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Notes from the field: Working together to create a better community for all

By Ali Munshi, Heart of the Valley YMCA

This past summer, the Reston Pride Festival was held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Northern Virginia and was bursting at the seams with rainbows, Pride flags and all things LGBTQ-friendly. There were couples, families and friendly faces of all ages squeezing past each other to gather swag from the booths and chat with various organizations. To my surprise, one of those organizations was the YMCA. I remember exclaiming, “What is the Y doing here?”

I was excited to learn that the YMCA is making an intentional effort to be a more inclusive and welcoming space for all. I could have never predicted how involved I would become with this work.

Later that summer, I moved to Huntsville, Alabama and decided to start the state’s first GLSEN Chapter to help support local LGBTQ youth. GLSEN (pronounced as “glisten”) was originally founded in 1990 to improve the education system for LGBTQ students. After seeing the Y’s presence at Pride, I thought maybe the YMCA would be an opportunity for collaboration. I contacted our local Y and that lead me to Bev Capps, District Executive Director of the Heart of the Valley YMCA.

Photo courtesy of Ali Munshi

When I talk about Bev, the first word that comes to mind is: serendipitous. At our first meeting, I remember her saying, “Tell me how I can help.” In many ways, GLSEN and the YMCA were well-positioned to support one another. GLSEN trains teachers and youth-serving professionals; the YMCA works with youth. In addition, the Heart of the Valley YMCA had recently been chosen to be a part of the Biden initiative, and were looking for ways to become more inclusive of LGBTQ members and more welcoming for non-members. Now that GLSEN Greater Huntsville was becoming a chapter, the timing seemed perfect!

We immediately began brainstorming ways we could work together. Staff training? Inclusive policy changes? Diverse lending libraries, where adults and youth could freely borrow books and other materials? Diversity and Inclusion lesson plans for early childhood teachers and daycare workers? LGBTQ teen programs and outreach? There was (and still is) no shortage of ways we could work together to create a better community for everyone.

Today, I am still thrilled to be an integral part of this process. Alabama is not known as being the most welcoming place for the LGBTQ community, however we’ve discovered that so many people here are committed to positive change—the kind of change that allows everyone to feel safe and supported. We know we can make a difference, and we’re excited about the future!

UPDATE: That welcoming guy staffing the booth at Reston Pride turned out to be Paul Raker, Associate Executive Director at the Anthony Bowen Branch YMCA. Our paths crossed again this past week at the 2019 Biden Harvest Session and HRC Foundation’s Time to Thrive conference in Anaheim, CA. Discovering our connection may have been my weekend’s highlight. He helped bring me to this point, which makes me wonder: How many other lives are being changed for good by the Y’s intentional effort to be an inclusive and welcoming space for all?

About the Author:  Ali Munshi (she/her) is a member of the LGBTQ Initiative Task Force of the Heart of the Valley YMCA.  A military spouse, mom and former teacher, she co-chairs GLSEN Greater Huntsville, Alabama’s first GLSEN chapter.

Heart of the Valley YMCA was chartered in Huntsville, Alabama in 1910 to respond to the needs of mill workers in the community. Today, our Y encompasses a five-county service area including Madison, Marshall, Limestone, Morgan and Jackson counties and serves our community through seven facilities: three membership branches (Southeast and Downtown Ys in Huntsville and Hogan Y in Madison); YMCA Camp Cha-La-Kee, our resident camp in Guntersville; and three Early Childhood Education Centers in Downtown, Southeast and Northwest Huntsville.

In 2018, we served more than 50,312 individuals and more than $1.1 million was given back to our community in scholarships for membership and programs. More than 14,210 youth ages 17 and under were served through Y programs and membership. Our Y served more than 25,167 adults in 2018. Currently, the Y is serving 27,932 members in 9,796 households.