Inclusive Learning Spaces for the LGBTQ2S+ Community

Inclusive Learning Spaces for the LGBTQ2S+ Community

0 4 20 January 2020

This week's guest blog comes to you from the CALP Team at Alberta Advanced Education: Interview with Brenda Barritt on inclusive learning spaces for the LGBTQ2S+ community.

Brenda Barritt is the former Manager of the Stettler Learning Centre, and developer of the CALP training, “Holding Safer Spaces for Adult Learners”.Brenda Barritt

For reference, LGBTQ2S+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning, and Two-Spirited, and all Sexual and Gender Minorities.

1. Tell me about how Stettler Adult Learning works to provide an inclusive environment for your learners, especially folks from the LGBTQ2S+ community?

A couple years ago, we as a team established diversity and inclusion principles and brought them to our board for approval. These statements coincide with the code of conduct for employees. We didn’t specifically focus on sexual orientation and gender identity; the conversation started at a point more focused on visible and cultural minorities, because that’s where we have more experience and comfort, but quickly expanded to include neuro-diversity, learning styles, and diversity overall. It is about being a safer and more welcoming space for all. Along with having all employees agree to uphold these principles within the code of conduct and adding them to the board’s governance handbook, we also posted them around the building hoping to make them explicit to everyone who comes through our doors and to hold the organization accountable to them.

It was really in the last year that we started to specifically look at our internal documents and forms from the point of view of gender expression and sexual orientation. Our registration forms have broader categories than just male or female, in alignment with grant reporting.  We had conversations within the team as to how we could solicit this information and ask these questions in a way that we would be comfortable, while also making it safe for learners to disclose. It’s still a process for us as an organization to find out what it means for us to be inclusive. Asking these questions of ourselves is an important start.

Some of our new staff and facilitators are members of the transgender community or identify in diverse ways. Getting to practice using they/them pronouns in a practical, not theoretical, way has been a good provocation along the way for all of our own journeys.

2. How did your organization first approach this work?

What provoked us to be more explicit and be more conscious about this was actually a grant application that we were submitting. As part of the application process, they wanted to know about our diversity policy. We didn’t have something explicitly written yet, but I took the opportunity to start this conversation with our team to craft what our principles would be and took them to the board for confirmation. We needed something for a grant application, but we used this as a bigger exercise and opening for the organization. These principles are a direction and aspiration. Our board make-up and our staff are still, in many respects, not very diverse. But the policy led to hiring practices with a different set of lenses to ensure a more equitable way at looking at resumes.

We are also more trauma-informed and acknowledge how trauma impacts learning, and how learners approach learning as adults. This expands into understanding and being more welcoming and inclusive in sexual orientation and gender expression. It is my belief that anybody who is not heterosexual and cis-normative has had to deal with trauma in their life growing up and that some of the trauma was likely experienced within the walls of education institutions. So as Stettler Adult Learning looks at being more trauma-informed and becoming more aware of the types of experiences that have impacted people, we need to make sure we’re not replicating those institutions that created the trauma.

3. Why do you think that inclusivity of diverse gender identities and sexual orientation is important in the Community Adult Learning Program?

In CALP, our focus is on vulnerable adults. I believe it is incredibly uncomfortable and isolating, if not traumatizing, to be an adult in rural Alberta who isn’t cis-gendered and heterosexual. If we want to be allies to our target learners, we can’t ignore this and we have to be proactive in our own practices and approaches.

4. When it comes to gender identity specifically, do you have any advice for CALP staff on how to engage with adult learners on their gender identity in a respectful and safe way for them, including when collecting demographics information for reporting?

Feeling safe enough to disclose different parts of ourselves may take time. When we’re talking about how learner intake is done, is it “here’s a form and a checklist?” Or can it be more of a conversation? We are filling in the demographics as we get to know a learner and elements of information come up at appropriate points in the conversation. For me, it’s the simple question of asking “How do you identify?” and the fact that we don’t question their answers. We can take what they tell us and fit that into the boxes that we are given to fill. I’m still learning to use the right words and to build a comfort with them that makes them a natural part of my vernacular. But I keep coming back to 'simply' building a practice to invite each person (when it feels appropriate and natural) to tell me how they identify and what language works for them. 

