A Call for Organizational Transformation

Excerpt of a book by Gerald P. Mallon

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With his newly published book, LGBTQ Youth Issues: A Practical Guide for Youth Workers Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth, author Gerald P. Mallon teaches individual workers and agencies how to better serve sexual minority youth. With these excerpts from chapters 5 and 12, Mallon issues a call for organizations to commit to the transformation he believes is necessary to accommodate LGBTQ youth and serve them alongside their heterosexual peers.

From Chapter 5:

Systemic Responses: The Need for Alternatives and Strategies

In order to create consistently safe environments, there must be system-wide policies and practices in place.

First, providing information alone is not sufficient. There must be a system-wide recognition of the fact that negative attitudes toward homosexuality and discrimination against LGBTQ youth contribute significantly to the difficulties that these youth encounter. Youth care professionals need to acknowledge the existence of young LGBT people and develop ways to educate themselves--as well as the families of children in care--in order to understand the significance of sexual orientation in young peoples' lives.

Supporting LGBTQ youth and their families requires service providers trained in family systems and competent to address gender/sexual orientation issues in a sensitive way with children and families. Part of the youth service provider's role is to work toward increasing the parents' knowledge about LGBTQ adolescents, and to model and encourage nonjudgmental and accepting attitudes and behavior toward the youth.

Providing youth services for LGBTQ youth can cause problematic public relations concerns, particularly if the system does not have a clearly defined policy to provide appropriate services for LGBTQ youth. Youth services administrators would be wise to think about how their programs can develop or adapt existing services to ensure the safety of all program participants.

Another strategy for creating a safe environment can be found in transforming the youth services system into one which is proactively responsive to the needs of LGBTQ youth. Hiring openly LGBT staff in community-based and residential programs is one step in this process. LGBTQ youth interviewed in several studies identified openly LGBTQ staff as instrumental in making them aware that the environment was safe. Closeted staff sent a clear message: "It's not safe for me to be out here--so it's not safe for you to be out, either." Jane from Toronto made this comment:

When I walked into the center I saw this woman who worked there who I recognized from a dance I went to in the lesbian community. She looked really panicked when she saw me and then very much avoided me. In fact, she went out of her way to stay away from me while I was there. When I was leaving the center she was also walking out and said to me, "Please don't tell anyone, okay? I can't be out on my job." I couldn't believe it. I never went back there again. I mean if the staff can't be open, then I knew I certainly couldn't.

Systematic and ongoing staff training and professional development for all levels of youth services personnel are also essential. Andres, an 18-year-old African American gay youth from Chicago, made this comment about staff training:

I don't know what they teach these staff in social work school or wherever they go, but they sure don't know anything about gay and lesbian people. I think they should all be required before graduating to take a Homosexuality 101 course--you know, a class to give them the language and to tell them about us. I am sometimes so shocked by how little staff really knows about us, many of them still believe all of those old-time myths and stereotypes. It's amazing to me.

Existing youth services programs need to be particularly aware of the following underserved groups, as there are currently very few programs that focus on meeting their needs: adolescent lesbians, transgender youth, gay and lesbian youth between the ages of 12 and 15, and seriously emotionally impaired LGBT youths between the ages of 12 and 20. I am not suggesting that specialized programs be developed by youth-serving agencies to meet these needs, but rather that these youth are vulnerable populations within an already at-risk population group, and they may require additional attention from youth workers.

From Chapter 12:

Over the past few years, several authors have enumerated the needs of LGBTQ youth and identified the obstacles that youth-serving agencies face in addressing their needs. This final chapter, using the experiences of several nationally known LGBTQ-affirming agencies, offers recommendations on agency philosophies concerning the reality of LGBTQ youth and additionally offers suggestions on ways to create safe, welcoming, and nurturing environments.

The dilemmas faced by LGBTQ youth and their families are clear. Youth-serving agencies, already challenged by many substantial issues, tend to exhibit a range of sensitivities to LGBTQ youth. At one extreme, some agencies openly discriminate against LGBTQ youth; at the other end of the spectrum, agencies are affirming in their approaches and strongly advocate for their needs. Most youth-serving agencies fall somewhere in the middle. Many agencies initiate good faith efforts to become more affirming, but this usually occurs when they come across their first openly LGBT youth. A more proactive stance, and preparation working with diverse groups of youth, rarely happens without a precipitating incident.

