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Community: part five. Safe Spaces

July 2021

What are we talking about when we talk about “community”? Over the last four editions of Tomorrow, we’ve been exploring what community means to different people, how we connect with each other, and how we might do it better in the future.

For part five of our community series, Callan Rowe, Innovation Lead at Today sat down with Miller Soding, Programming and Relationships Coordinator at Minus18, to chat about the impact that creating safe community spaces—both online and in-person—can have on the lives of young LGBTQIA+ people.

Cal: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Could you start off by introducing yourself and Minus18?

Miller: My name is Miller Soding. I use she, her pronouns and my title is the Programming and Relationships coordinator of Minus18. That means I host and coordinate all the youth events, which is awesome. In a snapshot, Minus18 exist to create spaces for LGBTQA+ young people to feel safe, celebrated, empowered and proud of who they are and how they identify—whatever that is and whatever that looks like.

We do that through hosting life-affirming events, both online and in-person. Basically, it's come as you are, and we'll celebrate you, which is really wholesome and heartwarming work. On top of that, we also deliver workshops and education and training, where we go and educate schools, workplaces, councils, and anyone who wants to learn about LGBTQA+ inclusion and allyship. This helps to further celebration and understanding of our community into the schools, workplaces and communities where young people exist.

On top of that, we really champion national and international campaigns that have centred around queer issues and celebrating identities. For example, we've got IDAHOBIT in May, which is International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia. Wear it Purple, which is a national celebration in August, celebrating young people who are queer. And trans awareness week is our other big campaign. It's a week in November where we spotlight issues that the trans community face and how people can do more for the trans community and to celebrate trans identities as well. Lots of different angles of our work, but all of it stems back to creating a space for young people and creating a world for young people to feel loved and supported.

Cal: Obviously social connection and social inclusion are really key to that mission. How has Minus18 adapted since lockdown and COVID?

Miller: When COVID hit, just like everybody, we were asking, “Is this going to be two weeks? What is this going to look like?” And really the biggest concern for us was that going into lockdown meant young people couldn’t go to school. For a lot of young people, the ability to connect with their friends and be outside of their homes often is a really key factor for them in their own sense of identity and development and accessing that feeling of support. We were very worried for young people to lose that peer element—that school community element—but also that they're potentially at home, either not out or with families who might not be supportive of their sexualities or gender identities.

A lot of young people that come to our events are in that position where they're either not out, or they are and they're not supported. The instant thought was, “How are we going to create that sense of safety and celebration online when we've done it so well for so many years in person.”

We adapted pretty quickly. We did six weeks of digital events online, which was hectic. But we decided to just give it a go. We experimented and engaged lots of different queer artists and speakers and teachers, and did a whole range of events. We learnt so much in those six weeks and from those learnings I was able to put together a digital events guide to help other youth organisations and community groups think about how to make things digital.

What was so enlightening was how much we retained and built an audience. More than 50% of people were brand new to Minus18 events and to pride events. So we're reaching young people who perhaps have followed us, who live regionally, who live in other states that we don't visit or don't host events in at this point, or maybe they've got a disability, maybe they aren't allowed to go. There are so many barriers for young people to get to a youth queer event.

These digital events have been a way for us to really connect with a whole bunch of new people. I was thinking, “Will they get the same experience? Will it be the same?”

But our survey feedback is really paralleled to our in-person events. The impact is still there. The pride and that feeling of safety and ability to just connect with each other—even in a digital space—I think they're just so grateful for that.

Cal: What would you say that you've learned about running successful socially connected spaces online?

Miller: I think the thing I learnt very early on was just how important it is for young people to be able to see each other and communicate with each other. What young people really take from our events is seeing other people like them and having that opportunity to not feel alone when they might be the only queer kid at their school, they might not have many friends. Just to see a community there in front of them—that is a huge deal.

A big learning for me from a coordination perspective is youth safety online. It is a huge challenge and a hurdle to get over in order to make sure those spaces are safe for our young people. You just have to keep at it and have it at the centre of all your planning, just so that those spaces are safe for them.

Cal: How do you approach that?

Miller: In many ways. We have registration processes, where you have to register for a ticket and nominate your age. We have youth workers present at all our events and they supervise the chat threads, which is how young people communicate at the events. They monitor the chat and the videos just to make sure everybody's behaving and having a good time and not consuming alcohol or drugs or smoking, because all our events are alcohol, drug and smoke free, even the digital ones.

From the feedback that we get, 98-100% of young people say that they do feel safe. That to me makes me really proud because you can't always feel that way online, especially queer communities.

