Joe Barb is Executive Director and Founder of LGBTQ+ Family Connections Center. They have a mission to strengthen and empower all youth, however they identify, to overcome obstacles by providing housing, supportive counseling, community education, and advocacy.
Victoria and Chad talk with Joe about identifying needs for the center, his own lived experience and connection to the LGBTQ+ community, and deciding what services to provide and evaluating which are most impactful.
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CHAD: This is The Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel.
VICTORIA: And I'm your other host, Victoria Guido. And with us today is Joe Barb, Executive Director and Founder of LGBTQ+ Family Connections Center, with a mission to strengthen and empower all youth however they identify to overcome obstacles by providing housing, supportive counseling, community education, and advocacy. Joe, thank you for joining us.
JOE: Thank you. I appreciate it.
VICTORIA: Wonderful. So you started the center over two years ago. If you could go back in time and give yourself advice to when you were first starting out, what would you tell yourself?
JOE: Wow, very similar to for-profit companies, having the tenacity to keep knocking on doors, never accepting no for an answer, and understanding that tenacity is everything. Nothing happens without continuing the fight every day.
VICTORIA: Great. And how did you first identify that need for the center?
JOE: A million years ago, when I was a late teenager, my parents had a pastor in their church suggest to them that in order to bring me back to God and back to their church, that they should cut me off financially, you know, I was a young freshman in college prod me in that direction. So my parents took the advice, and I found myself in my second semester of college with no funding. The check for the second semester had been canceled from my family, and I didn't know what to do.
So I called a friend in South Dakota that we had met on vacation. And she said, "You know what? I have an apartment building here. I just had an apartment become vacant. Why don't you move to South Dakota, and then we'll work on everything else?" So that lived experience kind of proded the whole thing. And then meeting the youth who had been displaced from home for being a trans youth caused the rest.
CHAD: Well, I'm really sorry for that personal experience that you had. But it's pretty powerful and that you've gone on to help others in similar situations is really admirable.
JOE: Yeah, it's been quite a journey. And my lived experience, honestly, I was with stability within 24 hours. The more I became comfortable and complacent in my life and then met somebody who wasn't; it brought me back to that. And then just looking at statistics, looking at how youth end up in a houseless situation created something in me that I had to address.
VICTORIA: So you had your own lived experience and that connection to your community which helped you identify that need and start out on the center. Did you find there were a lot of resources for building nonprofits?
JOE: There isn't. And it's really something that when you go into it, you believe that when you create a nonprofit and you finish that application, you send it into the IRS, and you get approval, that you put a great idea out there and that the community will respond and that everyone will immediately jump on it and say, "You know what? You're right. This is needed. We need housing. We need to make sure that youth are safe." And that's not the way it works. It doesn't work that way at all.
It's a lot of connections and community and getting involved and putting the statistics and the numbers out there so that people are aware of it. But it's mostly connecting the stories. The more youth that I've met and worked with and connected them to a story and told their story, the more people respond.
VICTORIA: Right. And so, what have you found to be the most impactful in sharing that story and in managing that content to get to the right people who can help you with this need?
JOE: The most impactful part is people just aren't aware. We all know that there's a homeless population. No matter where you live, there's a homeless population, and it impacts communities. But what we aren't aware of is we all typically believe that the government is funding these things and it's being taken care of and that maybe those people just chose homelessness and don't realize that the resources are very limited. Until those resources are able to show a data of need, that person may not be counted that you saw on the corner.
CHAD: You're pretty active socially online. I think where I first saw you was through a mutual connection on LinkedIn, and your posts started to be in my feed, and I liked and subscribed, I guess. How much of the awareness that you're putting out there is coming from social networks and online versus in-person and local communities?
JOE: I'd say it's probably a good mixture of both. Locally, obviously, I'm deeply involved with other service providers, and I'm involved with local government. I'm on any kind of board that you can think of that impacts youth homelessness. So there's that within my community but having those LinkedIn...just this weekend, we had our pride, and at our pride, someone walked over to me, started talking at our booth. And he said, "Well, I know you from LinkedIn.
JOE: I noticed your picture with Sylvan Lake behind you from your LinkedIn, and I just had to come over to meet you and say hi." And I thought, how impactful is social media that someone who lives in Florida happened to be in South Dakota came to pride and recognized me from a picture?
VICTORIA: Wow. Yeah, it makes our world feel a little smaller sometimes, doesn't it?
VICTORIA: And the problem of youth homelessness and LGBTQ+ homelessness is very complex. And I think other nonprofit founders might be interested in how you decide what services you're going to provide and how you evaluate to see which ones are the most impactful.
