- What makes a youth program anti-racist?
- How do you impact the culture of a predominantly White organization?
- Which steps are the hardest, and which have been the most successful?
We spoke with program manager Kay Gordon (they/them, pictured here) about these questions—and many others—in an attempt to share a bit about what we’ve learned as we’ve placed racial justice closer to the center of OUT MetroWest’s work.
OUT MetroWest named racial justice as an organizational value in our 2019 strategic plan, committing to challenge racism, celebrate diversity, and treat people with care. We set a goal to increase representation of Black, Indigenous, and all People of Color (BIPOC) within the organization, with the intention that BIPOC would comprise 25% of participants, staff, and board by the end of 2021. [To give a sense of local demographics, recent data from Impact MetroWest shows that the population of the MetroWest region is 22% BIPOC.]
Kay, who joined the OUT MetroWest staff in 2018, was a key member of the strategic planning committee that determined these priorities. They knew that we could not fulfill our mission—building communities where LGBTQ+ thrive—without building an anti-racist organizational culture.
To understand more about Kay’s perspective, we asked them how they developed their own consciousness around racial justice. “I grew up both Latine and White in Downey, a diverse L.A. suburb,” they told us. “From an early age, I was aware of who lived in what neighborhoods, who held what jobs, and who was in what classes. I could see that those demographics were skewed. Meanwhile, my mom made a point of teaching me about California colonial history, the United Farm Workers, and the Chicano Movement.”
Kay told us that they really solidified and synthesized this knowledge in college. “I took classes on ethnic studies, sociology, and political science that helped me put all the information together. I realized just how deeply ingrained racism still is in our society. I learned about redlining, the white affirmative action of the GI Bill, modern-day job and loan discrimination, and racial bias in standardized testing. I also had honest conversations with my peers about our life experiences. At the time, it blew my mind that police made some people feel less safe when I’d grown up feeling the opposite. I had to debunk stereotypes and shift my thinking on a lot of the assumptions I had, which was a difficult process.”
Having shifted their own thinking about race, Kay is passionate about ensuring that young people grow up with a more accurate understanding of the world and themselves. “I try to foster anti-racist spaces so that I can best serve youth of color,” they told us. “Youth of color won’t join or stick around if a program isn’t relevant to them. Including and honoring BIPOC experiences helps to build trust, relationships, and community.”
They also went on to explain that anti-racism work is empowering for all youth, including white youth. “Understanding your identity and figuring out how to live your values are important for young people’s development. Most young people, especially LGBTQ+ and ally youth, are passionate about combating injustice. They’re excited to gain tools and insights that help them make the world a better place.”
When you enter into OUT MetroWest youth spaces, even the virtual meetings currently conducted via Zoom, you can feel Kay’s influence. Some things are programmatic: guest speakers, presentations, and slideshows are all chosen with an eye toward BIPOC representation. Join a yoga session and you’ll likely hear about the ancient Indian roots of the fitness practice. Attend an LGBTQ+ history presentation and you’ll undoubtedly learn about BIPOC figures like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Bayard Rustin.
At any given youth program, you’re also likely to meet a staff member of color. This is intentional, but it wasn’t always this way. Kay explains, “When hiring for a program position in 2019, the staff really wanted to encourage people of color to apply and wanted our compensation structure to account for the extra skills that BIPOC candidates could bring to the role. After sorting through our own intentions and best employment practices, staff and board figured out that the right thing to do would be to offer folks more pay for specific skills and experience.”
In practice, this translates to compensating for skills such as Spanish, Portuguese, or Mandarin proficiency or for experience working closely with BIPOC populations. Moreover, OUT MetroWest now considers racial justice competency a required skill among program facilitators.
Kay shared that building a talented, equity-oriented team also required some shifts in the application process. “It seems obvious, but it’s important to explicitly encourage BIPOC to apply for positions with us. We make our organizational values clear from the outset, including them in each job posting we publish. We also try to lower barriers to applying. For example, instead of requiring a résumé, applicants can submit a list of relevant experiences, including informal or volunteer experiences.”
Taken together, these practices have made a powerful difference. Of the six facilitators OUT MetroWest recently added to programs, several are BIPOC and all have extensive knowledge of racial justice. “It’s wonderful for me to be able to trust that our program facilitators know how to navigate conversations about race and to center the needs of youth of color,” Kay explains.
We asked Kay what other changes they’ve noticed in our programs, and they were quick to note several: youth respectfully bringing up problematic actions or language when they notice them; youth talking openly about race and intersectionality; a willingness from adults and peer leaders to shift planned programs to process current events; and an increasing number of BIPOC youth in attendance (~27% of participants in 2020).
Kay also talked about some concrete actions the organization took in 2020. Recent developments have included a Portuguese interpreter for some youth programs and paid focus groups to hear from local BIPOC youth and adults about community needs. One of the community requests that emerged from the focus groups was the creation of a space specifically for LGBTQ+ and allied BIPOC youth. In response, BIPOC staff and peer leaders recently held the first two sessions of a four-session pilot.
We also asked Kay about plans on the horizon and their hopes for the future. They offered several: further collaboration with local cultural organizations; the possibility of working with Greater Boston PFLAG on a BIPOC parent and caregiver meeting; and their “personal dream” of a Queerceañera, a big party for Latinx families to celebrate their youth coming into their own, with lots of music and dancing.
“As a person of color, I know that I’m comfortable in our spaces, and when I’ve checked in with other colleagues of color, I’ve heard the same thing. We’ve built a great team of culturally competent people, and OUT MetroWest is a great place to work. What I want is for us to keep listening to BIPOC youth so they can share what would be fun and helpful for them!”
If you’re interested in doing similar work in your organization but aren’t sure where to start or how to make progress, Kay offered the following:
Talk about it. A lot. It might take a long time to get on the same page with everyone in your organization about making antiracism a priority. Everyone needs to understand why colorblindness or tokenism is not enough. Pursuing antiracism will require making big changes, shifting power, and dedicating resources. An antiracist team needs to be vulnerable, accountable, strategic, and creative.
To learn more about our programs and the work we do in the community, you can follow us on Facebook and Instagram. You can also learn more about our strategic plan and our organizational values and mission here on our website.