Critical Conversations: An Interview with Stephanie Perron and Bárbara DaSilva with Sunny Hills Services’ Our Space Program for LGBTQ Youth
Editor’s Note: In July of 2014, StoryCenter led a workshop with young LGBTQ identified people brought together by the Our Space program, which provides mental health and social support for queer youth. In this interview, Stephanie Perron and Bárbara DaSilva of Our Space talk about what the process of developing stories was like and about how the young people’s videos are being shared. View this amazing collection of stories online.
StoryCenter: Now that a couple of years have passed since our digital storytelling workshop with Our Space, can you talk about what the experience was like for you as an adult ally, to see the stories come into being?
Stephanie: The process of supporting queer and trans youth in developing their stories was incredibly powerful for me. I am a firm believer that, as an adult, it is a privilege to get to work with young people and walk with them on their journeys. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity. From my perspective, as an adult ally, the young people we worked with were open, raw, honest, self-reflective, and intentional throughout the digital story making process. They showed such kindness and fierce love towards one another as they learned technical video making skills and supported each other in processing feelings related to their stories.
I think what stuck with me the most about this experience was the young people’s commitment to sharing their truths and their experiences towards making mental health services safer for LGBTQ youth, particularly LGBTQ youth of color. LGBTQ youth and youth of color often experience violence as a result of truth telling, so the decision to share with such vulnerability is not made lightly. The fact that this group of young people chose to speak so openly is something that will stay with me always.
StoryCenter: The focus of our collaboration with Our Space was not only on supporting youth in sharing stories, but also on producing stories for use in a training curriculum designed to build the skills of mental health providers in Alameda County, for working with LGBTQ youth. Why did you feel it was so important to include first-person narrative perspectives, as part of these materials?
Bárbara: As the saying goes, “Nothing about us without us.” At Our Space, we truly believe in centering the experiences of LGBTQ youth—especially youth of color—to inform the services that we provide in their communities. When offered the opportunity to create a training curriculum for mental health providers working with LGBTQ youth, we wanted to make sure to include the actual voices of youth who are systematically left out or erased of many training curriculums. In the process of creating their digital stories, participants recognized the importance of their own voices and unique perspectives as LGBTQ youth within the mental health system. Their seven individual stories, along with the “Love Letter,” a collaborative digital story created by all of the participants, are an authentic and engaging training tool for providers to gain first-hand insight on the mental health struggles, needs, and resiliency of LGBTQ youth. The young people’s experiences and insights provide invaluable guidance for improving mental health services. They shared their stories with the hope that by giving providers a true glimpse of what it is like to live as LGBTQ youth, they will help improve the Alameda County mental health system for the other LGBTQ youth in their communities.
StoryCenter: What was the process of creating the curriculum like? What kinds of information and activities are included?
Bárbara: Creating the Critical Conversations curriculum was an entirely collaborative process with the youth. After producing the digital stories with seven youth, we hired two of the youth participants to co-author a facilitation guide to ensure the most effective use of the digital stories at various agencies. Through the process of developing this Critical Conversations guide, the youth and I hosted forums, presentations, trainings, and field-tests, so that the curriculum would be informed by the knowledge and experiences of LGBTQ and provider communities.
The overarching goal of this multimedia curriculum is to empower service providers to initiate what we call “critical conversations” in their workplaces, regarding the experiences and needs of LGBTQ youth impacted by the mental health system. By offering providers the tools they need to host a critical conversation, we aim to utilize shared knowledge, the art of storytelling, and agency-wide conversations so that providers can positively shift organizational culture in serving LGBTQ youth in their agencies, ultimately making mental health services in our communities safer and more welcoming. In its finished form, the guide includes:
- Key Concepts for better understanding and explaining the differences between assigned sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
- Digital Stories Viewing Guide, including main points, keywords, discussion questions, and references to discussion themes for each story.
- Discussion Themes generated by LGBTQ youth and mental health providers, which assist providers in better understanding the digital story topics and framing and directing the “critical conversations” at their agencies.
- Action Planning Worksheet for providers to set goals and concrete steps as they plan for critical conversations.
- Checklist and Skill Sheet for Facilitators, which features a list of things for facilitators to consider before, after, and during a critical conversation.
- Critical Conversation Lesson Plan Sample to support providers in planning a critical conversation.
- A Glossary for facilitators and participants to reference during critical conversations.
- Critical Conversation Handouts, including:
- Digital Story Reflection Worksheet for participants to use in capturing their thoughts and reflections during and after story screenings;
- Thank You Letter to Our Dream Provider, created by digital story participants to be handed to providers as an inspiration at the end of a critical conversation; and
- An LGBTQ Resource List with informational resources for providers, and helpful resources for LGBTQ youth, to be handed to providers at the end of a critical conversation.
StoryCenter: Now that the curriculum has been circulating, can you talk about what kinds of feedback you’ve gotten, about both the digital stories and the various activities?
Bárbara: We have received lots of positive feedback from Alameda County providers during our trainings and presentations. Here are just a few quotes:
“Hearing the personal experiences of Transgender youth was eye-opening.”
“The materials were great - very easy to incorporate as I lead my own training [at my agency].”
“I realized that I have been waiting for outside trainings to provide my organization with information [about working with LGBTQ youth], when I am capable of doing this myself.”
StoryCenter: If you could put out one hope you have for what these powerful stories will achieve, in the world, what would it be?
Bárbara: My hope is that these stories serve to de-stigmatize the experiences of queer and trans youth in the mental health system. I hope providers are able to listen to each story and recognize their own role in de-stigmatizing the experiences of queer and trans youth in their own practice, within their agencies, and across the broader mental health system. At the end of the Critical Conversations curriculum, providers are asked to write down at least one action they will take to be an ally to queer and trans youth they work with. I hope that this self-reflection and self-improvement can be a consistent practice for mental health providers in serving LGBTQ youth and becoming better allies, in Alameda County and around the world.