Orgullosa: The Intersections in Our Identities

When I wrote about the reasons why I choose to use the word Latinx, for myself and for A Way Home Washington’s organizational voice, I touched on the fact that within the community there are vast differences of opinion on the word. You’ll likely find just as many cases for embracing the word as you’ll find rejections of the word floating out there. For me, one of the strongest reasons to embrace Latinx is to recognize the intersections in our identities.

Last year, I read an interview with Pose actress Mj Rodriguez where she spoke about how as Latinx people we must evolve in our understanding and treatment of the LGBTQ+ community. Watching the season 1 Pose episode where Blanca sees her family for the first time in years made me deeply sad because I felt the scene could have taken place in the 80s (when the show is set) or in 2020. In the rejection of the word Latinx, I see a resistance to recognize and embrace queerness in our community.

As with all issues that disproportionately impact a certain community, we must dig deep into the root causes if we want to solve it. Just like people of color aren’t born predisposed to homelessness, Latinx people aren’t born predisposed to transphobia and homophobia. But we are raised in environments filled with the scars of colonialism and white supremacy, and we internalize narratives that oppress the LGBTQ+ community.

While Latin America is a region filled with people of Indigenous, African, and European roots, many cultural markers that we associate with latinidad today are the vestiges of European colonization. When the Spanish came to our shores, they were dually interested in the continent’s natural riches and in spreading Catholicism. To this day, some Latin American people and Latinx people in the United States point to their religion as the reason they discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. Even within the past few years, I have seen protests rise in my home country, Panama, opposing the notion that schools should teach children that trans and non-binary folx are part of our community, worthy of respect.

¡Orgullosa! Proud to be Latinx and pansexual!

As a pansexual Latina and an advocate to end young and young adult homelessness, untangling the web of beliefs that leads to discrimination within my community matters to me. First, because LGBTQ+ people are part of our Latinx community, and we deserve for our identities to be acknowledged and respected. And second, because when we say that LGBTQ+ young people and young people of color disproportionately experience homelessness, we must recognize that these two identities do not exist separately. Many young people are LGBTQ+ AND people of color, and I want to be part of a culture that cares for them and gives them homes where they can feel safe and loved.

“Con un dedo no se tapa el sol.” You can’t cover the sun with a finger. That’s what my father told me yesterday when I spoke to my parents about my desire to raise Latinx children who grow up knowing that LGBTQ+ folx are part of our community, worthy of respect. I chose to interpret that as a tiny concession in our generational divide, an acknowledgement that hiding the truth from children won’t get us to a better world. After that conversation, I thought about all the other Latinx children who’ve grown up to see that discrimination – whether it’s transphobia, homophobia, anti-Blackness among non-Black Latinx folx – has no place in our culture. That it was not a part of our culture to begin with, but has taken root after centuries of colonialism. We’re out here, talking to our elders, committing even before our children are born that they will feel safe and loved by us as they are. And I am hopeful that together we will be enough to create the culture our future needs.

We Can’t Collect Data Without Shifting Culture

June is Pride Month! To commemorate the Stonewall riots that took place in late June 1969, each year, across the United States, we join in countless festivities to honor the past. As we are continually reminded, during these revolutionary times, that riots have led to civil rights for marginalized communities, I wanted to turn our attention to the words of Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson. “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” At A Way Home Washington, we are working toward the liberation of LGBTQ+ young people in our system by centering LGBTQ+ data collection in our work to end youth homelessness.

We believe that to end youth homelessness we must end disproportionality within the homelessness system. According to True Colors United 2019 report, we know that 20-40% of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+ although 7-10% of the youth general population identifies as LGBTQ+. Washington is a leader in discussing Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) data collection but, in my humble opinion, it’s time for some implementation. SOGIE data is instrumental in ending youth homelessness for a population that greatly makes up the overall homeless population. With Black Trans Women disproportionally leading most horrible statistics, disproportionately showing up in murder statistics to name the most horrible, how do we equitably serve my community experiencing homelessness?

