For the next part in our series about different types of youth work, we have an interview with Gemma Dunning who is currently working with LGBT youth in the UK.
1. What type of youth work do you do?
I am a Youth Worker in Charge for a UK based charity that supports young people under 25 years old who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) or those who are asking questions about sexuality and gender identity.
We are based on the South Coast of the UK and host different groups across the county as well as providing one to one support and educational training and support to local services such as schools and colleges.
2. What do you do in an average week?
The project aims to empower young people and raise their levels of participation, so my role is very much as a group facilitator. The young people dictate the shape and tone of the different groups and the activities we undertake, with each group having a different flavour.
This leaves me with the day to day admin and communication, as well as the supervision of volunteers and setting up of the space. The groups meet in the evening and much of my role involves hosting that night’s event, spending time with young people, providing pastoral care, engaging them in activities and undertaking harm minimisation work.
No two weeks are ever the same! Just a few weeks ago, our young people were involved in the delivery of a diversity conference attended by 14 different schools and a number of different local agencies. They were integral in planning the themes, hosting the day, delivering training workshops and engaging with other local young people to celebrate diversity. We are also already working on plans to make a real impact at our local Gay Pride event this coming summer.
3. How long have you been working with LGBT youth?
A year ago I ‘retired’ from full time Church based youth ministry due to ill health and made a decision to engage with a pre-existing LGBT charity in order to challenge myself and continue my professional development. I have always found myself in positions of pastorally supporting LGBT young people within the church and wanted to look at this issue with a new perspective.
4. What other types of youth work have you done previously?
Prior to this I was a full time Church based youth worker with the Salvation Army in the UK. This role saw me engaging with a variety of community based youth programmes as well as working as a Secondary (11 – 18 years old) School Chaplain and delivering a creative alternative education programme.
5. What age range do you work with?
The project works with young people under 25, however most of the young people we support are 14 – 21 years old.
6. What’s unique about working with LGBT youth?
It’s a safe space for young people to be open about who they are and how they are feeling without being judged. It can be hard for LGBT young people to engage with mainstream youth projects for fear of rejection and bullying. Despite the perception that society is now a tolerant and accepting place, the reality in the UK is that 96% of gay young people hear homophobic remarks at school, making the group meetings we create a safe haven for many vulnerable young people.
As for the content, people often expect us to only undertake LGBT activities. However, as with mainstream youth projects we get involved in art, games, informal education, trips, etc. but we are specific about our intentions & the membership criteria. We engage the young people in the wider LGBT community and provide a bridging service to them accessing other specific professional services.
7. What are some of the good things about LGBT youth work?
It’s a privilege to see young people grow in their sense of self worth and identity – to be part of the journey with young people discovering who they are is a complete gift. We grab hold of fun and utilise every opportunity we can to celebrate life and the successes of the young people. The ability to throw a good, safe, party is an essential job requirement!
8. What are some of the challenges of it?
Many of our young people face so many daily obstacles, it means life for them can seem like an unending losing battle. For many young people, the process of coming out is a daily battle rather than a one-off, where they have to explain themselves and face daily discrimination.
As a youth worker, it can be hard to see young people consistently hurting at the hand of others and unfortunately some of the young people attempt, and succeed, in suicide.
9. Why are you passionate about working with LGBT youth?
The statistics surrounding suicide and depression in LGBT teens are disturbing. Here in the UK, a transgender young person is 170 times more likely to attempt suicide than any other British Citizen, with 96% of students experiencing homophobic language at school where their attendance is required for 14 years.
I believe youth workers have the power to transform this – they can have a positive effect supporting young people, educating the wider community and being a positive role model. We can demonstrate what loving and caring well for others really looks like and this will impact the lives of real young people.
10. What would you recommend for someone wanting to get into this type of youth work?
Find a local project already undertaking work with LGBT youth and start volunteering. Seek every learning opportunity and be prepared to listen to the stories of others.
11. Is there any special training or qualifications required?
Be the best general youth worker you can be and then top that up with as many local professional training courses as possible! I am currently undertaking an MA in youth work with a JNC qualification, but I also have professional training in subjects such as Sexual Health, HIV/AIDS, Transgender Awareness, Challenging Difficult Behaviour, etc.
12. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
All youth workers will engage with LGBT or Questioning young people at some stage on their youth work journey. However, often we are unprepared and unaware of the needs of young people, so why not get ahead of the game!
Even if it isn’t a majority issue in your youth work now, seek out good informative resources, undertake a professional training day and ask your employer those policy questions on how your organisation supports LGBT young people. You have the power to change the lives of young people in your community, so be the change you want to see.
Gemma Dunning has been a Professional Youth & Community worker for 12 years across a wide range of settings. She has a BA in Applied Theology with Family & Community specialism and is currently at the dissertation writing stage of a Master’s in Applied Theology with Youth and Community specialism with Gloucester University, in England. Gemma has provided training for youth workers in England and the USA and is passionate about inclusion and diversity.
You can follow her on Twitter at @gemmadunning.
Please feel free to use the comments below if you have any questions about working with LGBT youth. If you’re also a youth worker with LGBT young people, we’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments too.
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