Written by Shade Jalo
“Everyone should have a space where they feel like they are included, visible, and valued. We have to be that space, especially for those who may not have that anywhere else.”
As we march through Pride month, this particular line from our Summer Day Camp Diversity and Inclusion training really hits home for me. In my experiences as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, finding that space can be challenging. While Pride is a celebration of the accomplishments in acceptance and inclusion we have made so far, it is also a reminder of how far we still need to go.
Something I’ve always felt grateful for is the home and family I found within the YMCA. In the past, I have experienced several unwelcoming, and sometimes damaging spaces in my journey, so it was such a breath of fresh air to stumble upon the Y. I began as a before and after school and day camp counselor at the Anchorage YMCA in Alaska. Even early on in my career when I was uncomfortable sharing about my orientation as a gay individual, I always felt welcomed and accepted at the Y, like my voice mattered. Those who did know about me were always supportive and compassionate. It took me by surprise at first. I had been warned by my family that it would be career-ending for me should anyone discover my orientation. What I found instead was a family willing to listen, learn, and love.
For the past couple of years, I have been working as a Youth and Family Director, which means I oversee the youth development programs at one of the YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City locations. Within my first year as a director, my team and I came across youth in our program who identified as LGBTQ+ and were also seeking that place where they would be accepted. Experiencing those situations firsthand helped me clearly see the importance of having resources, policies, and guidelines that ensure there is a consistency of care for those who may come into our programs or YMCAs looking for a space of acceptance. It meant becoming more comfortable with myself and expressing who I am, in addition to becoming more aware of what we can do.
Over time, I’ve had the opportunity to work with leaders in our organization, to be part of the LGBTQ+ steering committee with Y-USA, and I have been able to review and provide recommendations for policy changes. In all of these discussions, leaders have been receptive, compassionate, and responsive. As an example, one need in our policy was the addition of guidelines to protect the confidentiality of those who are sharing their identity or orientation. While youth in our programs may feel comfortable sharing that information with staff or peers, they may not feel comfortable outside of that one person or one space. This guideline also needed to specifically state that such information could not be shared with parents and guardians with the understanding that sharing that information with a parent could place a child in an abusive or neglectful environment inadvertently, depending on the caregiver’s view of the LGBTQ+ community. With this in mind, we wanted to protect that confidentiality as doing so could also protect the child. Leaders were more than willing to assist in making changes such as this one to ensure that our program fostered the welcoming, accepting, and safe space we sought to create.
This year will also be our first time marching in the OKC Pride Alliance Parade. Being a part of the planning process for Pride is something I am thrilled to participate in. As an organization that is for all, it’s important for us to show our commitment to our mission by being present and supportive in a celebration of pride.
I can’t wait to see where the YMCA goes as we continue this journey and I look forward to being a part of that process. I’m grateful to the YMCA for the home and family I have found. My hope is that others out there who are looking for their own safe haven can find a place to call home within the Y like I have.
Happy Pride, everyone!
Shade Jalo is a Youth & Family Director with the YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City.