Meet 2010 Do Something Awards Finalist Matt Palazzolo

After Proposition 8 passed in California, Matt was shocked—shocked out of complacency. He decided he had to do something. He created the Equal Roots Coalition, which has activated over 15,000 LGBTQ youth to fight back against discrimination and increase tolerance.

His courage and dedication may earn him $100K from DoSomething.org. He took some time to talk about his work.

DoSomething.org: What person or experience sticks with you from the beginning of the process?

Matt Palazzolo: I remember seeing thousands of young people flooding the streets after the passage of Proposition 8. That’s when I woke up. It was inspiring to see how many people cared about was happening and in many ways it was one of the first times I felt less alone as a gay individual. It set off a switch in my head. I realized that if this many people had enough passion to shut down Hollywood in the name of equality then real tangible change could be made if these thousands took their energy and focused it into political and social organizing. If all of these young people had the skills, networks, and resources to organize beyond protests and rallies then inequality and those who perpetuate it wouldn't be able to sustain themselves for much longer.


DS: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?

MP: It was extremely bitter sweet realizing that the youth of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community didn't lack a desire to change our societal reality, but rather most of us lacked any kind of knowledge of how to go about and affect that change. I remember hearing and sharing stories about how having our right to marry taken away affected each of us. It brought up feelings of unworthiness and shame that we had grown up with and tried to cover up since childhood. It was a difficult notion to bare, the idea of my whole community carrying around so much pain and feeling so helpless to do anything about it. But it was also exhilarating to realize that we were in fact NOT helpless and could stop future generations from facing what we have faced and all we had to do was develop the tools for ourselves to organize that were never given to us.


DS: How do you feel about it now?

MP: I think about the disadvantages that the LGBTQ community faces everyday so I've learned to focus on the sweet and not the bitter. I've tried to replace the bitter with pragmatism. Now when I meet a young LGBTQ person who has been rejected by their family, physically or verbally assaulted, or just feels apathetic about the state of our community I feel much more equipped to be of assistance. I still feel that punch to the gut, but my mind also starts immediately thinking "how can I help to empower this person?" or "what resources does this person need to deal with their grief?" or "how could this person use their experiences to the benefit of community organizing?"


DS: Who is your inspiration to keep going?

MP: There's a whole lot of people who inspire me to keep going. The lifetime activists and organizers who have become my mentors and friends are so generous with their time and advice. Whenever I sense a feeling of burnout coming on all I have to do is look at these icons who've been arrested for being gay decades ago, who have seen so much violence against our community, who watched literally hundreds of their friends die from AIDS in the 80s as the government refused to acknowledge what was happening and yet they continue to organize. All I can do is say "wow look what they've been through yet they keep going" and get back to work. I'm also motivated by my parents who are so accepting, loving, and empowering. I'm so lucky to have parents supportive of my identity in a time when most LGBTQ kids face rejection from their families. I've been blessed with the great gift of loving parents so I do my best to pay it forward.


DS: Can you describe the moment you knew you were actually making a difference?

MP: The day I knew that the Equal Roots Coalition were actually making a difference was January 10th, 2009. We organized "The Resolution" at West Hollywood Park which was a combination of theater and activism. At night we had a live performance of "Prop 8: The Musical" performed by LGBTQ celebrities. Thousands of people walked through that auditorium that day and I remember so many of them, mostly the young ones, writing letters to the president and to their representatives for the first times in their lives, learning for the first time what rights we lack by not having marriage equality, and learning about the untold history of fighting for LGBTQ rights. A wonderful man set up a display of news articles and historical items from previous anti-gay political campaigns. I was looking at the display with an acquaintance of mine and she said "I had no clue that California tried to ban gays and lesbians from working in public schools. That's crazy!" I know that day opened the eyes of a lot of young LGBTQ people, myself included.


DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project?