As I searched for “best practices” in this area, I kept running into a common problem that showed up for communities from San Francisco to New York City. Every community reported that LGBTQ+ folx do not trust systems with their SOGIE data. This is not surprising knowing how historically the HIV/AIDS epidemic ostracized and demonized queer men, specifically, creating a distrust in our medical system. This still plays out today as we saw transgender healthcare protections reversed under our current administration. During my time working in social services, as an employee, I experienced microaggressions around my gender identity and heard discriminatory comments made by staff due to their “misunderstanding” of young people’s sexuality and/or gender identity. Living out loud is not safe in or outside of our systems of care, so why would an LGBTQ+ community member entering homelessness trust us?

The first step is answering that question for yourself, then your agency, and then the broader system that your agency inhabits. We must shift the internal culture of our system, centering equity for LGBTQ+ and young people of color. This looks like interrogating our spaces, interactions, and responses to crisis through an anti-oppression lens. We also must critique what aspects of white dominant culture inhabit the “rules and regulations” that we follow to protect the clients as well as the folx serving them. Of course, there are big policy and legislative shifts, like insurance covering gender affirming surgeries and operations for your Transgender employees, but there are small changes that go a very long way, like making a Pride agency logo for June.

Sylvia Rivera at the Fourth Annual Christopher Street Liberation Day March, 1973. Photo by Richard C. Wandel 1973

When I think about LGBTQ+ inclusivity, safety, and security within a system I think about the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and the STAR House, founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera following the historic Stonewall Riots in New York City. Marsha and Sylvia saw that Transgender and Queer homeless youth were not getting their needs met and founded STAR to fill that gap. STAR was the first of its kind, but what would it be like if every youth homelessness shelter already incorporated safety and security for Trans and Queer homeless youth? What would it be like if transitional housing services were more thoughtful of the barriers to employment for Trans individuals? What if we all, in the youth homelessness sector, were so thoughtful and proactive about equity that LGBTQ+ young people felt safe wherever they turned for support? We need to create that system before we start asking folx to trust us with their SOGIE data.

Ending Police Violence Is Our Fight

Our Coaching and Improvement Coordinator Isaac explains why our sector cannot sit on the sidelines as our communities fight to end police violence. Please help us elevate community organizers’ demands in Seattle and send a message to Mayor Jenny Durkan calling for less policing and more community-based solutions,

I can’t start writing without acknowledging #GeorgeFloyd and the long list, spanning 400 years of American violence, of Black and Brown folks murdered by the state. The murder of Black and Brown folks by the state has been embedded in the history of the United States. As a Black person living in this country, I still struggle with finding ways to talk about this history and our current times like it’s not my own.

These murders are a reminder that this world does not see me as equal due to the color of my skin. I remember the words of James Baldwin, that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” My mother and grandparents made sure to keep me conscious, and suspicious, of the state at a young age. Even as they held positions in systems they called corrupt, we survived on truth, transparency, and the knowledge that things could be better.

Black and Brown families, youth and adults, keep disproportionally falling through the cracks of public services due to racial discrimination and/or bias within these systems. This struggle of calling for our “systems of care” to care for everyone has been carried for centuries by Black and Brown revolutionaries, but it’s not just my problem, or Black and Brown people’s problem. It is a problem for our whole society to solve.

As an advocate for ending youth homelessness, I do not struggle to talk about how the system fails young people experiencing homelessness, every day. What I do struggle with is knowing that this system is directly connected to the state-sanctioned violence that allows police brutality to disproportionally impact Black and Brown people. The overrepresentation of Black and Brown folks being arrested, over-policed, and ultimately gaslit into submission at the hands of the folks who are tasked with “protecting and serving” communities can easily be connected to the overrepresentation of Black and Brown youth in the homeless system. Black and Brown communities are at no fault in this overrepresentation, though our cultural narratives would have us believe so.