Youth-serving agencies come into contact with LGBTQ youth for several reasons: family conflict, health or mental health of the youth, school problems, or out-of-home placements. The scope of these issues, as reviewed in this book, requires that all youth-serving agencies become knowledgeable about and sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ youth. The vulnerability of LGBTQ youth, particularly at times when they come to the attention of youth-serving agencies, is yet another reason that youth providers should be prepared for working with this population. The most inopportune time to increase one's knowledge about a service population is when they arrive at the agency in a crisis and are in need of immediate assistance.

Efforts to increase sensitivity to LGBTQ youth cannot be sustained in an environment that does not explicitly encourage such undertakings. As agencies struggle to demonstrate their commitment to diversity, they must also be willing to include sexual orientation in that diversity continuum. In doing so, they begin the work necessary for creating a safe and welcoming environment for all clients, not just LGBTQ youth. Once this orientation is set, and the organization's culture shifts to clearly include LGBTQ concerns, it becomes possible for youth workers to learn about, advocate for, and provide affirming services to LGBTQ youth.

While it is a reality that some agency administrators and boards might object to specific LGBTQ sensitivity awareness or programs particularly geared toward the population, fewer should take exception to overall approaches designed to increase worker competence in working with clients who are underserved.

Transforming the Organization's Culture

Transformation is a powerful word, but nothing less is needed to create programs that are responsive to the needs of LGBTQ youth. Appreciation of diversity is a key element in this process. The examination of an organization's commitment to diversity is a common theme for all youth-serving agency administrators. Diversity approaches in organizations have utilized various strategies to increase worker competence in meeting the needs of a variegated client population, including in-service training, nondiscrimination policies, culturally specific celebrations, advocacy, client/staff groups that explore diversity, and efforts to encourage a climate that welcomes all people. An LGBTQ approach could be integrated into any one of these areas. A community-based youth center commemorating Latino History Month with a potluck dinner representing dishes from various Latino countries could just as easily celebrate Pride Month by inviting a speaker to discuss the events that led to the civil rights struggle for the LGBTQ community.

Youth-oriented agencies must also be committed to creating a safe environment for all youth. The enactment of a zero tolerance policy for violence, weapons, emotional maltreatment, slurs of all types, and direct or indirect mistreatment conveys to all clients that their safety is a priority. A strong stance against violence of all types, including verbal harassment, sends an important message to all youth. It says, "We will try to protect you, and you will not be blamed for being yourself. Those who offend are the ones who will be dealt with, because their behavior is unjustified and unacceptable."

All youth benefit from youth workers who are open, honest, and genuine. Everyone benefits from philosophies that indicate an agency's willingness to address difficult issues head-on. Giving clients and staff permission to raise controversial topics signals that all people associated with the agency will be treated with respect and dignity.

It is only through intentional and deliberate organizational cultural shifts--true transformation--that a climate supportive of LGBTQ youth can be developed. Several agencies across the United States and in Canada have been successful in creating organizations where LGBTQ youth are welcomed, feel safe, and have their needs met. This does not take huge amounts of money, tremendous time commitments on the part of staff, or other extraordinary efforts. It does, however, take commitment from board members, administrators, and other key organizational players--including the youth and their families.

What Can Youth-Serving Agencies Do?

Supportive Employees

An organization that is responsive to the needs of LGBTQ youth must be staffed and administered by people who demonstrate a similar commitment to providing services that foster self-esteem and acceptance for LGBTQ youth. To achieve this, the organization must aim to hire open-minded, supportive employees, including openly LGBT professionals. Organizations must communicate antidiscrimination policies in hiring, and must be honest about recruiting and maintaining LGBT employees. Hiring openly LGBT employees sends a clear message that the agency is demonstrating its commitment to LGBTQ youth. Although hiring LGBT staff is critical, it should not be assumed that every LGBT adult is knowledgeable about working with LGBTQ youth, or appropriate for working with them. All staff, regardless of sexual orientation, should be assessed for their appropriateness in working with youth, and then educated about LGBTQ youth, the problems that they experience in society, and how to effectively support them. Hiring non-LGBT staff that are comfortable with LGBTQ clients and open to being educated about working with this population is also an essential part of this process.

With increasing openness about gender/sexual orientation, clients often ask employees about their sexual orientation. Some child welfare agencies have encouraged staff to be open about their orientation, because ambiguity about staff's orientation led to mistrust in the youth. Once staff were clear, youth stopped playing guessing games and started to do the work that they had come to the agency for in the first place.

One of the most positive outcomes of recruiting openly LGBT staff reported by several of the agencies was that staff turnover was at an all-time low rate. Being able to be employed in an accepting atmosphere is a great employee benefit for LGBT adults.

