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Insights from the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America LGBTQ Youth Mentoring Initiative

MAY 5, 2017

One by one, participants came up to the front of the room and added a personal note of commitment describing how they will support and provide a safe space to youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) in their mentoring program. The notes—banded together to form links of a paper “ally” chain—highlighted how small, individual actions can collectively make a difference. This activity reflects the approach of a new pilot project at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

At the 2017 National Mentoring Summit, I co-presented a session with Hillary Bardwell, Director of Foundation Grants at BBBS, previewing our early experiences developing an initiative that enhances mentoring services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. Funded by Altria Group, Inc., the LGBTQ youth mentoring enhancement pilot is providing training, coaching, and intensive technical assistance to five sites within the BBBS network (Chicago, Nashville, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Seattle) with the goal of closing the mentoring “gap” for one of our nation’s most marginalized populations. During this initiative, each site is responsible for updating policies, practices, and sponsoring/developing volunteer training to ensure that LGBTQ youth receive safe and affirming mentoring services from qualified mentors. The timeline for the first phase of the pilot initiative is September 2016 to August 2017.

During the session, we shared more about how this innovative and groundbreaking pilot is being set up, along with some initial insights about how other agencies may also want to approach a similar initiative. Here are some of the early steps we discussed:

  • Climate Survey/Needs Assessment. In late summer 2016, BBBS launched a climate survey to learn more about current services provided to LGBTQ youth across the network. Some of our early findings indicate that most BBBS respondents are already serving LGBTQ youth (70%). However, the majority of sites (nearly 60% of respondents) also say they are only in early phases of updating policies and practices for this group of youth. Such findings show that a need exists to better help the network intentionally and safely provide services to this population.

  • Literature Review/Interviews & Site Visits with Exemplar Programs. To identify safe, inclusive, and affirming program practices that could be implemented by pilot sites, the initiative began with a literature review and conversations/site visits with exemplar LGBT mentoring programs. Because so few mentoring programs exist and only a limited body of research is available, this startup phase of the project was critical—helping to give shape and justification for suggested policies, practices, and activities that could be implemented at different sites, regardless of their starting point.

  • Development of Assessment Tool. Findings from the literature review/site visits also served as the foundation for a new “readiness” assessment tool to help programs identify the presence of inclusive programming activities that are responsive and affirming to LGBTQ youth. Based on research findings and emerging program practices, this tool contains eight different category areas that BBBS affiliates can use to understand where they are in the process of implementing inclusive practices: general program climate, recruitment, screening, training, matching, case management, closure, and evaluation. Affiliate staff at pilot sites are encouraged to use this tool to have conversations about whether a practice or policy in each of these categories is implemented and, if not, to discuss next steps, tools, and strategies that could be used to update these areas. Sites are also encouraged to use this tool to benchmark progress over time, noting areas that have shifted since the beginning of the pilot.

  • Initial Pilot Site Training. All staff at each pilot site received awareness training. This training—viewed as a critical foundation for the pilot’s success—helped to give agency staff a “101” overview of definitions and terminology, risk factors, and strategies to update volunteer training (e.g., modules on empathy, active listening, realistically depicting relationships inclusive of LGBTQ youth, and handling critical moments). During the visits, staff were also given time to talk through the assessment tool as a group and to start planning for how to structure their working committees and champion teams to update policies and practices.

  • Coaching & Ongoing Technical Assistance. After the initial training, each site is now receiving additional technical assistance and individualized support from a coach (all of the coaches are from exemplar mentoring organizations serving LGBTQ youth, including many from within the BBBSA network). Affiliates are also sharing new policies, materials and resources in a community of practice. This phase of the project focuses on peer sharing, learning, and additional training to support successful achievement of project deliverables.

Before this year’s pilot ends in August, we will also collect data to help us learn more about what updated practices and policies worked in different programs and what strategies each affiliate used to change their policies. This information—along with lessons learned during our close contact with the pilot sites-- will inform our approach to a second year of the pilot. Such insights will also be shared with the broader mentoring field—offering programs outside of the BBBS network with new tools, resources, and emerging strategies to make sure that all LGBTQ youth who want or need a mentor are able to access this type of support.

Christian Rummell, Ed.D is a Senior Researcher at the American Institutes for Research, and a member of the NMRC Research Board. Read more about his work here.

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