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A State Program Interview on LGBT Youth Initiatives

Laurie Lehmker Johnson, Executive Director, CASA Mississippi in Gulfport, MS

Read about how CASA Mississippi has utilized Lambda Legal's “Moving the Margins” curriculum and a video “For the Bible Tells Me So” to train advocates in rural Mississippi.

How did your work with LGBT youth start?

As a state organization we started working with LGBT youth a couple of years ago. I was really searching for something that would work for our program and I didn’t find a lot of resources. Louisiana CASA opened up a couple of seats at a training they were putting on called “Moving the Margins: Working with LGBTQ Youth in Out of Home Care.”

Why is this important in your community?

We saw an increase in the number of youth coming out to our volunteers, family members and foster parents. We knew the need was there.

What initiatives are you currently working on around LGBT youth?

I was trained as a trainer in 2009 in the “Moving the Margins” curriculum, and we delivered our first training in 2010. Since then, we have had quite good participation. At the first couple of trainings I had a couple of hecklers. I was able to create a safe space for them to say what they need to say. We want to have people understand what LGBT youth go through: greater risk for substance abuse, running away, suicide, bullying, being ejected from placement, chronic depression to name a few. We want volunteers and others to understand what the impact of their potential reaction is on the youth. Also through these trainings, we assist in developing an action plan within their diversity plan.

We’ve made changes to our own forms that we provide to our staff, board, advocates and youth to be make them more LGBT friendly – adding partner as an option, adding gender options. We changed a lot of our language and the way our office looked. Some languages in our policies were also changed to be more supportive and non-discriminatory. We looked to see if our environment was friendly, open and affirming and if youth would be comfortable accessing services there.

How have these initiatives impacted the advocates and youth they serve?

Overall as an organization, we have worked to be more inclusive and change our culture to be more LGBT friendly. There are fears around safety issues for LGBT youth. Most of our youth, if they’re not already out, don’t come out easily in care. We work to have knowledgeable and understanding advocates and staff that the youth can feel comfortable talking to. We talk a lot to not "out" a youth and to give them a safe space to not be openly gay if they aren’t ready. Things are really, really improving and we have been surprised by the initiatives that others in the state are involved with to make lives better.

What is your greatest achievement since starting these initiatives?

I was invited to speak at the 2012 NFusion Conference that works to provide support and services to LGBT youth by engaging youth, families and communities. This was the second year that this conference had been held. We had increased participation from 150 people in 2011 to 800 people in 2012! The planning team had recruited outstanding speakers like Wade Davis and trainers from Lambda Legal. It was so amazing to see over 800 people cared about getting trained on how to support and provide compassionate care for LGBT youth. I was very proud to be a part of this!

How did your community initially respond to your initiatives? Were you nervous with rolling it out? Were you surprised with any reactions?

We were nervous when we first started, and there was the occasional person who personally has a fundamental or religious issue. Many of the issues we see with services to youth and youth coming out are the traditional values and preaching against homosexuality within some of the more conservative churches. We are in a rural area and it can be quite conservative. We utilize a movie called “For the Bible Tells Me So” and we have seen that it does help some look at things a little differently. It has some information about the way the Bible could or could not be interpreted and how it changes for people when it is their own family members.

What advice would you have for other CASA/GAL programs interested in starting a LGBT initiative in their community?

Be brave and accepting! We have a perceived fear on how people will react on these initiatives. We can make progress and get better. When you come to the table, be honest and appreciate the honesty of others so we can ultimately serve the youth with love and compassion. And we have to accept that others may or may not believe the same thing…yet! This is the road to effecting change.

Also check out Post Secret. It has a lot of youth who post about sexual abuse and sexuality and provides insight into the fact that others are going through the same issues and feelings that the youth we work with may have. It has been a great resource for our youth, especially in our rural area.

Next steps: is to create a state-wide coalition of other organizations for LGBT youth. When I saw the 800 people at the NFusion conference, I knew there would be enough support to start organizing statewide. It has to be done. It strengthens your resolve to do this work.

 

The links are provided as a source of information sharing. National CASA does not directly endorse any of these organizations.

 

 

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