reKINdle: Community support for older LGBTQ2+ adults
reKINdle aims to address the marginalization faced by older LGBTQ2+ adults living in Waterloo Region as they access community services and housing. We caught up with the project’s leads from SPECTRUM, Waterloo Region’s first Rainbow community space, and Community Justice Initiatives (CJI) one of North America’s first community mediation services, to learn how they worked together to bring this innovative program to life.
reKINdle: its origins and mission
reKINdle worked with two housing providers for older adults – Waterloo Region Housing and Schlegel Villages, a private retirement housing and long-term provider, to create a safe space for LGBTQ2+ seniors within their housing communities. They created Gender Sexuality Alliances (GSA) in these communities and provide support to create more inclusive policies and practices within the respective organizations.
Cait Glasson, President of SPECTRUM, Waterloo Region, tells us that her organization initiated the project via their ‘Aging with Pride’ Committee. “We got the idea that if a GSA (called Gay/Straight Alliances in schools) model helps in high school, maybe it would help create a safe space in a long-term care facility” Cait says, “and then it kind of blossomed from there”. She tells us that members of the Committee had identified the need for this program as they were “encountering people who had been experiencing serious social isolation” (prior to the pandemic). “It’s a serious problem we kind of know about when you’re aging in the community.” Cait continues, “there’s such a focus on youth and energy” in the LGBTQ2+ community that some of the older members of that community can be overlooked, along with some of the issues they’re facing and that “it’s important to get the whole community involved in solving the problem”.
Julie Friesen, Director of Programs, Conflict Resolution and Mediation Services at CJI, tells us that her organization “does a lot of work in rent-geared-to-income housing around social inclusion and conflict solutions and harm that happens within housing. Before the reKINdle project, we had reached out to SPECTRUM because we had become aware of some bullying incidents and folks who had basically hid that they were part of the [LGBTQ2+] community for fear of being even more traumatized by neighbours in their housing complex”.
Julie continues, “we had been reaching out to the Aging with Pride Committee and had supported different situations in housing where [individuals who were] part of the Rainbow community were experiencing a lot of harm as a result of that and that was one of the first ways we reached out to SPECTRUM and the Committee, [in order to] support some folks in the community”.
In January 2019, reKINdle started group meetings every other week in the Waterloo Region Housing and Schlegel Villages residences. Partnering with these particular organizations allowed reKINdle to work with seniors of differing income levels.
The gatherings aimed to slowly build relationships and understanding between LGBTQ2+ and straight-identifying residents in both communities. With some of the LGBTQ2+ residents initially shy to share their experiences and most other residents being fairly unfamiliar with the Rainbow community and the GSA model, what was really helpful in getting the conversation going, they tell us, was to have volunteers from the Rainbow community to come in and help start the conversation.
Cait tells us “one of the big icebreakers we did early on was marriage photos. We had all the queer members of the groups bring in their marriage photos and all of the older straight people brought theirs, and [they] got together and talked about their weddings and it totally normalized everything for them in such a clear way”.
Julie elaborates: “that’s how we had an opening. We talked about [creating] a space where people can build trust and relationships with each other, and that’s really intentional. It was trying to find a connection”. She tells us that at the beginning they “had the transgender flag and the rainbow flag and… talked about the different colours in the flags and what they mean… and then we sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ together which was a song that pretty well everyone knew”. This gave the group a starting point, after which, Julie says “we made sure everyone had a chance to share something”, whether it was a personal story from a program volunteer or a resident and encouraged group members to relate it to their own lives. “Continually modelling that it’s okay to share things about yourselves”, Julie says “and that this is a safe space for this” helped open things up bit by bit.
Successes and lessons learned
When initiating this type of program, Cait tells us that “staff support is crucial; it’s the difference between success and failure”. The staff’s ability to market the events and encourage residents to attend had a major impact on residents’ participation.
reKINdle met with some resistance at one of the buildings, where a group of men would regularly plant themselves outside the meeting room and stare at group members as they tried to enter the meeting. In addressing that, Julie says “you can never expect that the adults living in the residences will come out, because that’s a lot of pressure. By having [volunteers] from SPECTRUM who knew that they were going to have to out themselves every time, which is a huge commitment… there was a great group of people who were willing to do that to build comfort for folks who might live there… and that’s a crucial part”.
“Making sure you don’t rush this”, is key. Julie tells us, “relationships take time. If rent-geared-to-income providers are going to [try to implement a similar program] you have to have that support at the higher levels and people who are willing to make changes at an institutional level as well” to ensure they’re being inclusive at all levels of the organization.
Cait says that, for her, one of the biggest indicators of the program’s success was very simple. She tells us about one fellow who lived in one of the residences who “had been primed his whole life to be as homophobic as possible. It always made us smile when he would come in or stick his head in the door and say ‘hello, I’m not gay, but I love you anyway’. For me, he was a big success… that we were able to reach someone like that, who had been steeped in [homophobia] his whole life”.
Julie says “I’m a firm believer that if you build a relationship, this becomes important and something you’ll speak out about”. She remembers when the Schlegel Village residence got a lot of press after placing a rainbow sticker in a front window of the building. Julie tells us that a member of the woman’s church asked her if that’s where she lived and if she was okay living with “those people”. The woman, Julie tells us, was proud to say that she was happy to live there. “When you build relationships like that”, Julie says “that’s how you move a little bit each time, that’s where we get our hope. You’re never going to reach everyone, but that’s where you get a groundswell of people, slowly, who are willing to speak out”.
For non-profit housing providers, Cait thinks that a good way to get started with a reKINdle-type model would be to “start with a group like CJI in the space with a conflict resolution/getting to know your neighbours” type-group. She continues “in the process of getting to know that group, identify people you think might become allies if you want to introduce the reKINdle idea”. Cait thinks that having residents on the inside track when you start the program should help the community be receptive to the idea and make residents feel more comfortable sharing with their neighbours.
The group has held a few smaller virtual gatherings since the beginning of the pandemic, but due to logistical concerns, including the challenges faced by providers of and seniors living in housing and long-term care facilities, as well as limited internet access, having regular gatherings has been next to impossible.
They are eager to go back into the communities they were working in. Julie tells us that they “were looking for more funding as the pandemic hit… so we could hire some staff to recruit volunteers to expand [the program]”. That will be one of the first things they look at when they’re back together in person with more time to plan. “I’m really looking forward to going back to the building we were in initially just to see how they’re doing”. Julie continues, “that feels like the first step to me – just to reconnect with these folks. Then we can think about what could be next”.
reKINdle will need more volunteers to get the program running again and expand it once they can get back into the communities they were visiting. If you’re in the Waterloo Region and would like to help, or would like to volunteer with SPECTRUM in other ways, please contact Acting Executive Director Kristy Skelton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on SPRECTRUM and the services they provide to Waterloo Region’s Rainbow community, visit ourspectrum.com.
Learn more about CJI and restorative justice at cjiwr.com.
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