At Los Angeles Youth Network (LAYN), an inclusive philosophy meets trauma-informed care to create an effective model for SOGIE-conscious programming. CARF spoke with LAYN about what it does to create and maintain this culturally competent culture.
(SOGIE: sexual orientation and gender identity/expression)
Part 1 of this blog series followed a youth named Adam through his decision to come out as transgender, the resulting trauma and homelessness, and the services provided by LAYN, to get him on a path to success. The challenges he experienced were a direct result of his gender identity and new expression of it. Valuing that part of his identity was an important element in creating a service environment for him to succeed.
So how can you ensure that this happens at your organization?
LGBTQ vs. SOGIE
To start, meeting the needs of youth with diverse SOGIE doesn’t mean creating special practices for LGBTQ youth. Rather, it has to do with creating a culturally humble philosophy that addresses youth whatever their unique background is, LGBTQ or otherwise.
As opposed to an LGBTQ label, everyone has a SOGIE that can shape their needs and experiences. Being open to diverse SOGIE can help your organization be more accepting of the whole child.
Mark Supper, CEO of LAYN, agrees that a service framework works best when it doesn’t put labels on people. “When you have younger youth, particularly ages 12 to 17, there’s a lot of exploration anyway. It’s important that we don’t put a label on it for them, but allow them that freedom to discover it and work through it on their own.”
Also included in SOGIE is gender expression, which isn’t necessarily within the sphere of an LGBTQ label but can be an important aspect of who a youth is. Supper encourages acceptance of diverse gender expressions into your cultural competency efforts, saying, “Foster and homeless youth have a tremendous amount of other challenges that they are facing. The last thing you want to do is add to that pile of challenges by closing that door to their gender expression. For any youth, you really need to create that space where they are not feeling judged and they can experiment with their clothes, their hair, or whatever it is.”
Supper identified four practices that help LAYN stay inclusive of diverse SOGIE.
1. Gathering data
The first focus of your organization should be to gather data on the “true population” you serve, as Supper phrases it. It goes back to the introduction of a youth into your organization (as discussed in Part 1).
Are you asking the question of how a youth wants to identify in terms of SOGIE? Have you created an atmosphere where they feel comfortable sharing that information with you? Don’t assume you know the SOGIE data of your population if you haven’t asked the question or created a safe place to express it. Knowing your population is important because your staff should reflect the population it serves.
The next focus of your organization should be to gather data among staff members on their unique, personal biases. According to Supper, this part isn’t easy, but it has to be embraced companywide. “I think an agency really has to jump off that bridge,” he says. “We all have them [biases]; it’s the reality. You have to take an inventory of your own self. It has to start with the board of directors, executive director, all the way down.”
Identifying where biases may exist (areas that staff worry about, are afraid of, or don’t know a lot about) allows you to begin addressing those areas through education and training.
2. Hiring and training
Once you have gathered data on the above items, you can better focus other practices. On hiring, for instance, Supper suggests that you should aim beyond just having a diverse staff. Instead, the diversity of your staff should reflect the diversity of the population you serve. That includes everything, including race, ethnicity, gender identity, etc.
About staff reflecting diverse SOGIE, specifically, Supper shares, “We certainly don’t discriminate or don’t hire somebody because they don’t identify a certain way. But in the interview process, we’ve incorporated direct questions about their attitude or positions on the LGBTQ population.”
Questions that LAYN asks focus on the interviewee’s past experiences working within diverse work places and how they would respond to new situations. The questions your organization asks should be data-driven, tailored around the information gathered earlier about the true population you serve.
For current staff, continual education keeps the principles of diversity present in their minds. Supper says that LAYN constantly does training to update for new terminology, expressions, and trends. He recommends looking for trainings provided by the county or other community organizations.
Education works because bias, and even prejudice, often stems from uncertainty, confusion, and misinformation.
Again, education provided should be data-driven, focusing on information gathered earlier from your self-inventory.
3. Community connections
In addition to the self-assessments and training, LAYN engages externally with community providers, including participation in the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership, which includes five other organizations that collaborate to share best practices and coordinate trainings. The Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership consists of LAYN, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Covenant House California, Los Angeles LGBT Center, My Friend’s Place, and Step Up on Second.
Through this partnership, LAYN is able to participate in a wider community dialogue about best practices and challenges. The group collaborates on training that affects staff roles from case managers to executive directors. It also sends representatives to community meetings where questions and concerns can be discussed in a group setting.
LAYN also engages community organizations through the relationships it has developed with employers and educators for the youth it serves. By supporting internships and job placements, for example, LAYN is able to introduce employers to youth they may have shied away from otherwise. Discussing transgender youth, Supper says, “I think it’s important to encourage and demonstrate to employers what amazing workers these kids are and that customers are not going to be frightened away. We know for other providers and employers, it’s all coming from fear. So the more we can lessen that fear, the results end up being really good.”
Supper explains that most of LAYN’s employers have been swayed toward more inclusive and less fear-based practices. This contributes to a more accepting community environment in general, and continues to remove barriers to maintaining a SOGIE-literate culture.
4. Walking the walk
Perhaps the most important concept that pieces everything together is to do in practice what you say and talk about. If you say you are supportive of diversity, how do you demonstrate that to the youth?
By illustration, LAYN participates in many events that are supportive of various cultures and causes important to the youth it serves. Each year, it hosts a bus in the LA Pride parade that staff and youth can ride on and have a good time. It is involved in other events like the Martin Luther King Day parade, and conferences that affect its youth (such as the California Coalition for Youth conference described in Part 1). Says Supper, “We are there in those events so that we show we’re supportive. In a sense, I think we need to prove or to reassure that we’re in there for real, that we do what we say.”
As with cultural competency efforts, this should be true for many cultures and backgrounds, not just LGBTQ.
See Part 1 of this blog series to see LAYN’s SOGIE-conscious culture in practice.
Disclaimer: Some names and locations in this article have been changed or withheld for privacy.