental age where they are meant to take healthy risks, learn, and go outside their comfort zone. When youth feel they belong, they can test their public speaking skills, learn to speak up about mistreatment, and know that their people are there to support them.

Can you share a success story or a moment that highlights the impact of EmpowerMT’s work?

I have so many! Youth involved with us have opportunities to speak directly on issues that impact them, which I have gotten to witness. Last year, someone was the keynote speaker at PRIDE in front of 3000 people! Last fall, when the MCPS school board was deciding whether Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs should be allowed in schools, a young person gave public comment on why it was important. Two other Advisory Council members created and now co-facilitate our Association of Black, Indigenous and Youth of Color (ABY) which provides a space for BIPOC youth to cultivate resilience and build collective power.

How can adults help support LGBTQ+ youth?

Adults can model inclusive values and commit to growing their allyship skills to contribute to the kind of spaces youth need to thrive, where they feel safe and like they can be their full selves. EmpowerMT offers training and professional development opportunities for educators, school staff, businesses and nonprofits to learn allyship skills so that they can interrupt mistreatment and provide supportive spaces.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I brought a quote from one of our amazing Youth Advisory members that they read at one of our events. They said “I found connection in EmpowerMT. They planted the seeds of confidence and gave me an environment in which my leadership would flourish. Every heart and mind that is empowered to create change is another ray of light in a better and brighter world. On every level, our collective strengths have the power to change the world.”


Thank you to Jess, Mars and the EmpowerMT team for the vital work they do! EmpowerMT is always accepting monetary donations for their community-based programs, including sponsorships for young people to attend their Empowering Youth Leadership Institute, and they are always open to inquiries for their trainings. To learn more and support, check out their website and follow EmpowerMT on Facebook and Instagram!

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.