‘The world is changing’: Dana Kaplan steers Outright Vermont through an evolution

Dana Kaplan, executive director of Outright Vermont, in Burlington on Thursday, May 18, 2023. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Dana Kaplan, executive director of Outright Vermont, in Burlington on Thursday, May 18, 2023. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) VTDigger — Glenn Russell

Outright Vermont held its annual Fire Truck Pull fundraiser in Burlington, Vt., on Oct. 1, 2022. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Outright Vermont held its annual Fire Truck Pull fundraiser in Burlington, Vt., on Oct. 1, 2022. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) VTDigger — Glenn Russell

By PATRICK CROWLEY

VTDigger

Published: 05-30-2023 7:59 PM

Dana Kaplan wants to push things forward.

The executive director of the LGBTQ+ youth nonprofit Outright Vermont said the organization’s mission has had to evolve during his tenure. Instead of reacting to negative events, he said, they now aim to proactively change the environments they are working in.

“We only have a finite amount of energy, and if we’re constantly having to play defense, we’re not getting to know what it feels like to play offense,” Kaplan said in an interview.

The “offense” in that metaphor means building on Outright’s mission — to provide “hope, equity and power” to all Vermont LGBTQ+ youth — and also working to transform “schools, communities and systems.”

“We can’t just be working with youth; we have to be working with the systems that they’re navigating,” Kaplan said in an interview.

Kaplan has steered that evolution in his time as executive director, a role he took on in 2018.

Allison Mindel, co-chair of Outright’s board of directors, has worked with nonprofits for over 25 years.

“Rarely do you see the right leader in the right moment for the right organization,” Mindel said about Kaplan. “And I would definitely describe him as that.”

City kid

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Kaplan pointed to his upbringing as a “New York City kid” that helped to color his perspective on identity and activism.

He described how he recognized that he was a white, middle-class person, but going to public school on a bus in the city revealed that there were many others who didn’t look like him. Growing up Jewish, he also was “instilled with a lot of values around leaving things better than you found them and the importance of community service and community engagement.”

It was Kaplan’s father who spoke about the need to “always look out for the underdog.” That soon translated to activism. Kaplan got involved in clubs that delivered meals to homebound people living with AIDS. He also worked with the Ronald McDonald House to raise funds for young people battling cancer.

Back then he was “a big Phish fan,” and he came to Burlington with a friend to tour Northeast colleges. With a visit to Nectar’s, seeing Lake Champlain and walking around Church Street, Kaplan fell for the community and was further drawn by University of Vermont’s social work program. It was a “lightbulb moment” to Kaplan when he found a course of study that allowed him to connect his earlier activism with a career path.

After graduating, Kaplan worked with a number of nonprofits: Women Helping Battered Women, Title IV Indian Education and the Committee on Temporary Shelter.

It was around this period when bigger questions about identity came up in Kaplan’s life. Kaplan came out as queer after college. And it “felt right” to remain in Vermont, in part, to create some distance between the life he led before “to be able to focus on me.”

Then, about 10 years after coming out as queer, Kaplan came out for a second time as trans. After getting a graduate degree, he was working for UVM at the Women’s Center, a role Kaplan stepped away from after coming out as trans.

Kaplan medically transitioned, he said, and was recovering from a surgery when someone sent him the job posting for education director at Outright, where Kaplan had volunteered.

“It just kind of clicked,” he said.

The mission

For years, Outright’s mission was to create safe, healthy and supportive environments for LGBTQ+ youth, ages 13-22.

There would be multiple evolutions from that, but one starting point was reconsidering the age range. Around 10 years ago, the organization started to hear from family members of young LGBTQ+ people who needed help to provide better support. Simultaneously, the organization started hearing from parents and schools about younger kids — age 12 and under. The organization had to ask itself “how do we respond to this trend of youth coming out younger and younger,” Kaplan said.

In addition to the age shift, new research was emerging about family support.

Research out of San Francisco State University revealed that the amount of support that an LGBTQ+ child gets from their family is linked to better outcomes later in life with respect to physical and mental health.

It was this research that prompted Outright to look at broadening its mission.

“We said, ‘OK, as we’re looking at how to shift environments, we can’t just be working with youth,’ ” Kaplan said. “We have to look at the systems that they’re navigating and one of those systems is their families and caregivers.”

But beyond families, they also worked to expand further into “schools, communities and systems,” according to Kaplan.

Outright runs the Vermont Gender and Sexuality Alliance, or GSA, a network of LGBTQ+ student groups. There are 92 such groups in Vermont schools, part of a nationwide network.

Kaplan said Outright sought to grow the GSA program, in part to provide a space for youth to go outside of their families but also to be able to go to youth all around the state and to listen “and sort of take a pulse.”

