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Meet Mark Yabut of Free Malaya

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mark Yabut.

Mark, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I entered a whole new world when I became an immigrant at the young age of nine. I had to leave the life I had grown to love in the Philippines and start anew in National City, California. I had no idea what was ahead of me. As the new child, I felt alone; there was no one by my side to prepare me for the new world I had entered. I was clueless, intimidated, and vulnerable; as a result, I sat in class not knowing what my teacher and peers were discussing because I could not decipher even a single word they spoke. I was eager to learn English. Although painstaking, English became my third language.

Education protected me from my realities. I immersed myself in school – it is where I was able to flourish because of the love and support of my friends. I was able to thrive at Sweetwater High School where I was awarded a full-ride scholarship to attend the University of Colorado Boulder. After college, I moved to Los Angeles to be a Teach for America corps member where I taught Math and Business for three years. My experience as a teacher cultivated my passion for fighting for social justice. I knew being an educator was my calling. While teaching, I earned my teaching credential and Master of Arts in Urban Education – Administration and Policy from Loyola Marymount University. Currently, I am completing my Master of Science in Education Entrepreneurship from the University of Pennsylvania where I am coached by industry professionals, entrepreneurs, and professors from Penn’s Graduate School of Education, The Wharton Business School, Weitzman School of Design, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science for my venture – Free Malaya.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
The journey definitely has not been a smooth road. In fact, there were countless bumps, turns, u-turns, yields, and stops along the way that made the journey more interesting and unforgettable.

Growing up, education has always been my escape. Education served as raw material in manufacturing the life I was escaping from: a life of hiding my sexuality from my parents. Because of this, I spent more time at school than home seeking refuge. However, my place of refuge was invaded by peers who threw rocks at me everyday because of being a low-income, immigrant, gay student of color. School was no longer a sanctuary – it came with adversities: teachers didn’t understand my needs, administrators didn’t foster a safe environment, and adults turned blind eyes to me being bullied.

According to Human Rights Campaign, in 2018, over 70% of LGBTQ+ students did not feel safe in the classroom. As a result, students missed school, dropped out, or even committed suicide. I was fortunate to have had supportive friends and teachers growing up but I think about those who aren’t around others who accept and validate them. Now being on the other side as an educator, I feel a sense of responsibility to manifest organizational change in the culture of schools to guarantee success and safety to all students no matter of their sexuality. My experiences have been the driving factor for starting Free Malaya.

We’d love to hear more about your organization.
Free Malaya is a queer-led organization that helps schools foster free and liberated learning environments for queer and trans students and allies. We equip schools and their educators with queerly responsive tools, resources, and professional learning that help champion and amplify the voices of LGBTQ+ students to empower them to embrace and develop their queer identities. We are working toward a  free and liberated  education system for LGBTQ+ students so that they can walk into schools without fear and hesitation.

According to research, 83% of educators felt that they should provide a safe environment for their LGBTQ+ students; however, only less than half have taken action to do so because they did not feel comfortable intervening due to lack of training when it comes to LGBTQ+ students. In fact, less than 10% of educators have actually received formal training in supporting LGBTQ+ students. Research shows that in a classroom of 25 students ages 13-18, 4 students identify as LGBTQ+. Of those students, 75% say they do not feel safe at school. Students need a safe, brave, and supportive learning environment in order to learn and thrive. Free Malaya helps schools foster  free and liberated learning environments for LGBTQ+ students – we do this alongside of LGBTQ+ educators of color and students of color. We pride ourselves in that queer voices are at the root and forefront of our work. The work we do is intersectional. We can’t recognize LGBTQ+ progress without the hxstory of our trans ancestors of color.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I’m not sure if I believe in luck. I believe that privileges and adversities have driven me to the path I am on today.

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