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Editor's Note: The following article includes a correction to Robin Rowe's pronoun.
A park and recreation professional and her child discuss how they promote belonging in their programs
When I stepped into this role a little more than two years ago, so many of the conversations I had with people in the field were either about where to start or what could they do to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, while leadership decided the best policies and/or actions for the agency. My answer is always: What power do you have? Everyone has a sphere of influence, or the ability to effect change somewhere — in the leagues you manage, the type of customer service you provide or how you coordinate a program. The best place to start is with what you have and what you know. Let that seed be the start while you wait.
This past summer, I had the honor of meeting Robin Rowe, née Desens, as I started the process of connecting with professionals with experience and passion working with the LGBTQIA+ community, specifically supporting non-binary and transgender (trans) youth. Jessica Desens, who has been a park and recreation professional for more than 20 years, and Robin, her child — the “definition” of a park and rec kid — is now a dance instructor for the same park district they grew up attending.
Their approach to creating a safe and inclusive space for their dancers shows the power each of us has to help make sure people — and specifically young people — feel like they belong. Recently, I spoke with both of them to learn more about how they are fostering belonging.
Autumn Saxton-Ross: Can each of you tell me a bit more about yourself and what you do?
Jessica Desens: For [more than] 23 years, I have been the recreation supervisor for performing arts at the Round Lake Area Park District (RLAPD) [in Illinois]. I oversee the dance program, the community band and other music lessons, as well as assist with organizing and planning events.
Robin Rowe: I have grown up in RLAPD, participating in programs for the past 20 years. For the past six years, I have been a dance teacher for the park district. Currently, I am a facilitator for Illinois Park and Recreation Association’s (IPRA) Safe Zone Conversations throughout Illinois, via Zoom.
Saxton-Ross: From each of your perspectives, what are the major challenges or barriers for non-binary and trans inclusion in dance and parks and recreation?
Desens: The first major hurdle is acceptance. I think it’s the main one since every community is different and everyone’s understanding and level of acceptance does not look the same.
Rowe: Another obstacle is parent/child relationships. Parents are the ones who make the final decision regarding paperwork, really everything, for their child. A parent’s perspective on LGBTQIA+ looks different, depending on their willingness to accept their child’s identity. A parent’s level of acceptance can make it harder for kids to share with trustworthy adults and see us as a support system when their immediate support system (parents/family) isn’t accepting.
Desens: Next is about trust. Building a trusting environment is key. The program and agency must have that trust within their environment for this to work. Within our programs, we work to make sure there is that trust. If a trusting environment or relationship isn’t there, non-binary and trans youth may feel unsafe coming to our programs. This is extremely important in a park district agency. We are expected to provide programs for the community that are inclusive and accepting. We [should] want to be that safe space serving the community, and we do that by building trust. We should not be another entity that is making people suffer in their own skin, forcing them to deny their true self.
Rowe: Another barrier can be the community and the people we serve as an agency. As an agency, we should set an example for others to follow, helping to educate those who do not understand, as well as set policies and guidelines for accountability.
Saxton-Ross: Can you share with us what you do within your own sphere of influence to make sure your programs are inclusive?
Desens: I consider our dance program an accepting community. We do our best to educate and create an atmosphere of acceptance by embracing what makes each person in the program unique. One of the first things I did was to add my pronouns to my email as an olive branch to those in the LGBTQIA+ community (parents and participants), so they know and understand that my classes are a safe space. This is something anyone can do and make a difference [doing]. We have many parents and participants who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as those who are not. I believe that we as staff have the power to set the example of acceptance and inclusion in dance class.
Rowe: One of the most important things that we are attentive to is the environment we create by being as accommodating to the students as…we can be. We strive to familiarize ourselves with common microaggressions toward the [non-binary and trans] community and address them. We do this by taking time to think, consider and learn from situations where there might be a microaggression or situation that…might make folks feel that they don’t belong. We are recognizing our participants — non-binary, trans or cisgender — may not know better, and we use these as educational opportunities for all. We don’t “should” or shame people, but [rather] try and have a conversation communicating a message that we accept everyone and want to include everyone without prejudice to identity.
Desens: Here is an example of a situation at our agency. A dancer wrote an email explaining a recent discovery about himself, informing me that he was a transgender female to male dancer. He asked about costuming for the upcoming recital and was concerned that we would make him wear the traditionally female costumes purchased earlier that season. He further stated that he would wear the female costumes if I told him to. My heart was breaking as I could sense the fear in those few words in an email. I consulted one of my instructors…who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community to discuss options on potential solutions so that all our dancers would feel comfortable. I was inspired by the support within our dance program. After our meeting, we decided to re-create costumes from the ones already purchased. After discussing the idea with the dancer, I was given permission to explain his situation to one of the dance parents in my program who has sewing and alterations experience (who is also a part of the LGBTQIA+ community). She was excited to take on this project! She re-created the ballet costume into a masculine shirt in three days. The look of happiness and relief on my dancer’s face was priceless. It was rewarding to be a safe space and have the opportunity to accommodate him. This was only possible because he felt safe enough to do so.
