If there was one benefit to the COVID lockdown period, it’s that it gave people the opportunity to delve into new pursuits, discover new hobbies and develop new ideas. In the case of Jenna Smith, what could have been a disappointing high school experience led her to her driving force: a space for anyone to discover and learn more about the rich, multi-faceted world of queer history. She plans to launch her initiative, called The LGBT History Project, this summer—read on to learn more about her journey, and how the VV Visionaries Fellowship, a partnership between the Estée Lauder Emerging Leaders Fund and Vital Voices, helped her get there.
What inspired you to create The LGBT History Project?
It all boils down to this philosophy that’s driven how I engage with the world: The idea that hatred is rooted in ignorance, and ignorance can always be rectified. Our purpose is to share the rich history of the queer community in an accessible format. It’s a website that anyone can access, and the main feature will be at-home lesson plans and study guides featuring queer history topics typically not covered in classrooms or traditional media.
For example, for folks even marginally acquainted with queer history, it tends to center around cisgendered white men, typically in San Francisco or New York. But queer history and community is a lot more diverse than that, and we want to create an accessible and fun way for people to engage in that learning. It opens up all these different ways to get acquainted with that history.
This is no small project to tackle! What has the process been like to get it up and running?
What have been some of your biggest learnings or challenges? It’s an idea I’d been sitting on for a little bit. I got started during COVID, when I was in high school. I was engaging in all of these individual attempts at deeper education in queer history—consuming documentaries and articles—and it felt like something you had to comb through or go out of your way to find, so I wanted to create a way for folks to engage with it more.
During my transition to college, I didn’t have the time to keep it up as well as I wanted to. But now that I’m older, more independent, I have a stronger queer-affirming community around me and now I feel like I have the support and encouragement to really lean into this project.
I’d say both my biggest challenge and my biggest learning is asking for help. Thus far in my leadership, the points where I felt like I failed or could have done better were the points where I didn’t extend outward. There is this narrative that women leaders have to do it on our own, or we have to prove that we can tackle every great challenge on our own. But another one of my guiding principles is, “Who are we if not each other.” The reason why we’re put on this earth is to make life easier for our neighbors. But I’ve had to learn it doesn’t just work one way. Folks in the social impact space think they have to just give and give and not ask for anything in return. But you can’t pour from an empty cup, and it’s important to ask for help to serve at your best. This project would not be launching without help from my peers and other writers.
What led you into advocacy at such a young age?
A lot of the present work I do stems from my childhood growing up with Tourette Syndrome (TS). I was diagnosed in 8th grade and it’s something I grew up with a lot of shame around. I really want to give a good shoutout to the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome. Through them, I was able to travel to different schools and community centers to talk about destigmatizing TS and to start an open dialogue. Learning how to share my own story taught me the value of storytelling, the value of community education, and the value of taking the time to learn at any age.
What fuels your passion for your work?
On a personal level, I come from a family where we value education extremely highly, because it isn’t something we all had access to. Less than a century ago, my great grandmother was working as a sharecropper and was a maid at Duke University. And now I’m there as a scholarship holder with a full ride. So because the American education system has been my world for so long, I just want it to be more inclusive.
Can you talk more about the intersectionality of being both Black and queer?
I’d say I got lucky. It’s incredible that I get to engage with so many rich communities with this incredible sense of purpose and mission, because we’ve had to survive so much and to continue knowing our value, worth, and beauty, despite the world often telling us otherwise.
I’m at a point now where I can say I am so grateful to be both Black and queer. That was not the reality for the vast majority of my life. I grew up in a predominantly white area, so even just being the Black girl, I wished I could be a Disney princess. That was my understanding of the world from a very young age, and that’s something that takes a long time unlearn.
It's the same with queerness. If you’re growing up in an environment that’s not affirming of that at all times, it takes a lot of unlearning to come out of that. That’s what I’m hoping to accomplish with The LGBT History Project. People continue to perpetuate rhetoric, and we have to stay conscious of unlearning those philosophies. The LGBT History Project will create both a community and a resource for that.
What kind of leader are you? Or how would you describe yourself as a leader?
I’m a leader who leans into bold ideas. The kinds of ideas that scare you at first, but then eventually you realize if you work hard enough, all central change is within reach. Historically patriarchal models of leadership encourage people to take charge in a way that centers control over collaboration. So in my daily life I really work to center collaboration and communication in how I approach things.
How does it feel to be part of the inaugural VV Visionaries fellowship?
It’s an incredible honor! It’s so amazing. When reflecting on this, I was reimagining that feeling of being in a room with incredible women thinkers, creators, changemakers. There’s something palpable in the air. There’s this desire to learn, support, uplift. It’s difficult to find those spaces in an increasingly individualized world.
What was the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned or experienced as part of the fellowship?
Often when I’m seeking mentorship and advice, I’ll gravitate toward those within my own field. I realized in the program that I gained so much insight and expertise from speaking to women across all industries. There is so much value in engaging with folks who think differently from you.
How do you plan to pay your experience forward for other woman leaders?
Mentorship is one of the most important things to me because I’ve grown and benefitted so much from the incredible mentors in my life. I’m committed to creating sustainable practices that can last beyond me, like keeping an eye out for opportunities that can serve the women in my community. If something comes your way that’s not for you, make sure you direct it to someone who can benefit.