Colin Street, center, with SAGA co-founders Aaron Reedy, left, and Lonnie Medley, right, at the state capitol lobbying against anti-trans legislation. PHOTO COURTESY OF COLIN STREET

In every relationship, two main factors substantially impact its success. First, those involved need to be comfortable within the relationship so they can be their authentic selves. Second, all parties in the relationship need to communicate clearly. Without these factors, some members of the relationship may feel unwanted or that their needs aren’t being met, which can lead to the breakdown of the relationship.

While the sentences above may sound like something from couples’ counseling, these factors are also required for impactful leadership. I know this because I’ve relied on the principles of a successful relationship to make substantial and meaningful change in my community and throughout the great state of West Virginia.

Using Your Voice

When someone is truly comfortable with themselves, they can achieve their true potential. As a leader, I want others to know that because I’m comfortable with who I am, I’m someone they can open up to and rely on for whatever they need.

Comfortable people create comfortable spaces. I learned this lesson during my junior year of high school. Coming out as gay in West Virginia isn’t easy for anyone, and while I spent junior year coming to terms with the public nature of my identity, little did I know of the challenges that senior year would bring. Just as I began to feel fully secure in my own skin, the Board of Education in Monongalia County kicked off the 2022–23 school year with a new policy: All pride flags were to be taken down from any and all school buildings. Out of offices. Out of classrooms. Out of sight. It felt like a punch in the gut. I had spent so long hiding my own identity, and once I finally felt comfortable with myself the school board was telling me to go back into hiding.

I wasn’t alone in this feeling. My fellow officers of our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and I organized a schoolwide walkout to protest the board’s decision; over 500 students joined us in solidarity and marched around the school. After drawing national attention to Morgantown, we started holding regular protests at board meetings. School board members were making a big mistake, and we wouldn’t let them forget it.

Although the board refused to hold a vote on reversing the decision, the flurry of support for our movement showed the officers of our GSA that we couldn’t stop here. Frustrated yet inspired, we founded the Sexuality And Gender Acceptance (SAGA) Initiative, a nonprofit organization to supply trans youth in West Virginia with free gender-affirming care. We are also working to establish a statewide network of high school GSAs. Through this effort, I’m helping to promote equity across the state with the goal that one day all West Virginians can feel comfortable in their own skin.

Environmental Advocacy

In my role as a leader, I’ve learned that it’s not only important to effectively communicate your ideas to others but to hear others’ ideas and implement their feedback in a meaningful way. I fully grasped this lesson during my work on environmental issues with the American Legion Mountaineer Boys State program.

For centuries, the natural environment has played a pivotal role in West Virginia’s cultural identity. Our state is known for its picturesque hills and valleys but also for its abandoned coal mines. In recent years, environmental protection and regulation have become hot-button issues, as has the state’s economic decline. That downward spiral has prompted political officials to prioritize short-term economic growth opportunities in fossil fuel extraction as opposed to long-term investments in the sustainable use of our natural resources.

As I headed to the 83rd annual Mountaineer Boys State leadership academy in June 2022, environmental issues were top of mind and drove me to run for commissioner of agriculture (cabinet positions for students are a feature of Boys State). When building my platform, I knew I needed to listen to people who grew up on farms, people who live near brownfields, and people who were just concerned about the environment.

In my role as a leader, I’ve learned that it’s not only important to effectively communicate your ideas to others but to hear others’ ideas and implement their feedback in a meaningful way.

But it wasn’t just listening to a diverse set of experiences that allowed me to construct a successful platform; it was the integration of those experiences, the acknowledgment of those concerns, and the expansion of those ideas that led to success. Active listening made people feel a part of my campaign.

Once I secured the position and began writing my legislative agenda, the extensive background knowledge I gathered thanks to others made me a better leader when it came to addressing the agricultural and environmental needs of West Virginians.

Following my time at Boys State, I brought the fight for a more sustainable West Virginia to my school. As president of our Green Initiative Club, I continued pushing for the establishment of a schoolwide recycling program. My high school was the largest in the state, and in turn, created a huge amount of waste that could easily be diverted to our local recycling plant. So, I got my team of officers together, and we got to work.

The biggest hurdle we encountered in the past was funding; the school district didn’t want to pay for recycling. Our club started reaching out to people, outlining our vision for organizing the largest school-based recycling program in the state, and our idea gained traction. We obtained grant funding from our county commission and organized fundraisers by selling saplings donated by a local university and soil donated by a department store.

Our vision picked up steam internally, too. We doubled our club membership to 40 students strong, allowing us to propose and establish a student-operated recycling program. We succeeded because of our willingness to clearly communicate our ideas to others.

Leading With LEGO

Street gives a presentation on behalf of Mountaineer Area RoboticS (MARS). PHOTO COURTESY OF COLIN STREET

These initiatives have taught me how to communicate my vision to others. There’s one more experience that helped shape me into the leader I am today. In fifth grade, I joined a LEGO robotics team, where I was thrilled to spend two hours a week building LEGOs with my friends. As I got older, I realized that my team was one of many that had been seeded by Mountaineer Area RoboticS (MARS), a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Hall of Fame team and local 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that operated throughout North-Central West Virginia. I had such a great experience with this group that six years later, I became the first two-time MARS president and the organization’s outreach and public relations lead.

In those dual roles, I had one goal: to rebuild the outreach initiatives that MARS offered. This was no easy task given that the pandemic ravaged our organization’s efforts to enhance education in West Virginia. With community events canceled and instruction going online to safeguard public health, the number of West Virginian LEGO robotics teams went from 153 to 0 in one year, destroying 13 years of work developing this statewide program.

Coming out of the pandemic, we introduced a hybrid model of outreach to expand the accessibility of STEM education throughout the state. We ultimately held over 90 events and reached over 23,000 people in the first two years after COVID. We increased the number of LEGO robotics teams in West Virginia to over half that of pre-pandemic levels.

MARS provides educational opportunities to students that change their lives, and we have the numbers to prove it: 100% of MARS students pursue postsecondary education compared to the state figure of 55%. I’m not only proud of our work to rebuild MARS but our commitment to ensuring its accessibility. Anyone can join the organization regardless of prior knowledge, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexuality, etc. The team is also completely free to join, eliminating financial barriers that hinder a significant portion of West Virginians. Thanks to a diverse committee that works on internal and external equity initiatives, we’ve created an environment where students are free to be themselves the second they join the team.

Now, as I coach my own LEGO robotics team, it’s my job to teach a group of nine middle school students how to research and code. But I also view it as my duty to teach them to be comfortable with themselves and communicate clearly so they can be the next generation of changemakers—and if not changemakers, then at least they’ll be amazing couples’ counselors.

Colin Street is a freshman at West Virginia University, and a graduate of Morgantown High School in Morgantown, WV. He is a 2023 NHS Scholarship Finalist.