RALEIGH, N.C. — Equality North Carolina (ENC) has announced their selection of eight LGBTQ youth from across the state to participate in the foundation’s inaugural Rural Youth Empowerment (RYE) Fellowship. The fellowship is a one-year leadership program designed to equip young LGBTQ individuals (aged 18-28) from rural North Carolina to create positive change in their local communities, the organization said.

The RYE Fellows will tackle a diverse range of projects, from addressing unique healthcare needs of transgender North Carolinians to creating space for LGBTQ youth of color to form community. The fellows will also engage in leadership development opportunities throughout the course of the coming year. Only one of the eight participants has not agreed to share their name publicly due to personal safety concerns. Fellowship recipients are: Andrian Parra, Asheville; Ashleigh Jackson, Hendersonville; Elle Green, Boone; Kaylie Neese, Level Cross; Levi Grayson Stubblefield, Triad; Maurice Jamell Carter (“Karter J”), Greenville; and Sterling Bentley, Durham.

“Equality NC knows that rural LGBTQ North Carolinians often lack resources and support to effect much-needed change in their communities ,” said Kendra R. Johnson, ENC executive director. “We are excited to work with these young leaders; to help them build their toolkits to create change and develop resources for rural communities based on needs they identify through their lived experiences. We hope that this fellowship will be a new step towards transforming the climate of rural North Carolina through solidarity and support of young leaders.” Bank of America has lent its financial support to the fellowship. ENC will partner with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a Greensboro-based global authority on evidence-based leadership programs, to offer ongoing support and training for fellows.

ENC is partnering with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a Greensboro-based global authority on evidence-based leadership programs, to offer ongoing support and training for fellows. Over the course of a year, the cohort of fellows will attend three day-long leadership institutes, participate in three major ENC community events, engage in monthly cohort video conferencing, connect with mentors from partner organizations specialized in topics related to their projects, and receive stipends to help offset project costs.

More information about the fellowship is available online.

Here is a breakdown supplied by ENC on the participants and how they will use stipends for their projects:

Adrian Parra, 28 (he/she/they): Adrian is the co-Executive Director of Youth OUTright WNC, an advocacy and leadership nonprofit committed to the empowerment of queer youth in Western North Carolina. A “jack-of-all-trades” living in Asheville, their project incorporates the work of Youth OUTright by forming a peer-to-peer LGBTQIA+ sexual health squad that educates young people aged 16-20 about queer sexuality, health and wellness. An organizer at heart, Adrian prides themselves in breaking down accessibility barriers when it comes to information and resources for LGBTQ youth.

Ashleigh Jackson, 21 (she/her): An organizer of Hendersonville’s March for Our Lives, Ashleigh is a visible and active community leader in her mountain town. She works as a preschool teacher and is invested in the leadership development of LGBTQ youth from all walks of life. Her project through the RYE Fellowship focuses on resource excavation and development for queer youth, as well as a live event that brings together LGBTQ-affirming faith leaders, community health resources, local business leaders and the general public from around the Hendersonville area to cultivate community and enhance localized queer visibility.

Elle Green, 22 (she/they): A studio art major at Appalachian University, Elle is passionate about creating space to elevate queer voices and curate intentional conversations. Her work through the fellowship builds on a previous project called “Portrait Diaries” in which she records responses prompted by interviewees selecting questions from a deck of cards. She sees “Portrait Diaries” as a contribution to an oral history of today’s queer experience. “It creates opportunity for queer folks to take up space, to start their own dialogue,” she says.

Kaylie Neese, 20 (she/her): Living in the small community of Level Cross in Randolph County, Kaylie has seen first-hand how ignorance about the nuances of LGBTQ identity can negatively impact the lives of rural queer youth. With a passion for holding space to help those outside of the LGBTQ community become better educated about queer issues, Kaylie will organize support groups for LGBTQ youth and inclusive events around her community. She believes that helping people in Level Cross better conceptualize LGBTQ experience earlier in life will help them to be more compassionate towards queer people throughout their lifetime. “Would it not be a great improvement upon the lives of young people to be exposed to the idea of a gender binary and societal pressures for heteronormativity at a younger age?” she asks. “To present these ideas as normal, not divergent?”

Levi Grayson Stubblefield, 21 (he/him/his): A junior in college, Levi’s work will address what he sees as a stark lack of community connection and access to resources among transgender youth in the Guilford and Randolph county area. By creating intentional space that regularly brings trans youth together, Levi hopes that young trans people and their families will gain better access to the information and community that they need. Levi envisions these community sessions focusing on topics such as Hormone Replacement Therapy, Gender Affirmation Surgeries and navigating educational institutions as a person of transgender experience. They will also involve community initiatives, such as clothing drives, in order to help young queer people alleviate dysphoria through greater access to affirming resources.

Maurice Jamell Carter “Karter J,” 28 (he/him/his): With a passion for Diversity, Social Justice, Activism, and Egalitarianism, Karter J is all about bringing people together. But living in Greenville, he finds it difficult to cultivate LGBTQ community spaces outside of East Carolina University – which he recently graduated from. His project will focus on the needs of LGBTQ youth of color and people living with HIV in the Greenville area. Karter J wants to create a place for these vulnerable groups of LGBTQ people to gather and talk about the unique needs they face within the larger LGBTQ community, while also potentially fostering leadership development. He hopes this project will assist in breaking down “the stigma, dehumanization and other issues that hinder people from being themselves and express[ing] who they are publicly.”

Sterling Bentley, 25 (he/him/his): Having grown up in a small town in Western North Carolina and relocating to Durham in 2017, Sterling knows the diverse tapestry of this state very well. With a passion for social justice that he says permeates all aspects of his life, Sterling hopes to contribute to an important conversation about the unique challenges that transgender North Carolinians face through his work. His project tackles the intersection of healthcare and transgender identity by working with healthcare providers in the Triangle area to better understand how to compassionately and adequately serve patients of transgender experience. He will accomplish this by leading workshops and giving presentations to medical providers in order to help bridge the gap between the transgender population and the healthcare network of the Triangle.

info: equalityncfoundation.org/rye.

Lainey Millen

Lainey Millen was formerly QNotes' associate editor, special assignments writer, N.C. and U.S./World News Notes columnist and production director from 2001-2019 when she retired.