MP: The biggest roadblock I faced when first starting the Equal Roots Coalition was the fact that I nor none of my fellow organizers had any idea what we were doing. It was late November, 2008, and six of us 20-somethings had decided to organize a conference to get LGBTQ organizations, leaders, and community members talking productively for the first time since the passage of Proposition 8. We were sitting at a restaurant with our notebooks out and someone asked "Have any of us ever done something like this before...or even organized anything before?" None of us had. Over the next couple months we found ourselves having organizing meetings and conversations with iconic activists, mayors, city managers, legislators, pastors, and celebrities. Needless to say we made tons of mistakes, said all of the wrong things, and had our fair share of embarrassing moments. There came a point when each of us realized the mistakes and the embarrassment were just something we were going to have to deal with and learn from if we were serious about what we were doing.


DS: What about when you were trying to grow your project?

MP: The biggest problem we faced was sustainability in the face of community apathy. We started Equal Roots at the height of community involvement, when our entire community was up in arms over having our right to marry taken away. As our organization grew and our goals got bigger the excitement over Prop 8 subsided and the desire from young LGTBQ people to organize got thinner. There came a point when the frustration over sustainability peaked so we sat down to brunch with one of our mentors, life-time activist Torie Osborn. She assured us that every movement for social change ebbs and flows and that you cannot force members of a community to stay active. However, what we can do is develop programming, educational materials, and organizing tools so that when the next moment of increased involvement comes (whether it comes from another anti-gay political campaign or a different large event that affects the LGBTQ community) we can efficiently provide resources to the many.


DS: What’s been the biggest lesson throughout the process?

MP: Without a doubt it's a very simple lesson-- if you're not having fun (or at least feeling rewarded on some level) there's a problem. I think that's one of the big keys to staying motivated and productive. I've found that if I can make even the most tedious and grueling tasks fun then getting to work is never anything less than exciting. For example: instead of sitting at your desk for hours inputting new emails into your membership database turn it into a group effort in the form of a slumber party. Seriously. Also, if you're overwhelmed and frustrated by your work take that hour, that day, or that week to decompress. Don't ever feel guilty about making time for yourself because in the end it'll pay off for your work, vision, and organization.


DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you hear today?

MP: What has surprised me the most about this journey is how frequently I see people from every ethnic background, religious faith, age group, income status, sexuality, gender identity, and occupation-type working together towards bettering life for the LGBTQ community. I seriously wonder sometimes who else gets the pleasure of seeing that kind of future-world ideal. I often feel like I got dropped in the middle of an advertisement for world peace. These experiences with diverse groups of people have taught me that there is never a lack of things to learn from others and in addition has made me so grateful to be part of a community that revolves around acceptance and inclusion.


DS: What advice do you have for other kids who are having a tough time getting their ideas off the ground?

MP: Don't get overwhelmed by the big picture. Map out your different steps, knowing that they will change along the way, and focus on each phase one at a time. It's daunting to always focus on achieving the over-arching goal and all of the details that go along with it. Also, you will always need help along the way to make your idea a reality and the best way to get someone to help you is to help them first. Be generous with your time and energy towards people who you think can help you out later down the line.


DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be? Why?

MP: I would have been more thoughtful about the infrastructure of my organization before getting knee-deep in programming. Figuring out a clear mission, financial goals and realities, and realistic timelines at the birth of my organization rather than a year into it would have not only increased productivity, but would have also helped us raise more money and community support through a clear and focused mission and identity. Not to mention it would have saved a bundle of headaches.


DS: What’s next for your project?

MP: One of the most important aspects of the Equal Roots Coalition is providing consistent open space for LGBTQ community members and allies to meet, network, get information, teach, learn, present ideas, organize, and even just observe. We'll be focusing much of our time and energy on further developing this open space, both the physical and virtual. This will involve making our office space more welcoming and conducive to activist events and especially making our virtual space more user-friendly and integrated into current popular social networking and news sites. In terms of specific programming we're planning a political activism training weekend to help teach young LGBTQ people how to engage in political campaigns relevant to our community. We're also looking to expand our faith programming which helps bridge relationships via service projects between our community and conservative communities of faith that often have had little or no contact with LGBTQ people.