Saxton-Ross: There’s a misconception that you need to have a full budget and agency commitment to create inclusive spaces. But what are some everyday actions program staff can do “while they wait” for their agencies to craft inclusive policies and procedures?
Rowe: We agree that this is a misconception. Without a budget, you [still] can do so much to embrace diversity. Adding pronouns to your email is free. Asking students their pronouns or preferred name at the beginning of a program or at registration is also free. It is priceless when it comes to respect and building trust with the participant and the community. This also sets a tone from the very beginning, showing the participants and community that we are a safe space for them to participate in programs or events.
Desens: You do need a budget for other items, such as bathroom/locker room signage, to hold Safe Zone training for employees, or for a website update (if you don’t maintain your own site) to change wording or forms online.... Despite these things, there are so many ways to be accepting without money/budget or waiting for executive approval.
Saxton-Ross: When thinking of frontline and recreation staff, where do you suggest they start to make sure their programs are more inclusive?
Rowe: What we addressed in the last question is a great start. Frontline staff set the tone, environment and expectations of the center. They are the first staff most community members interact with, and should maintain a welcoming environment, treating all participants and families as equals. Practicing and using the proper pronouns and preferred names (if known) is key. Adding additional options or removing the gender-related questions on registration and health emergency forms is a start, too. Just ask yourself what you can do to create an environment of safety.
Saxton-Ross: How can leadership at the agency, state and national level support non-binary and trans inclusion?
Rowe: Support staff who are employed by the agency, whether it is targeted support for those staff who are non-binary, trans or LGBTQIA+, or providing training for all staff on language, acceptance and how to support their co-workers and the larger community as it relates to LGBTQIA+ concerns and issues.
Budget for changes. Agencies should plan and include funding for facility changes that show their support, like gender neutral restrooms, improved signage and updated forms across the agency.
Create a team to review and revise the current employee handbook and other policies. Be proactive and make changes in policies and practices to reflect that we want to keep not only non-binary and trans employees safe, but also the many facets of the LGBTQ+ community. Think about summer camp and aquatics policies and email templates. Don’t wait for your first non-binary camp counselor to start or your first trans camper to register to get your policies in place.
Desens: This is a good first activity or starting place for a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) committee. Every agency should have one for accountability and updating policies for all to be safe and educated.
Rowe: As someone who works in Safe Zone and has seen many agencies with people who hold different beliefs, one of the more important aspects is to have DEI programs or committees. There have been park districts that come to Safe Zone conversations without having a DEI committee, but the simple fact is that they took the time to come and be at the trainings. All of this is to say that regardless of where your agency is at with creating a committee, you must keep yourself and the agency updated and informed on new ways to support the LGBTQ+ community. Adapt with the times!
Saxton-Ross: Beyond inclusion and creating welcoming spaces for trans and non-binary people, there’s power in these community members also feeling visible and seen within parks and recreation programs. Can you talk to us about the role of visibility in creating inclusive spaces?
Desens: The best answer is acknowledgement — the best way to say, “we see you, we hear you, we respect you, you are valid!” We must, as agency employees, set an observable and admirable example for the current participants and those who will participate in the future. Whether as an employee you like it or not, we do not diminish based on like and dislike. Change is inevitable and ignoring it or bringing animosity to the table will eventually lead you to the destruction of your program or agency. That is why we say, “Embrace diversity.”
Saxton-Ross: Is there anything we didn’t discuss that you feel is important for folks to know — specifically, when it comes to serving trans and non-binary folks through parks and recreation?
Rowe: If a young person comes to you [for anything], fill the GAP:
- [A]sk if they have an adult
- [P]ass it on to a supervisor
Be careful when a participant comes forward to share their situation with you. If they are a child and haven’t shared with their parents, it may not be safe to do so. It is not your job to tell the parents; it is your job to protect them and run a safe program. Here are some guidelines we compiled:
Show gratitude that they trusted you enough to tell you about it. Acknowledge the risk they took coming to you and sharing with you.
Ask, “Do you have a trusted adult you can talk to?” (Not just you, the employee of the agency is another person). Don’t judge and don’t push, meaning don’t shame or force them to discuss what they are not comfortable sharing with you.
Ask parameters, such as: “How confidential is it? Do I use your preferred name with parents? Peers? What do they prefer? What are your pronouns? How can I support you?” Again, don’t push if they don’t respond. Accept “I don’t know” as an answer, as some are still processing.
Remember that their gender/sexual preference is just one part of them. Just like all humans, they have many aspects of themselves.
Autumn Saxton-Ross is Vice President of Education and Chief Equity Officer at NRPA.