May 30, 2019

Diversity Fellow works to make everyone feel welcome in Penn GSE’s community

Jax Lastinger receives an award.

Jax Lastinger receives the 2019 Award for Promoting Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion at Penn GSE’s commencement. Lastinger is a student in Penn GSE’s Education, Culture, and Society master’s program.

The LGBTQ community wasn’t shunned in Jax Lastinger’s West Virginia town, which Lastinger viewed as a liberal pocket in a conservative state, but it wasn’t completely understood, either.

Lastinger’s high school social studies teacher once told their class that gay marriage was a “slippery slope,” and suggested that if men could marry men and women could marry women, people might just start marrying dogs.

“I remember feeling so much weight in that moment come down on me and so much shame, and I felt like I was just shrinking,” said Lastinger, who didn’t yet identify with the LGBTQ community but knew the teacher’s comments were hurtful.

Lastinger spent the past year as Penn GSE’s Diversity and Inclusion Fellow for the Office of Student Services working to prevent moments like that by helping educators and students learn how to welcome LGBTQ youth and other marginalized groups into their classrooms. Lastinger created “Diversifying Education,” a series of workshops that addresses these issues and talks about solutions.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, we’re inclusive.' We also want to take a more active stance.”

Promoting acceptance is just one part of that, Lastinger said — students should feel like important members of their classrooms, too.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, we’re inclusive,’” Lastinger said. “We also want to take a more active stance.”

Penn GSE created the Diversity and Inclusion Fellow position in 2016 as part of an effort to make sure students of all backgrounds felt welcome in the school community. For their work, Lastinger was recognized with the 2019 Penn GSE Award for Excellence in Promoting Diversity and Inclusion. 

Lastinger also organized a variety of other events through the fellowship, from a workshop on how international students navigate race and culture in the U.S. to a film screening of “Crazy Rich Asians.”

“Social justice is such a personal part of my life,” said Lastinger, who started the fellowship in August and is working toward a master’s degree in Education, Culture, and Society. “It’s not something I see as being just this job.”

Lastinger’s passion for social justice was sparked about six years ago at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where Lastinger was a first-year undergraduate student.

There, for the first time, Lastinger heard people use the term “queer” in a positive way: to define themselves. Previously Lastinger had just heard kids use queer as a slur. Lastinger also started learning other terms, like cisgender.

“It was a whole new world,” Lastinger said. “Nobody had ever talked about those things before.”

Lastinger eventually volunteered for social justice groups, including the Union for Gender Empowerment, where Lastinger organized a three-day event called “Trans/Formations” that talked about the experiences of transgender people in Montreal.

It was the first big event Lastinger had organized — and a learning experience.

“It was super overwhelming,” Lastinger said, recalling planning multiple workshops, a community dinner, and bringing in a keynote speaker from New York.

The challenge coming to Penn was different: Lastinger was jumping into social justice work in a city that was unfamiliar; Lastinger had only visited Philadelphia once before.

“It’s always challenging to move to a new place, and I’d lived in Montreal for five years, so it was at the point where I was like, ‘This is my home,’” Lastinger said. “Now I’m in a new city, new university. I have no idea what’s happening anywhere.”

So Lastinger quickly built relationships with students, faculty, and activists. Those personal relationships helped Lastinger bring attention to overlooked issues, like the treatment of transgender youth, food access in low-income communities, and the link between harsh discipline in schools and incarceration.

Talking about these issues can be eye-opening: people don’t always know they should question existing norms in society, Lastinger said. There’s also sometimes another challenge: getting people to listen to each other, even when they have different opinions.

“Finding that balance of being able to engage with somebody who has never had that conversation before in a way that doesn’t push them away is extremely difficult and delicate work,” Lastinger said. “And work that I think nobody feels like they should have to do.”

Lastinger agrees with that last point: Nobody should have to do this. But somebody must. And Lastinger is happy to lead the way.