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The Ark Valley Equality Network (AVEN) is providing a much-needed community to LGBTQ+ youth members all over Southern Colorado through their Act in To Speak Out Project, which highlights the youth’s unique stories through art.

The project started when Jennifer Dempsey reached out to Ark Valley Equality Network with an idea, to help LGBTQ+ youth living in rural Colorado tell their stories.  Since Colorado is a largely rural state, most LGBTQ+ members are in rural areas of Colorado, and they are often dealing with multi-generational ignorance and abuse.

Project leads, Mark Monroe and Jimmy Sellars  are both artists themselves. They moved to Salida six years ago where they founded the Partnership for Community Action (PACA) which combats isolation through community events. A year after starting PACA, the two decided they would throw their first Pride in Salida celebration and created The Ark Valley Equality Network. Though AVEN is its own entity, it is a support program of the PACA.

Logo courtesy of Ark Valley Equality Network

The Ark Valley Equality Network provides spectrum alliance meet ups for LGBTQ+ families and individuals. They have a monthly newsletter to educators called the Inclusive Educator which is focused on education.  AVEN puts on Ark Valley Pride; 2020 will be its fourth year. They provide Safe Zone training, focusing on families and groups who will be in active contact with youth. Write in to Act Out is one more inclusive project for LGBTQ+ youth in rural Colorado.

The network spans nine counties in southern Colorado, by providing support to LGBTQ+ members through their website, programs and one on one conversation.

With COVID-19 cutting off community events, organizers say this project will provide LGBTQ+ youth who are struggling to have a creative outlet.

“Our hope is they find that connection and community within themselves” Sellars told Ark Valley Voice. “Marginalized people find so much security behind a computer because they control their environment. If they wish to step out, they can, but if they don’t want to, they don’t. This is almost like a perfect element to start this in,” Sellars said in reference to the start of the project. “At the center of what we do is [to] battle against isolation. It brings a sense of cooperation that is inherent to it.”

AVEN hopes to launch the project May 1, 2020. The idea of Write in to Act Out is for youth to submit a specific proposal based on how they would like to share their story. AVEN is currently formulating a questionnaire to guide the process. From that they will build a team of creatives for each of the youth who will work with them to help create their story in the way they want to tell it. Artists from all over the world will be involved.

The Salida SteamPlant. AVV staff photo.

The overall project plan is to find youth who want to share their story, match the kids with artists from across the globe where they will then complete stories and go on tour. Write In to Act Out is a yearlong project. Stipends will be provided to the youth involved in the project so they will be paid to make their art.

AVEN will have a few shows in Salida, one of which will be at Pride 2021. Any performance-based works will be done on stage, with two-dimensional works to be shown at The SteamPlant Event Center and any films screened at The SteamPlant theater.

AVEN will be holding four community conversations in four different communities with youth presenting part of their art followed by a discussion.

The team hopes to achieve the appropriate amount of funding to make sure all project members have access to WiFi to participate.  They say that donations and grants are welcomed.

For more information on Ark Valley Equality Network or to get in contact with the team, please visit their website: Ark Valley Equality Network.