These narratives do not serve us in our work to end youth and young adult homelessness. As workers in this sector, we must adopt anti-racist practices to end the funneling of Black and Brown youth into our system. Black Lives Matter is our fight, as are the countless other movements demanding police accountability. Standing in solidarity with these protests is standing in solidarity with the 16-year-old Black young person who cannot access services due to biased federal mandates that rule our local shelters. It’s standing in solidarity with the 23 year old Latinx young person who lost all of their belongings in an encampment sweep.

The fact that large groups of folks experiencing homelessness can be categorized as a gang and jailed is police brutality. Calling to end youth homelessness must require our systems to end police brutality. Here are a few things we can do as a system:

  1. Listen to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) young voices to inform your system FIRSTAt a demonstration I recently attended, the organizers gave a safe space for young people to use their voice for change. In our system, you need to allow feedback from young people to better inform your practice. Those young people need to represent the disproportional number of BIPOC in our system. If you are noticing that you are listening to mostly white voices, you need to start asking why. Wherever you are at in elevating young people’s voices, you need to add an anti-racist lens. The youth are the future, so do not prematurely bury them with their ancestors by not listening to them.
  2. Collaborate with the advocacy of BIPOC folks in your communityFind your local Black Lives Matter affiliate and learn from their practices. During this time, we have seen millions of links to bail out funds, mutual aid funds, and meal trains. These programs have existed since the Internet began, and they have been organized by grassroots community efforts. Partnering with these efforts rather than creating this intricate maze of care that young people continuously struggle to navigate centralizes support. Ending youth homelessness looks like talking to all folks trying to change the world, so get connected!
  3. Create advocacy agendas and demands requiring police brutality and encampment sweeps to end in your communitiesIn Seattle, our police force has over $400 million to “protect and serve.” Our local organizers demanded the City cut that budget in half and reallocate those funds into community-based solutions. Could you imagine what we could do if part of that money was used to end youth and young adult homelessness? Imagine how much money the whole entire state has allocated to policing while we know that policing homelessness is not working. We need to advocate for these types of changes so that we can stop state-sanctioned violence at the hands of “protect and serve.’

George Floyd’s daughter recently was recorded saying her daddy changed the world. I imagine that Martin Luther King Jr’s kids, Malcolm X’s kids, and many other revolutionaries’ children felt the same. But what about the folks that are not elevated in the news? What happens to their kids? Our work is to make sure that they do not end up in homelessness. That they do not get exited from any program into homelessness. That they feel safe and secure in a world that historically has not protected them due to their skin tone. We need to stand with justice, and not the system that calls itself justice currently. The kind that is demanding that things change for the better. For all of us.

Safe Housing and Environmental Justice

On Earth Day, our Communications Director Sully reflects on how safe housing and environmental justice are intertwined.

When Governor Inslee kept $500,000 towards the Centralized Diversion Fund in the final state budget, we all let out a sigh of relief at A Way Home Washington. We knew that the COVID-19 outbreak meant lower revenues than expected and difficult decisions for the Governor, so we were all glad to see supports for young people experiencing homelessness remain intact. But at the same time, my heart felt heavy for the opportunities that the pandemic cost our state. It was especially hard to see $50 million towards reducing the effects of climate change disappear, because I am convinced that safe housing access and environmental justice are intertwined.

Environmental justice applies an equity lens to environmental issues. Communities of color and low-income households are disproportionately affected by issues like air pollution, industrial pollution, and climate change. The Front and Centered Environmental Justice Map shows that our state is no exception, and areas with higher numbers of people of color experience higher environmental health disparities. This is not a coincidence – it is the result of decades of discriminatory housing policies and environmental regulations that put flight paths and industrial waste dumps in these areas.