I think that showing that we’re making an effort, even when we get it wrong, is really important. Perhaps a lot of people are hesitant to ask the question or try out the language because they’re afraid to offend. I think as long as we’re aware of when we get it wrong, but show that we want to learn and be better at it, that is still a step forward and much better than not doing anything at all. We need to ask how do we frame our questions to be inviting and open-ended enough – for people who are gender-fluid, culturally diverse, neuro-diverse, or however a learner identifies and what experiences they have – so that we’re inviting them to disclose wherever they’re at in their journey. We need to ask these questions when and where the learner feels safe. If our approach changes, collecting personal demographic data can change in the future as we get to know our learners better.

We’re fortunate that we have staff that are neuro-diverse and gender fluid. I have asked them for their feedback on the forms and the physical space we have created, and have taken their feedback. The biggest takeaway is that people know you’re authentic in wanting to do better by being more inclusive.

5. What are some physical and visible things or actions that CALPs can do to signal that they are an open and safe space for folks from the LGBTQ2S+ community? You mentioned the code of conduct on the walls – anything else?

There are signs that you can put up in your windows and walls that signal that we’re open to the conversation. We have a poster that says “This is a safe space.” Also, displaying the transgender flag or the rainbow flag helps to signal an open and safe space. There are steps an organization can take on Google My Business to mark your organization as a safe and welcoming space. But if you are going to make these signals, you also need to make sure that staff have awareness of the people that these signs are intended for.

Safe Space poster

I am making it a practice to include my pronouns in my signature files, nametags, and other public identifiers. It’s not like I worry about someone getting my pronouns wrong. But by me putting my pronouns in these places, it’s normalizing that conversation. And hopefully it’s inviting people whose pronouns are they/them, or whose pronouns may be he/him even when social conditioning might have another person default to using her, to be able to disclose and ask to have their accurate pronouns used. It shouldn’t always be people who are diverse from social norms to always be the ones doing the heavy lifting in clarifying, stating, or asking for something different. I’ve been trying to bring that perspective in whenever I host a new group. I use my preferred pronouns as part of my introduction of myself so that, if there is somebody who needs to disclose something, it’s not as heavy. It’s taking on some of the lifting.

6. Are there any resources you would recommend for CALP-funded organizations to make their space more welcoming for adult learners from the LGBTQ2S+ community?

There are many fiction and non-fiction books out there that help you build understanding and comfort.  A book I read that opened me up was the recently published "I'm Afraid of Men - Men are Afraid of Me" by Vivek Shraya (from Calgary). I had this book on my work shelf and I know a couple of our staff also read it. 
Personally, Heather Plett's work and modules related to privilege and power supported me in exploring my own role in being an ally and accomplice (and this content does show up in the Holding Safer Spaces PD that I am working on with Heather, currently piloting in the CALP system).  At the 2019 Literacy and Learning Symposium the Edmonton Centre for Race and Culture had a booklet available called “Race and Respect” that has a lot of exercises on the topic of power and privilege. Even though they’ve written this booklet from a race and culture perspective, it’s applicable across those broader conversations. 

Find your local advocacy groups and connect with them, for example the Transgender and Non-Binary Aid Society in Red Deer has been a great resource for me.

Be the instigator in your community and host a SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression) awareness workshop that allows those who are curious and want to know more to come and learn. We were fortunate to be approached by B Adair (Just B Diversity & Inclusion) to pilot his workshop in Stettler and had several staff attend.

7. In Closing….

I feel very unqualified to speak on this topic as I know am privileged to be a white heterosexual female. However, I feel it is important that I use my power and privilege to do some heavy lifting, instigating, challenging, and helping others in their journey so that all the work isn’t only falling on those who are diverse in gender expression and sexual orientation. I’m really fortunate that I have a circle of friends that I’m exploring this with and I can learn from, where I’m comfortable enough to ask the uncomfortable questions because my circle trusts that my questions come from wanting to learn and not from a place of judgement.

There is a phrase that came out of Holding Safer Spaces pilot that helps me explain the work: if we truly want to be allies to, and inclusive of, any type of community, the goal might be professional but the process and practice are personal. If I don’t explore my personal biases and experiences, if I’m not willing to look at the social conditioning behind how I perceive others, I can’t change how I show up at work. If we truly want inclusive spaces for our learners, we need to do the personal work. Stettler Adult Learning put into their code of conduct that these are expectations of the organization, but if someone wants to really embody that inclusiveness, it is personal work that we all have to be doing.

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