Practices for Starting and Expanding Engagement with LGBTQ+ Youth

By Jacob Toups, National Mentoring Resource Center

In July of 2020, at one of the hardest points in American history with the impact of COVID-19, I decided to tackle a challenge I saw in my own community – mentoring for LGBTQ+ youth. We just won a major Supreme Court case upholding protections for LGBT+ professionals in the workplace. In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, legalized it in all fifty states, and required states to honor out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses in the case Obergefell v. Hodges. After decades of movers, shakers, and leaders in the LGBTQ+ space championing our rights, we have started to make monumental progress. So I thought, who is reaching out to the next generation of LGBTQ+ youth to educate and support them on all the progress we’ve made?

This launched us into creating Rainbow Labs, a nonprofit that emboldens Queer and Gender Nonconforming Youth to discover, curate, and experiment with the elements of a fulfilled life through community building and the lived experiences of mentors. MENTOR was the first organization we reached out to to get advice in launching a new mentoring program. Unfortunately, the best practices were light and for good reason. Their research stated that for every 5,000 mentoring programs in the US only 5 focus on LGBTQ+ youth. This seemed like a field that could use more energy, talent, and resources to grow.

After a year of planning, our program design team and advisory board launched One Bold Summer in Los Angeles. One Bold Summer is a mentoring pilot program, 9 weeks long, with 50 LGBTQ+ youth and 10 LGBTQ+ mentors. We ran focus groups with LGBTQ+ youth, talked to practitioners in the field, read the research, and pulled all our collective knowledge together to shape this program. With the best practices from our pilot program we’ll become a fully-fledged afterschool program launching January 2022. Here are a few learnings we’ve identified over the last year in our work building our summer pilot program:

LGBTQ+ Training & Youth Providers: We Need More

We had an immense interest and support from existing youth providers in Los Angeles to support the outreach efforts for our summer mentoring program. What we learned was providers wanted to support their LGBTQ+ youth, but they didn’t have the skills or knowledge about the community to conduct intentional outreach. To support them, we looked for training at the intersection of mentoring, youth development and LGBTQ+ youth, but we fell short. We pulled in an LGBTQ+ expert, Jacob Rostovsky, and several others to design a one hour training. This provided some assurance to our youth provider partners on outreach.

Listen To LGBTQ+ Youth

Language is very important in this field – from pronouns, gender, sexual orientation, and more. There isn’t a manual on educating youth on their own discovery. With that, it means LGBTQ+ youth may actually provide the kind of information you need to structure your program to be LGBTQ+ friendly. Everything from program design, training, and even your location. Running focus groups with LGBTQ+ youth heavily informed our summer program strategy of what kinds of mentors do we need to recruit, how often should the program run, what kinds of activities do we provide, and what LGBTQ+ youth wanted to gain from a mentoring program. One important note we got from a participant in our focus group stated, “We just want a place to be a kid. Often times we have to grow up and be an adult so quickly in this community.” So, when in doubt always go back to making your programs a place where LGBTQ+ youth can feel like any other kid.

Caring and Consistent LGBTQ+ Mentors

What LGBTQ+ youth expressed in their focus groups with us is that the most important factor in being an LGBTQ+ mentor was being caring and consistent. They held strongly that their life is unstructured and uncertain from discovery of who they are to who they can trust. Mentors who don’t show up consistently aren’t enough to provide the level of support LGBTQ+ youth need. This community, like many others, deserves mentors who can show up on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. This means youth mentoring programs who strongly rely on volunteers may need to re-think how they structure their mentoring program. For us this summer, we have mentor teams – two mentors – who provide group and one-on-one mentoring. This assures that safety, trust, and security remain strong between our mentors and mentees – especially when life or events pull mentors away suddenly.

This field continues to grow and we have a lot to learn. My hope for this field is the continued innovation and growth of programs across the U.S. We need more mentoring programs for LGBTQ+ youth which feeds best practices and resources for the field.

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