As advocates to end youth and young adult homelessness, we are working towards safe and stable housing for young people, and towards supports that help young people’s whole selves thrive. We cannot fully achieve either of these goals without environmental justice. In the past year, we’ve seen how the worsening effects of climate change are rendering homes unsafe and unstable around the world, and specifically affecting indigenous communities. In my homeland of Panama, the Guna people settled on the Caribbean coast after centuries of colonial displacement from their inland home, and now rising sea levels are displacing them once more. Bushfires in Australia wiped away thousands of homes, displacing thousands of aboriginal people and destroying their cultural sites. We cannot wait until wildfires in the Pacific Northwest push thousands of people out of their homes before we act decisively against climate change.   

Displacement is just the most obvious connection between environmental hazards and housing instability for vulnerable communities. As the COVID-19 outbreak unfolds, we’re seeing the more nuanced impacts of environmental injustice on communities of color. By now, we’ve likely all heard that pre-existing health conditions, like diabetes and asthma, put individuals at higher risk of developing complications from the virus. Some have even gone the extra step and made the connection that COVID-19 is impacting Black and Latinx communities more severely because these communities have higher rates of these pre-existing conditions. But we can’t stop there. We also have to face the reason why these communities have higher rates of these health conditions – systemic racism.

Systemic racism is responsible for everything from inequitable access to healthcare to the chronic stress caused by discrimination. It’s responsible for the poor environmental conditions of areas with large populations of people of color, an underlying cause of higher rates of asthma. Pair higher rates of asthma with greater representation among frontline workers still reporting to their jobs, and many people of color face a lose-lose situation: Go to work and put their health at risk, or lose their income.

So, how can we stop environmental injustice? Just like with ending homelessness, we need to think about upstream, system-level change. Individual actions to protect the environment, like reducing our personal consumption or single-use plastics or driving less often to lower our carbon emissions, can only take us so far. We need to continue these individual actions, and also advocate for systemic change, like holding corporations accountable for negative environmental impacts and investing in mitigation efforts that center people of color.

Start your journey as an environmental justice advocate by learning about the work already going on in our state. Organizations like Front and Centered and Got Green are leaders in environmental justice to follow, centering the experiences and leadership of people of color. Let’s work together to create a world where all young people are housed, and where every young person lives in a healthy environment!

What Does Diversity Mean to Us?

Since 2004, April has been designated Celebrate Cultural Diversity Month. We took a moment to reflect on how the conversation around diversity has changed over time, and how diversity, equity, and inclusion show up in our work and in our lives. Here’s what staff have to say:

How has the meaning of diversity evolved for you over the years?

Isaac: Growing up in the Midwest, I thought about diversity as having people of different shades and genders in large groups. Now, I think about diversity as representation and having different voices at the decision-making table.

Deonate: Empathy and inclusion have always been important to me, and as I’ve learned about more populations my view of diversity has grown, particularly in the workplace.

Erin: I grew up in a predominantly white, suburban Seattle neighborhood. In the 80’s and 90’s, I remember being taught in school and at home about cultures and traditions that were different from my own, while also receiving explicit and implicit instruction that “color-blindness” was the best approach. In my young adulthood I sought opportunities for cultural and linguistic exchange that allowed me to see my upbringing and its cultural norms from different points of view. In the last 10 years or so, I have been fortunate to develop and deepen personal and professional relationships that have taught me more about systemic racism and oppression, and have continued to expand my understanding of how and why diversity matters.

Jim: Initially I struggled with understanding the importance of stating my pronouns and and honoring others’ pronouns.  I now understand that not only was that an example of my privilege but an important piece of truly respecting other human beings including colleagues, friends, and loved ones.  I still forget sometimes to state my pronouns, and I realize that’s a reminder of the safety, comfort, and privilege that comes with my identity.

Describe a moment that illustrates the importance of approaching our work through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Elysa: Over the past year, I have been leaning in around my learning edge in equity work and how to check my own fragility.  Over the past year, I’ve noticed that I sometimes go in shutdown mode during conversations about dismantling white dominant culture and advancing equity in the workplace – I become silent and don’t lean into conflict. I’ve been trying to check myself, really be self-aware when I am in shutdown mode, and engage in courageous conversation and conflict. The fear of saying the wrong thing is ever present for me and I am trying to braver and step up because that’s how you grow and learn.

