When Nancy Mullen was hired as Youth Outlook's ( then known as QYC ) first and only executive director in Oct. 1998the week Matthew Shepard was murdered in WyomingLGBTQ+ youth had almost no place to turn to in the Chicago suburbs for resources or support.
Since then, Youth Outlook, under Mullen's leadership, has given suburban LGBTQ+ youth not only a place to find resources, but also tools so they can speak out on the issues that directly affect them.
"I oversee the operations of the agency," said Mullen. "We are a small team, so some days I am very involved in programmatic issues, some days I am more involved with administrative issues like fundraising and board development. I do not have a set routine, which is one of the things I like most about the job."
When Mullen first started, Youth Outlook was very isolated in the suburbs, so she spent two years focused on making connections with schools. She said, at first, there was a level of fear around the topic of LGBTQ+ youth and at times she encountered open hostility and accusations that Youth Outlook was "recruiting" young people.
"School reps who were themselves LGBT were often the most reluctant to engage with me because they worried about their jobs being at risk if they came out," said Mullen. "It took about three years to identify a core group of allies in the western suburbs who were willing to have conversations about the risks LGBT young people faced. Now that core group of allies is the backbone of the DuPage County Network for Professionals Supporting LGBT Youth and not only do we talk about those risks, we train mental health providers and school personnel how to better respond to them. Those networks have also come online in Kane, DeKalb and suburban Cook counties over the last couple of years, and may launch in Whiteside and LaSalle as well. So many more professionals are learning about LGBT youth issues and carrying messages back to their places of employment.
"Another huge change I have seen is in the number of trans youth that are using our programs. In the early 2000s, if we met one trans youth in our Naperville site, and then a second one in the Aurora site, and maybe a third youth in the DeKalb site, I would have said we had a lot of trans youth. Now, our Transcend drop in center for trans and non-binary youth and their allies is our biggest and busiest drop-in center and has been for the last two years."
Mullen recently wrote a letter to the youth of Youth Outlook outlining the challenges LGBTQ+ people are facing in today's political climate, including the barrage of negative messages coming from the GOP.
"We have a group of young people who are going through this cognitive growth stage while they are regularly hearing negative messages about who they are, from people in power," said Mullen. "They are exposed to messages about it being okay to discriminate against them on all fronts, as well as political and even spiritual leaders calling for their imprisonment, quarantining and even execution. We have seen an uptick in anti-LGBT hate crimes and school bullying across the country.
"Where are the messages that they are okay and are good, kind, decent people who have a right to be respected and treated well? I wanted to tell them that I know hearing these things is hard and nothing about what is going on around them right now is normal or okay. We see them. We care about them. We are still out here fighting for them and we will not stop."
A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mullen grew up in South Philadelphia in the '70s where she attended Catholic schools, including an all-girls Catholic high school.
"There were a few interesting things that happened along my path in South Philly," said Mullen. "This prompted me to write a memoir called 'Urban Tidepool' a couple of years ago that I am considering self-publishing."
Mullen got her bachelor's degree in social work from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, masters in social work from Syracuse University and is working on an associate of science in pastry arts degree from Elgin Community College.
From 2007-2011, Mullen was the chef owner of Ovation Catering, Inc.
"Catering work was so much fun," said Mullen. "I decided to do something unrelated to being a social worker, so I started taking culinary classes at Elgin Community College and am now ten credits short of my pastry chef degree."
When Mullen was living in Syracuse she worked for Liberty Resourceswhich ultimately led her to Youth Outlookand prior to that, the Salvation Army. Before that, everything she did was clinical.
"I ran a homeless shelter for women living with chronic mental illness," said Mullen. "On my first day, I arrived at this beautifully renovated house and was greeted by the house manager with, 'Someone threw a brick through the bay window last night.' I said, "Oh, okay. Who do you normally call when this happens?', meaning which window company should I contact for repair. The answer I got was, 'You,' and then she started to laugh. I knew immediately this was going to be a great job."
Currently, Mullen spends most of her free time with her two dogs. She also likes to cook and garden. Mullen said if the opportunity presented itself she would volunteer with one of the women-build Habitat for Humanity projects.
"The social pendulum will always move a bit," said Mullen. "As a community, we moved forward for several years with the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, with ENDA rulings and with marriage equality. Now there is backlash against that forward movement. As difficult as it is to live with the backlash, it is part of the process. The backlash disrupts but it never stops the change. Some days it feels like it is a bit of a struggle in this current patch of dark. If we all lead with our light, we can illuminate the path for ourselves and for each other. Let's do that. Let's lead with our light."
See youth-outlook.org/. Mullen's letter is at www.facebook.com/notes/nancy-mullen-msw/an-open-letter-to-the-youth-outlook-youth/1756523601039250/ .