Thursday, November 18, 2010

Community Conversations: Tina Mahle, Health Initiatives for Youth

Welcome to Community Conversations. In this column, I reflect on meetings I have with organizations, businesses, and public institutions trying to make a change in the world by working together. My goal is to unearth the connections between these conversations. It is my hope that it will lead to more holistic and collaborative programming and services spurred by The S. Kitchen across San Francisco, the Bay Area, California, the United States, and the world.

I met with Tina Mahle, Program Manager at Health Initiatives for Youth, last week to discuss what is happening in the landscape of health, wellness, and sex education in the Bay Area. This meeting was a follow up to a conversation I had with her before meeting with the teen librarians of the San Francisco Public Library. I wanted to learn more about what HIFY was up to and what needs she sees in the community.

We met outside the Ferry Building over looking the Bay Bridge on a sunny Thursday. Buoyed by the unusually warm November weather, we decided to tackle needs first. Then, we discussed opportunities and possible barriers. And finally, we wrapped up the conversation focused on personal and organizational visions.

Tina noted that there is a need for spaces that support conflict resolution. She mentioned that we need education about empowerment rooted in a diversity and anti-oppression perspective. She spoke about the lack of safety for people in the community. She also talked about how there are not resources for queer people who are struggling to survive, who find themselves living on the streets. She knows that there a lots of people who have gone through this and come out on the other side, but those stories aren't being shared and folks are not learning from others' struggles.

When the conversation turned to opportunities, Tina mentioned that there are continually dwindling resources for services. She sees opportunities for youth initiatives, where young people are working towards their own goals rather than the goals identified by organizations and funders. And she specifically mentioned that we need to find LGBTQ folks that are not currently connected. She stressed that last point. We know where the stereotypical spaces are -- the Castro, SOMA, bars, etc -- but if people are not in those spaces, we don't know where they are or how to reach them.

Barriers and roadblocks are numerous right now. Tina mentioned that time and money were definitely barriers, but also added that time and money are always barriers. She noted that due to budget restrictions and reductions in grant awards it is becoming harder and hard to get a clear understanding of what people need. Tasks are being consolidated and focused only on meeting grant requirements, and monies for the planning phase and organizational development are disappearing. She also noted that perceptions of organizations and people are getting in the way of getting work done. Organizational leaders are tying the hands of their staff

What struck me most about this conversation is the direct connection between everything: we need more safe spaces that actually BUILD community and don't just HOUSE community. Given current economic realities of shrinking budgets, shifting priorities, and funder-driven outcomes, organizations, and more importantly people in those organizations, are finding themselves looking inward more and more. This is creating a very interesting dynamic, one that is shifting the perception of WHAT non-profit, charity and educational organizations SHOULD be doing and HOW they should be doing it.

This intense reflection is changing people. From what I gathered through this conversation (and other conversations with middle managers), it is helping middle management refocus on who they are in relation to their work. As an example, many of the middle managers in youth programs I have worked with over the course of my 12 years of being in San Francisco, are in their mid-30s or younger. (I'm only 34 and have been doing youth development, event planning, and professional and workforce development [as a paid job] for over 15 years.) This is a generation that has grown up in a differently connected world. It is a generation that came of age during the technological revolution of AOL, Google, the internet, and Facebook. It is a generation that has a different concept of work.

There a too many articles out there today spewing how this generation is apathetic or apolitical or uninvolved or lazy. From my experience, this isn't the case. This is a generation that just doesn't want to support the status quo, doesn't believe that things need to be done the way they have always been done. And it is a generation that is not beholden to a brand loyalty.

In this time of retraction and reflection, this generation is looking differently at service delivery and social change. They are looking inward and trying to figure out what they believe in and how that manifests itself in their place of employment. And they aren't beholden to their organization as THE way to accomplish its mission.

People like Tina are trying to find solutions that are collaborative, reach across communities, and meet the needs of young people. They don't believe that that cause resides in one organization nor do they believe that one person or organization has the solution. They believe that the only way to achieve the goals of a more supportive, caring, and compassionate society, one where our LGBTQ young people are thriving, is to work together.

I couldn't agree more. I believe that the only way out of our current situation is to seek the humanity between us. I am proud to call myself both a friend and colleague of Tina. I know that great things are possible. And I know that together we will!

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