Sully: When we asked ourselves if it was possible to end youth and young adult homelessness without also advancing racial and LGBTQ+ equity, we knew the true answer was no. But we realized that under the current technical definition, communities could indeed claim to end youth and young adult homelessness without achieving equitable outcomes for young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people. I’m very proud of the work our Data & Evaluation Director Liz did to create a new definition so communities we work with do need to work toward equity measures as part of their journey to end youth and young adult homelessness.

How do you promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in your work or in your personal life?

Ashley: Being the parent of a white child, I’ve reflected on my own experience growing up and I am committed to ensuring my child does not see white people as “normal” or better. I didn’t have my first POC teacher until college, or my first Black teacher until grad school, so I’m invested in enrolling my child in schools with diversity in teachers, and also ensuring diversity in the toys my child plays with and the stories we read together.

Liz: I am conscious of the media I consume and who is the author and creator. I try as much as possible to seek out the perspectives of Queer Trans Black Indigenous and People of Color (QTBIPOC), people with disabilities, those most impacted by the issue at hand and those furthest from justice. I use social media to connect with other QTBIPOC from all over the world, and the supportive relationships I’ve formed with amazing people I wouldn’t have met otherwise have helped expand my worldview. I am so glad I have this supportive network in place as we face the COVID-19 outbreak.

Anne: When we order food for A Way Home Washington events, we’re committed to putting ‘our money where our mouth is,’ literally, and ordering from POC- or LGBTQ-owned businesses. I’ve made this commitment in my personal life as well.

What’s Next for the Anchor Community Initiative?

Our Anchor Communities have been making amazing progress to end youth and young adult homelessness, with one community reaching quality real-time data, and three out of four communities have completed the By-Name List Scorecard. It feels like the perfect time to highlight what’s next for A Way Home Washington and the Anchor Community Initiative.

As a refresher, the Anchor Community Initiative is based on the Built for Zero model, which has four phases. The first phase requires communities to achieve quality, real-time data. This has already been achieved by Pierce County, while Walla Walla and Yakima County are only a couple months away. The second phase is reducing. At this point, communities begin to implement improvement projects and use quality real-time data to evaluate the success of these projects.

So, what does reducing mean for to the Anchor Community Initiative? At a high-level, it means lowering the number of young people experiencing homelessness across the entire system. To start this process, our Data and Evaluation Director, Liz, has created different focus areas, or reducing process measures. Communities set goals around any of the following focus areas to start seeing reductions in their homeless numbers:

1. Lowering the number of unsheltered young people
2. Increasing the number of housing placements
3. Lowering returns from housing into homelessness
4. Lowering the average length of time young people experience homelessness

Pierce County is the first community to set a goal around one of these measures: They will focus on increasing housing placements by 30% by August 2020. As communities begin reporting race/ethnicity data and sexual orientation, gender expression and identity (SOGIE) data, they will be able to further refine their goals by adding an equity component. For example, if a community’s data shows that Black young people are housed at a lower rate than young people of other ethnicities, the community can set a goal around increasing housing placements for this population.

Communities will have access to a new tool to boost their reduction efforts: The Centralized Diversion Fund. Starting in July 2020, these flexible funds will be accessible to young people through local service providers to support them with costs like short-term rental assistance, move-in costs, and more. This will help young people stay housed and reduce the number of young people coming into the homeless system.

Youth and young adult engagement is a staple of the Anchor Community Initiative. Communities have laid the groundwork, and now they will continue to build towards the Gold Standard for youth and young adult engagement. Young people will be treated as experts and leaders in the work. This means that young people will be part of hiring, strategy development, and project implementation during this phase of the work, including choosing at least two reduction improvement projects.