...creating a space for young people and creating a world for young people to feel loved and supported.

Cal: Have you learned anything that's going to change the way that you approach digital events and digital community post COVID?

Miller: Access and inclusion are buzzwords, but they're a very big deal to Minus18. And we're always talking about how we can make our events more accessible and more inclusive. My biggest learning is that we can create such a positive impact online and that we should definitely continue to do that post COVID because we're getting to reach more young people and give them a community that they might never have had.

And speaking on my own experience, through my adolescence in Melbourne, I knew that Minus18 existed, but for me, I wasn't out and I wasn't comfortable and I would never have had the courage or the confidence to actually get to the physical event. If there was a digital element, I would sneakily tune in and suss it out. I always say I can’t imagine how different my life might've been, had I been able to find that community earlier. The more we reach the better, and that's my angle moving forward.

...through my adolescence in Melbourne, I knew that Minus18 existed, but for me, I wasn't out and I wasn't comfortable and I would never have had the courage or the confidence to actually get to the physical event. If there was a digital element, I would sneakily tune in and suss it out. I always say I can’t imagine how different my life might've been, had I been able to find that community earlier. The more we reach the better, and that's my angle moving forward.

Cal: I’m interested in understanding what community means to you and why it's important?

Miller: Community for me is a shared space—that doesn't necessarily mean physical—but a connectedness between a group of people based on identity, based on interest, lifestyle, anything really. A community is something that sort of binds you. And whether you want to be part of it or not, sometimes you can still access a community and be championed by a community. I'm talking about that through the lens of the queer community. There's a lot of people who really fight the good fight within our community and push for positive change and all the politics that comes with it. And there are other people who identify with our community who just live their life, and that's fine too. I think a community exists to share a space, share an understanding, to fight for each other and to hold each other up, no matter who you are.

Cal: Since lockdown, the definition of community seems to be moving further and further away from being place-based. How does being a Melbourne-based organisation play into the way Minus18 forms communities?

Miller: I agree, I think ‘place’ used to be such a big factor. We deliver events in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, but mainly Melbourne. I think our success in Victoria is just because that's where we physically are. But the thing is, wherever we put our work, people come to us.

That's why that sense of community in a digital world really blows us into a whole new world where we can reach young people wherever they are in Australia. We even had someone tune in from the US for one of our events. It was 4:00 in the morning for them, but they found us and wanted to come. And I said, “Sure!”

I think that for our young people, community has nothing to do with a physical place. Because a lot of them aren't attending pride march or Mardi Gras, all these queer events that are primarily 18 plus.

And what that means for a young person in a regional town, who maybe doesn't have many friends and is the only queer in the village, is giving them that chance to see, “Hey, there are people out there like me and there's a space where I belong.”

I think for us, community is a chance to reach each other, reach young people and just be a bit silly and have fun and feel proud.

Cal: What is the future vision for Minus18? What opportunities do you see for these shared safe spaces that you’re creating?

Miller: The dream is to reach all of Australia. Like I said, we fly to Sydney and Adelaide, but it would be so cool to be able to do a Queensland and Northern Territory queer formal as well.

We also really want to focus on paying it forward and really enable regional groups to deliver events themselves and champion their own communities. Because sometimes it's not our place to just sweep in and host these big fancy events and then leave again. Sometimes it's about fostering those relationships so that support and that fun is there all the time.

I think a community exists to share a space, share an understanding, to fight for each other and to hold each other up, no matter who you are.

Cal: What advice would you have for young people who are just trying to find that sense of place, that sense of safety, that sense of connection, that maybe they feel they don't have at the moment?

Miller: My advice for young people who feel a bit lost is that whether you feel you have the confidence or not to reach the community, it is there for you. And whenever you're ready, we have our arms open ready for you.

I always tell people, “Take your time, come when you're ready and know that we will be here and that we will celebrate you when you feel ready to be celebrated.”

I want them to know that there's a whole community of young people who really understand what they’re facing with their identity and sexuality and how that comes to play within the context of their life at school, with their family, with their culture, their faith, whatever that might be. There's support out there that's specific for those identities and those intersections of identities.

If they're never ready, and they feel like they can never get to an event because of concerns for their safety—or whatever reason—that's okay too, go with whatever's safe and comfortable. But we, as an LGBTQIA+ community and as a youth community, are fighting for these young people and we love them regardless. That's what I'd say.

Cal: That's really beautiful, and a really nice way to end our chat. Thank you so much.

My advice for young people who feel a bit lost is that whether you feel you have the confidence or not to reach the community, it is there for you. And whenever you're ready, we have our arms open ready for you.

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