The organization has also tried to expand how they work with schools on training. Instead of doing a one-off training session, which Kaplan said can sometimes result in complacency, it is instead working with districts to sign contracts to do multiple trainings over the course of a school year.

“Because we recognize that it’s about creating shifts that are deeper than a one-off, hourlong training to talk about vocabulary,” Kaplan said. “That’s not giving people hope, equity and power.”

In addition to schools, Outright also expanded youth leadership and organizing programs, further pushing their mission into changing systems and policy.

“It’s a matter of actively trying to shift what’s happening for young people so they aren’t having to navigate such harm and they can have access to the things that they need to live their lives,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan acknowledged that in previous years, Outright has been a statewide organization “in theory,” based in Burlington and primarily accessible in Chittenden County. But the team has worked to make that statewide status a reality, through the GSAs and expanding its staple Friday Night Group program, the organization’s long-running support group, to other areas.

When Kaplan started as executive director in 2018, there were four staff members in the organization and a budget of $350,000. Today there are 12 staff members — with a 13th joining later this year — and a $1.7 million budget.

Kaplan distilled all the changes as “trying to move at the speed that young people need us to move while also knowing that we’re creating something that is sustainable.”

Mindel, the board co-chair, has a background in funding nonprofits, and described Outright’s finances as a mix of “a good, healthy combination of state grants” and individual donations. One of the organization’s largest fundraising events is the annual Fire Truck Pull, where teams are formed from all over the area to raise money and enter for a chance to pull the truck.

‘Activation works both ways’

Outright Vermont held its 2022 Fire Truck Pull on Oct. 1 last year. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a Burlington Fire Department engine was positioned on Church Street near Ben & Jerry’s.

It’s a familiar event for Outright and for Burlington, with its festive atmosphere, loud music, bright colors and teams, often in coordinated outfits, waiting their turn for the truck pull.

But in October, it was the first time the event was protested.

In an interview at the time, Kaplan pointed to the protest at the fire truck pull, another protest at the Vermont Pride Parade in September and the vitriol surrounding a trans girl’s use of the locker room at Randolph Union High School as evidence of “coordinated efforts” happening both nationally and locally.

This month, Kaplan pointed to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump as the beginning of a troubling trend, seeing an uptick of “galvanized hate” at the national level.

Vermont is not immune, and Burlington in particular has contended with a persistent stickering campaign of anti-trans slogans and messages being placed in public places around the city for years. The high-visibility of the stickers inspired a City Council resolution condemning anti-trans hate speech. Kaplan addressed the council prior to the unanimous passage of the resolution.

While Vermont has a progressive reputation, Kaplan said, that can also mask “the targeted hate” that exists in the state.

A couple days prior to VTDigger’s interview with Kaplan in mid-May, he noted that he was walking to lunch in Burlington when he found two more anti-trans stickers, placed about 100 feet from Outright’s offices.

The level of hate has indeed become more visible in the last eight to 10 years, Kaplan said, and later described it as “a sense of activation.”

“That level of activation works both ways,” Kaplan said. “And I think that our base of supporters is stronger than ever.”

Mindel, whose grown child was formerly active in Outright programs, recalled what happened at last year’s fire truck pull. She said Outright knew that the group of protesters was coming, and the community rallied to counter.

“The number of people who showed up with signs and flags and banners so that kids could just enjoy that day and not see (the protesters’ signs) was just amazing,” Mindel said.

That circle of protection that occurred at the fundraiser, Mindel said, is also an example of Outright’s general response to recent events.

“Whenever there is something that happens in the state that is picked up by the national media, they get flooded with calls and harassment and they do everything in their power to protect us from seeing it and they take that on themselves,” Mindel said.

The political climate and instances of anti-trans actions and policies have put pressure on the community “and, as a result, the organization,” according to Mike Pieciak, Vermont’s state treasurer and a board member at Outright for the past year.

“Dana has really risen to the occasion,” Pieciak said.

Pieciak said part of the way that Kaplan has met the moment is by being proactive and not reactive in order to “change the landscape for LGBTQ+ youth and not necessarily having to run from one hateful event to the next.”

Despite the anti-trans campaigns that Outright finds itself navigating, Kaplan said there is still a lot to be hopeful about. He cited all the young people speaking confidently at the Youth Leadership Day at the Statehouse, about how the movement is “connecting the dots” between gender justice, racial justice and class issues. He also recalled how his 5- and 8-year-old kids now introduce themselves with their pronouns, even though “I’m not asking them to do that.”

“I do believe that the world is changing,” Kaplan said. “And that the mainstream awareness of how we create belonging together is shifting.”