Throughout all this work, we will capture best practices and successes in each community to share with other Anchor Communities and aid them in their processes. After reducing, the third phase of the work is ending youth and young adult homelessness. This means communities will create a Yes to Yes system where they have the capacity to support every young person who needs help and achieve equitable outcomes for young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people. We’re working hard to help communities end youth and young adult homelessness by the end of 2022 and sustain their achievement for generations to come!

 

 

What a Data-Driven Culture Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, trauma-informed practice and a data-driven culture. Our Data and Evaluation Director, Liz, writes about how data informs our work at A Way Home Washington.

You don’t count unless you’re counted.” It’s a common refrain in the data community, and for me it gets to the root of why we need data to achieve racial and LGBTQ+ equity. Data gives us the information we need to make informed decisions and to evaluate whether our initiatives are yielding equitable outcomes.

Data is the foundation of the Anchor Community Initiative. It all starts with a question that seems simple: “How many young people are experiencing homelessness in your community?” But we hear from our communities that answering this question is much more complex than it seems. It requires developing new processes to collect and analyze data, updating data infrastructure and building partnerships and protocols across all public systems of care. The first stage of the Anchor Community Initiative is about laying down the groundwork to answer this question in real time.

Liz taking her data expertise to the next level at the 2019 Tableau Conference

But the data work doesn’t stop there. It’s not enough to know how many young people are experiencing homelessness. We also need to know their race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity so we can address any disparities in their experiences. Are young people of color experiencing homelessness at higher rates? Are LGBQ young people returning to homelessness at higher rates? Are trans young people spending a longer time experiencing homelessness? Data will help us answer these questions and shine a light on equity issues within our system.

For this work to be effective, we need to ask critical questions of our data. Otherwise, inequities can hide behind the numbers, or a population may be entirely absent from our data set. This was the case at a national data conference I attended last year, where a Continuum of Care presented their data. I noticed that demographic data such as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity was not included in their data dashboards. When I asked the presenter about it, she said that they had no LGBTQ+ young people showing up in their data. She concluded that the community “didn’t have any LGBTQ+ young people”.

I cannot stress enough that just because a population, or multiple populations, are not showing up in data does not mean that they don’t exist. In our coaching work with Anchor Communities, we are asking constantly asking: Is the data accurate? Is our system counting everyone? Are we collecting data in a respectful and responsive way? The answer to all of these questions needs to be “yes” because the next stage of our work will be using this data to drive towards an equitable end to youth and young adult homelessness.

I’m extremely proud of the work that Anchor Communities are doing to embed a data-driven culture centered on racial and LGBTQ+ equity. Recently, Yakima made the local decision to collect sexual orientation data at youth and young adult Coordinated Entry access points. This change is an excellent example of how starting with data can lead to community-wide culture shifts. Ultimately, these shifts will create safer and more supportive environments for all young people experiencing homelessness, and especially for young people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+.

What Trauma-Informed Practice Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, a data-driven culture and trauma-informed practice. Our Coaching and Improvement Manager, Ashley, writes about how trauma informs our work at A Way Home Washington.

“When you get housed, staff is constantly hounding you to get a job and make the rent. When I was on the streets I couldn’t break down and fall apart, I had to stay strong every second. Now I’m in housing and feel safe for the first time in years, and I just need to lock myself in my room and feel my feelings. But no, they kick you out for that.”

This is how one young person described their experience in housing programs to me when I worked at The Mockingbird Society. I got to work closely with young people who exited homelessness into housing programs, and I heard stories of young people who were continually kicked out of shelter and housing. One lost their housing for three days after they returned smelling like weed. Another asked for a night away to attend their dad’s wedding, had their request denied and then got kicked out for going anyway. Yet another was asked to leave for being behind on their “productive hours.”

Trauma is ubiquitous and ongoing for young people experiencing homelessness. Young people of color and LGBTQ+ young folks must also survive racism, homophobia and transphobia while experiencing trauma. Feeling unsafe for long periods of time causes people to stay in a state of hypervigilance, or what young people call ‘survival mode’. They need to constantly watch their backs and focus on surviving the next night, so situations that may not feel threatening to a person who has not experienced trauma may lead to bigger reactions than housing program staff expect.

