Meet Martel Okonji, a California State University, Northridge alum, Okonji volunteered with Peer Health Exchange as a health educator and a co-coordinator from 2010 to 2012. Today, he is the Youth Development Coordinator for the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Learn how his service continues to contribute to his career and community.
HOW DID PHE IMPACT YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
I learn [about] curriculum, see how curriculum is created. That really made me realize that this is something that I definitely want to do. It played a critical role in being able to develop programs and facilitate program materials. The curriculum helped me see how to be a leader in program development.
Being a co-coordinator, I also empowered other volunteers to be leaders. [It included] empowering my leadership team, like I do right now, learning how to do workshops and facilitating things, using a lot of the skills that I got from volunteering at PHE and implementing it as I do today.
It helped me to be a lot more informed and engaged in what’s actually taking place. It put me in my community, in a different scope to talk to [young people] and examine the conversations that are taking place among young folks.
The greatest thing [about volunteering] is it helped me develop as an individual because I wasn’t too familiar with going into settings with the identity that I hold. I’ve always carried my sexual identity on my sleeve, but not in a educational space and to have that identity and be open with it especially as a health mentor with kids asking me questions.
WHAT MEMORY STICKS OUT TO YOU?
Just going to the schools, especially when I was a co-coordinator–being in the classroom, just engaging with teens and talking about things that need to be discussed, that are not present in our educational curriculum on a daily basis.
I remember I had one student that was like “my friend…” We knew he wasn’t talking about his friend, he’s asking about his self. He then asked, “whenever you give head, should you use two condoms? I’m asking for him because I care about him.”
I wanted to answer that question effectively as possible and talk about sexual relations between two men. I had to make sure that those resources are there and also be a lot more comfortable with myself, there’s a lot of needs the community has. It forced me to put myself out there.
That’s actually my favorite memory. That’s my greatest memory because he also cared about his friends. Clearly no one had that conversation with him for him to ask that question.
He reminded me of me when I was in school. I didn’t have anyone to ask these questions. Since we’re there to discuss health education, kids can take the opportunity to ask questions.
WHAT DRIVES YOU PERSONALLY TO STRIVE FOR HEALTH EQUITY?
I think what drives me the most is that there is a lack of resources. It’s what drives me to work in the field of homelessness to make sure all those resources are apparent to the young folks that I work with.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR WORK WITH THE LA LGBT CENTER. WHAT BROUGHT YOU THERE?
[I went] through a lot of the struggles and challenges that the youth I serve go through or have went through. This is the place where I kinda see myself thriving and definitely want to build here.
I get the opportunity to allow youth to see their future selves, but most importantly gather skills and tools to be effective leaders for themselves as well as for their communities.
I lead an ambassadorship program that includes training, workshops and conferences to get skills and tools to be effective in engaging the youth that are in the center as well engaging themselves to use program services to move further and forward with their lives.
That’s one of the most powerful things that I do, it also creates the drive for them to step up, engage in their communities and participate in creating programs and curriculum toward information that they’re talking about.
WHY ARE THESE RESOURCES IMPORTANT?
Everyone deserves a chance. Programs like [LA LGBT Center] ensure that and bring about healing and empowerment to give everyone a fighting chance to wake up and not feel like there’s nothing left for them.
We all deserve an opportunity to feel safe, like there’s a space for us to go to and explore those identities that empower us, places where we can educate ourselves and feel as if we can see more than just today, tomorrow, we can see next month, next year, even the the next ten years down the line.
WHAT DO SAFE SPACES MEAN FOR YOUR CONSTITUENTS? WHAT DOES ALLYSHIP MEAN FOR THE LA LGBT CENTER?
Essentially, a safe space means that we can come into a space and be ourselves.
That conversations we have won’t make people disgusted with us, the services we use can be suited to our needs. A place to live, thrive and be happy and not feel like we have to watch our back or that someone will attack us because of the conversations that we have or the identity that we express.
Allyship means supporting that and inviting a space for it. There’s a difference between an ally, advocate and activist. So an ally supports it and allows us the space. An advocate would create the space and an activist would fight to make sure there are spaces and policies that take it to the next level. An ally supports it and they see us just as equal.
I would like for everyone to become activists, to wake up everyday and fight the fight but I also understand that healing is just as important and people haven’t had the chance to heal from all the trauma. I hope for people to become advocates, for folks to really look at themselves as advocates by providing safe spaces for folks who have needs and asking for that. Advocate for folks, provide resources.
HOW DO YOU ENVISION HEALTH EQUITY?
Health equity is universal. If there’s ever anything wrong, if someone has any health challenges, they have access to care.
[It would be] the day that we can all be aware and make informed decisions. That means we have access to health education but also resources for the services. So health equity is education and services.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PHE VOLUNTEERS?
Do as much as you can. It’s one of the greatest experiences that I’ve ever had and it would be so beneficial to hone in on your professional development. It gives you the opportunity to go inside spaces and talk with your community and give them valuable information that is so so so necessary.
Do not stop at service, continue on that development and take in everything that you learned.
Save your materials, reflect on them, and thinks about all the stuff that you’ve done. Really push yourself to hit every goal that you possibly can.
It’s a great resource for development and if you know a place that needs it, make that connection!