A few months ago, at one of the regular zoom meetings that I attend as a member of the Beyond Differences National Teen Board, I was asked to share a piece of advice that I would give to my 7th-grade self. This is what I came up with: “You aren’t like everyone else… and that’s okay. Let go of who you think you need to be or what you think you are supposed to do, and just do what makes you happy. The rest will work itself out.”

Middle school was a hard time for me. I was a young, queer, trans boy (although I didn’t know it yet) trying to come to terms with my identity, all the while feeling increasingly distant and separated from my peers. The more I explored what felt authentic and right to me, the more misunderstood and isolated I felt. I knew that I was different, but I was scared of what that meant.

That’s when I discovered Beyond Differences, an organization devoted to building inclusive communities and ending social isolation, specifically at the middle school level. For the first time, I had found a place where I truly felt that I belonged – where my differences were not just tolerated, but celebrated. Getting involved with Beyond Differences in middle school helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one who felt alone, that there were so many others out there experiencing the same things I had. I finally had a name for a problem that I could see plaguing the community around me – social isolation – and I had the tools to do something about it.

When the opportunity arose in high school to join their Teen Board, I jumped on it. Beyond Differences was like a second home to me, and as I was slowly coming into my own identity as an individual, I was also learning what it meant to be a member of a larger community. I met new people, built connections, gave presentations at schools, wrote curriculum, went to protests and rallies, spoke at national conferences, and more. I learned what it meant to be an activist and how powerful my own voice could be in creating change. I came to understand that if the work I was doing could make a difference in the life of even one person, it would be worth it.

Beyond Differences has taught me to be the change I want to see in the world. It has taught me how powerful it can be to reach out, and how small actions can create big change. It has taught me the importance of knowing when it is time to stand up and speak out, and when it is time to sit down and listen. It has taught me that we are stronger together and our power lies in our diversity. It has taught me that it is not enough to just accept difference, but that we must celebrate and respect and love it, too. Above all, it has taught me to just be myself, and the rest will always follow.

To learn more about Beyond Differences, visit https://www.beyonddifferences.org/.