These are extremely difficult experiences, and young people are not healed the second they get housed. They can’t just switch off from survival mode immediately. Yet our programs and services are constructed as if they could. We want young people working, paying rent and being “productive” as soon as possible once they’re housed. We aren’t prepared to respond to young people’s reactions when they’re still living in survival mode. We expect them to live inside, often in group settings, with no peer conflict and with totally new coping mechanisms.

A system designed to serve young people wouldn’t result in so much cycling through programs. The fact that young people are able to navigate these systems that weren’t designed with their needs in mind is a testament to their resilience. In many cases, young people are relying on their own strength to survive and thrive despite of the system, not because of it.   

The Adolescent Health Working Group provider toolkit on trauma is a helpful resource

We need to transform the system and stop treating young people like their trauma will abruptly end the second they’re housed. On the individual level, we need to work with young people in ways that take their traumatic experiences into account, and we need to recognize their trauma responses for what they are. At a societal level, we need to dismantle toxic systems, policies and practices that create environments primed for trauma.

At A Way Home Washington, we are committed to transforming our statewide system in partnership with young people themselves. We need a system that sees each young person as whole, capable, smart and deserving. We want to address the root causes of homelessness and trauma to create a Yes to Yes system with the capacity to support each young person in the way each young person needs to be supported.

Recently, I attended a Learning Session hosted by Community Solutions. During one of the workshops, the facilitator asked participants to list the barriers to housing people may experience. The answers were familiar: No job. Refuses housing. Mental illness. And then, the facilitator asked us to change the way we think about these barriers. Instead of seeing these characteristics as barriers that keep people from being housed, we should think about the barriers our systems put up to keep people with these characteristics from being housed.

The Anchor Community Initiative is working to actively identify the barriers keeping their local systems from being responsive to young people. Communities then address these barriers through coaching and support from experts. If a barrier is too big for a single community to solve, we work in partnership with the Office of Homeless Youth to advocate for policy and funding changes at the state level. Through this approach, we know that we’ll be able to build trauma-informed Yes to Yes systems.

What Youth Partnership Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, a data-driven culture and trauma-informed practice. Our Coaching and Improvement Manager, Ashley, writes about what youth partnership means at A Way Home Washington.

In the youth homelessness world, we know that we need the expertise of young people with lived experience to improve systems. Throughout my entire career, I’ve worked in spaces that seek to empower youth. In that time, I’ve seen my share of missteps when it comes to youth engagement, and I’ve seen what it takes to achieve positive youth engagement.

 Some organizations operate under the premise that any access to leadership opportunities is good for young people, even when they haven’t had a say in shaping these opportunities. I’ve been shocked to see organizations lead Youth Advocacy Days with no policy agenda, much less one written by young people. In these instances, the opportunity to talk to state representatives is seen as benefit enough for young people.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen organizations gather input and recommendations from young people only to keep them out of project implementation. I remember one focus group where young people were invited to give their interpretation of a third-party dataset, and they spoke passionately on the topic. Afterwards, the facilitators never followed up with young people as they wrote a report based on their insights – a report that continues to be referenced nationally. I’ve seen this type of situation time and time again, where young people deliver important insights without their expertise being valued in the same way as that of older folks. They don’t get to own the ideas or products they’ve informed, and they’re not treated as partners in the work.

In a sector that’s committed to youth voice, choice and leadership, we can’t keep repeating these patterns. Young people with diverse experiences and identities must be involved in our work from idea to implementation. In these instances, young people can grow their skills, build connections and move toward stability, AND our systems improve through their involvement.

