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Notes from the field: Planting seeds of equity

By Cody Bushong, YMCA of Western North Carolina

This country has made great progress in support of the LGBTQ+ community, however according to the 2018 Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation LGBTQ Youth Report, only 24 percent of LGBTQ+ youth feel they can be themselves at home, and only 27 percent feel they can be themselves at school. Where can youth feel free of judgment and safe enough to be their authentic selves? This was my challenge… until I found the Y.

As a native to the mountains of Western North Carolina, I learned firsthand the reality of being an LGBTQ+ identifying youth in a rural town. There is fear. Fear of what could happen if your small, close-knit community were to find out one of their own was somehow different. I did what any teen with a secret would do… I hid. I found comfort and solace at my local YMCA. There, it didn’t matter who I felt attracted to, I could be myself without fear, judgment or persecution.

I have since moved from that rural community to Asheville, NC, and that local YMCA that taught me to swim and welcomed me for who I was, is part of the YMCA association I now work for. Asheville is a community that prides itself on its love and acceptance for all, which makes being openly gay a little easier. But how do we ensure that the LGBTQ+ community feels welcome at all of our YMCA locations?

My colleague and I had the honor of representing our association at YMCA of the USA’s (Y-USA) LGBTQ Inclusion & Equity Initiative Harvest Session and at the Annual HRC Foundation Time to Thrive conference. There, we found the answer we had been looking for: intentionality.

Y-USA’s LGBTQ Inclusion & Equity Initiative launched in May 2018 in partnership with the Biden Foundation, and the initiative’s first Harvest Session convened 10 cohort YMCAs to debrief and discuss the work they have done for their LGBTQ+ communities over the year. The remarkable impact the YMCA of Western North Carolina and our fellow cohort Ys had made in our communities included adopting more inclusive language on forms and signage, participating in local PRIDE events, facilitating trainings and workshops, and lifting up and celebrating local LGBTQ+ stories. As our colleagues from the Atlanta Y put it, “We are planting seeds of equity.” These intentional actions are becoming part of the way our Ys do business and we look forward to the fruit those seeds will bear.

The remainder of our time was spent at the HRC Foundation Time to Thrive conference, a conference focused on promoting safety, inclusion and well-being for LGBTQ+ youth everywhere. We heard and participated in unforgettable and empowering stories, speeches, conversations, and workshops. Key takeaways included the importance of intentionally starting with love in all we do, sharing foundational knowledge about the LGTBQ+ community, and ensuring that LGBTQ+ individuals can see themselves represented in our marketing and community outreach efforts.

While huge strides have been made towards LGBTQ+ equality, there is still work to be done and with small intentional actions, the Y can be the positive and welcoming place so many LGBTQ+ youth need.

About the author: Cody Bushong serves as an Onboarding Specialist and volunteer Vice Chair of the LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group for YMCA of Western North Carolina. Also featured in the photo is Ashley M. Tee, who serves as Member Engagement/Youth and Family Director and Volunteer Chair of the LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group for YMCA of Western North Carolina.

About the Y: The YMCA of Western North Carolina was founded in 1889 and serves the counties of Buncombe, Henderson and Marion, North Carolina with eight branches, one resident camp (Camp Watia), and 24 afterschool sites – serving more than 103,000 individuals in 2018.