In-Service Training

In-service training, integrated into the overall training efforts of the organization, is critical in providing quality services to LGBTQ youth and families. As with all issues of diversity, integrating real-life case examples into the training sessions can make the educational process come alive for workers. Helping staff to identify appropriate language, addressing the common myths and stereotypes that most people have about LGBTQ people, replacing the myths with accurate information about the population, and creating environments that suggest safety--these are all good first steps. However, training efforts should be tailored to meet the individual needs of staff members from various disciplines.

Helping staff to identify resources in the community and to assess their own personal heterocentrism are also critical factors in the training process. Use of videos and guest speakers--especially LGBTQ youth or their parents--can be particularly effective in getting the message across.

Transferring abstract information learned in training sessions into actual intervention techniques takes practice. Participation in a variety of exercises assists staff members in beginning to develop a set of appropriate and unconstrained responses. Staff members are intentionally exposed to situations that lead to self-reflection. For example, in one training focusing on the maladaptive coping responses that can be associated with hiding one's sexual orientation, the participants were asked at the start of the session to write their most personal secret on a slip of paper, to fold it, and to place it under the chair that they would be sitting on all day. Without ever being asked to share what they wrote, the message is powerful. In ensuing discussion, attitudinal change and understanding of the consequences of secrecy often begins to evolve.

Providing staff at the training with written information, resources, and other materials ensures that the educational process continues after the training session is finished. This process should be monitored and evaluated by program supervisory staff.

Welcoming Strategies

The creation of a physical environment that welcomes LGBTQ youth, families, and prospective employees is as significant as staff training. Again, these efforts do not need to cost a great deal of money, but evidence of them signals acceptance and safety.

The organization's waiting room is probably the most important place to start this process. Reading materials, symbols, and signs that specifically spell out the organization's attitude about respect for all people will be noticed and will help clients, their families, and employment applicants feel welcome.

Many agencies hang posters in their waiting rooms that signal acceptance. One agency in New York specifically developed nine colorful, gender-neutral posters that announced an LGBTQ-affirming environment. The messages that these send are intentionally subtle. LGBTQ organizations will also be able to provide organizations with pamphlets; others can be downloaded from the internet.

The presence or lack of books focusing on LGBTQ issues also conveys important messages. Thousands of LGBTQ-related books might also be purchased in bookstores both brick-and-mortar and online.

Integrated Policies and Public Information Materials

Although LGBTQ people have experienced greater acceptance and understanding in the past 30 years, many organizations may still actively discriminate against LGBTQ youth. In other cases the organization's inattentiveness to the needs of LGBTQ youth will send a clear signal that they are not welcome. Reviewing an organization's policies and public materials can assist the organization in consistently attempting to provide sensitive services to all youth.

An organization's commitment to LGBTQ youth involves more than posters and books. It is critical to recognize that the internal structure of the organization, as reflected in its policies and public information materials, may also need to be evaluated. Training and educational efforts may assist staff in developing their competence in working with a particular population, but policies and what the outside community knows about the organization may also need to be altered in order to effect real change.

Advocacy Efforts

Recognizing that the environment outside the organization is often actively hostile to LGBTQ youth, youth-serving agencies must be committed to external change and advocacy efforts as well. This may mean, for example, participating in an advocacy campaign to end discriminatory language in contracts or attending human services-related conferences. Affirming organizations must be prepared to advocate for LGBTQ youth in community schools, in local adolescent treatment settings, and in families. Further, organizational leaders must also be prepared to educate local and state politicians and funders about the needs of LGBTQ youth.

As the 21st Century progresses, youth workers continue to play a critical role in developing young people. Youth work has historically had a cyclical interest in certain subjects: youth suicide, violence, substance abuse, and homelessness. All are worthwhile issues that require our best efforts, but the needs of LGBTQ youth should not be viewed as the "issue du jour" of youth work. Sexual orientation issues are too vital to continue to be overlooked. A particular LGBTQ client might trigger a plethora of attention at the time, only to fade from view when the next issue presents itself. Dealing with LGBTQ youth issues in an intermittent manner is a mistake. Organizations must continue to diligently develop training, assess their own ability or inability to respond to the needs of LGBTQ youth, and address new approaches to competent practice with these youth and their families. For an organization to be consistently sensitive to the needs of its clients, efforts to create affirming environments and to transform existing ones must be realized. If organizations are guided by the same principles that embrace diversity, and can translate these into concrete action, LGBTQ youth will be better served.

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