In the Anchor Community Initiative, we are working alongside young people and the community to re-imagine what co-creation means. Each Anchor Community team includes at least two young people with lived experience, and in the next phase of work we want to take youth partnership to the next level by:

Ashley poses for a selfie with Sierra, one of our youth partnership consultants

1)      Engaging a diverse group of young people. We’re building out youth engagement plans to make sure that multiple young people, with a diversity of experiences and identities, are involved in Anchor Community work.

2)      Developing young people as co-leaders. We’re helping communities move beyond simply having youth representation on their teams, and into co-creating meeting agendas, co-facilitating meetings and having key roles in the implementation of improvement projects.

I am thankful that it’s becoming the norm in the youth homelessness world to include young people with lived experience in the creation of the systems that will impact their lives. It is heartening to see older folks invite young people to their meetings and initiatives. But we need to be clear that this is only the first step in our journey to co-creating solutions with young people.

When we work with young people, we need to let go of the expectation that they need to adapt to older folks’ way of doing things. Our workplace norms were created according to the dominant culture – that means they align to the preferences of men, white people, older adults and so on. If we’re serious about working in partnership with young people – and to end youth and young adult homelessness we have to be! – we need to co-create spaces so everyone can be a full, respected participant in the process.

Why We Say Latinx

As an organization, we value equity and engaging communities in culturally sensitive ways. Our Communications Director, Sully, reflects on the importance of the words we use in our efforts to be an equitable and inclusive organization.

As a communications professional and an advocate for racial equity, I know that words have power. I carefully consider what every word I write for A Way Home Washington conveys about our organization’s values. I will always write about young people experiencing homelessness – not about “kids” or “the homeless” – because our values reject adultism and dehumanization. That care went into choosing the word Latinx for our organizational voice.

At the Central American Festival with a fellow Panamanian wearing one of our traditional dresses

I’ve spent a long time thinking about what it means to be Latinx. I was born and raised in Panama, and for the first nineteen years of my life, I was simply Panamanian. I moved to the United States as a college student, and I remember the exact moment when I realized that here, my identity was more complicated. My university offered a course called Hispanic Marketing, and a classmate asked me if I could complete a survey for US Hispanics to help her with an assignment for that course. As an international student, I did not feel that I fit in that label. But my classmate assured me that anyone living in the United States with ties to Latin America was considered a US Hispanic.

Since then, so many layers and nuance have been added to the way I identify. In my heart, I will always be Panamanian. But after ten years in the United States, I’ve learned that when people of color stand together, we are much stronger in our fight for justice. So I also identify as an immigrant, a person of color and a Latinx person.

I chose the word Latinx for myself because it aligns with my values. It is a word that was created by the community, unlike Hispanic, which was created by the US government. Spanish is a gendered language where every noun is either masculine or feminine, including nouns used to refer to people like Latino and Latina. When there is a group of mixed gender, even if it is a group of 9 people who identify as female and one who identifies as male, the group is always referred to as masculine. Using Latino to refer to the whole community centers masculinity, while Latinx decenters masculinity. Latinx also makes room for all gender identities and expressions since it is neither a masculine nor a feminine word. In a culture where LGBTQ+ identity is still stigmatized, I find it very important to stand with people who identify outside the gender binary. For all these reasons, it also felt right to choose Latinx for A Way Home Washington.

Now, it’s important to also recognize that the Latinx community is made of people with a wide variety of experiences, opinions and stories. That means that there is no community consensus on how to label our identity – look no further than the comment thread on any community website that uses the word Latinx to see the full range of emotion it stirs up. When it comes to individual people, we should always refer to them using the words they choose for themselves. But when we talk about the whole community, I choose the word that is most inclusive.

Racial equity is a journey with lots of learning along the way. That means we always need to be open to hearing different ways of thinking. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the idea that words like Latino and Latinx erase the indigenous roots of so many people from Latin America. If a few years from now, the community creates a new term that is even more inclusive than Latinx, my understanding of my identity and my community may continue to evolve, and the words I choose may change. Until then, I continue to be fiercely, proudly, loudly Latinx.