JOE: We did things kind of backwards. So I formed the board of directors, and typically what happens with the board of directors is they want to become your advisors. And I thought these people have great professional experience. We have doctors; we have PhDs, we have scientists literally on our board. And those people don't have the lived experience. So I thought, who do we go to to develop programming and support for people that are in need? And the answer was glaringly clear; it had to be the people who were in need.
So I formed a Youth Action Board with the State Continuum of Care. And it comprises of youth ages 13 to 24 who have lived experience. We keep it at 66% have to have lived experience. And technically, most of them have even much more than that. But we connect with them through service providers who assist youth. And those were the people that we used to formulate what they needed, decide what was most beneficial to help them during vulnerable points, and then help them get out of situations.
VICTORIA: Right. And I think that user experience, that experience bringing that into the products and services that you're creating, just makes a lot of sense for us, and that's what we bring into our design as well.
JOE: Yeah, I mean, we do it in almost every industry. Whatever you create, whatever product you create, whether it's something tangible that you hold or whether it's a service, you bring in a test group. And that test group typically is people that you're seeking to utilize or buy your service or your product. And in doing that, we end up developing a better product.
It's the same thing with a nonprofit. We had to get the voice of those who we would be serving in order to make sure that we were doing what they needed, not what we thought as professional people or personal opinions was the way forward.
CHAD: Was there something as you were talking to people and learning that surprised you?
JOE: Probably the same thing that everyone develops is an opinion of homelessness. We all think that people that experience homelessness it's typically through some self-inflicted issue; typically, drugs and alcohol come to mind and some type of cause that brought you there that you had influence on. And I've learned that most of the kids that we serve had no influence on their homelessness other than to be born where they were or to who they were born.
A lot of our youth are coming from, oh, they've lived in shelters, or foster care, or aged out of foster care. It just changed my dichotomy of thinking that we would be serving people that had addiction problems or alcohol problems when in case of the youth...currently we're at, I think 68 youth served. I've only met one youth that had a previous addiction.
CHAD: It's really just that lack of a safety net. And all it takes is your family not supporting you and not having a safety net.
JOE: Absolutely. And that's just it. You said it very well. Most of us, when we have an incident in our life that we need some help because there's a vulnerability, we have people around us that we go back to. We have either family or close friends that we can say, "You know what? I lost my job. I need a little bit of help here," or "This medical incident happened, and could you assist us?"
And we get a response from our family or friends that typically is supportive and helps us find a way. A lot of youth, especially youth that experience homelessness, don't have that connection to family. So that's where we need to bring in community to support them.
VICTORIA: Right. And do you find there are unique challenges to supporting youth experiencing homelessness in the Midwest in South Dakota where you are versus in more urban areas?
JOE: Absolutely. Carl Siciliano is my TA advisor. He created the Ali Forney Center in New York, which is the largest housing support for homeless youth for...they specifically only target LGBTQ youth in the United States. And in talking to him and in looking at our demographics, it was very different. For them, people in larger cities will just seek out their services. They learn about it word of mouth. They find out that there's a shelter in place.
Here, our homeless population is much more hidden. And typically, what happens here is youth will gather together. And it'll be six or eight of them who will become friendly, and they will try to support each other by one of them will get a hotel, and then six or eight of them will live together. Or they're doubled up in one person's apartment, six or eight people live in somebody else's apartment, which truly isn't housed because it's not their place. And they try to support each other. So they're very hidden in our communities.
CHAD: It's unfortunate there's a lot of stuff happening in the U.S. and worldwide with legislation being passed now anti-transgender. I think South Dakota was the first state in the country to pass an anti-transgender bill this year. Are there particular challenges to doing the work that you do in today's climate?
JOE: Accessing mental health services, we had to overcome that obstacle by forming relationships with counseling services so that we could make sure that any youth, whether they were insured or underinsured, or uninsured, could immediately access mental health. And that took quite a bit of work on our part in order to make that happen. It should be easy. It should be easy to access mental health.
And that's probably one of the biggest challenges because I can stabilize anyone tomorrow with either a hotel, or a house, or an apartment. But if you don't have mental health to help with what got you there, you're still living in trauma. If you're living in trauma, how can you focus on things like going back to school or having a career or what even tomorrow means for you? Because you're living in trauma today. So, absolutely, to answer your question, mental health.
CHAD: And is that a matter of providers not wanting to provide services or not being able to pay for it?
JOE: Not being able to pay for it. There are things that you can access if you're uninsured or underinsured if you meet the guidelines to get into mental health access. The problem with that is if you need to help today, that's a process. We wanted to skip the process. We wanted to make sure that if you walked into our drop-in center today that this afternoon I can have you with a therapist of your choice.
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CHAD: You have a website. You collect donations online. And we definitely want to link all of that stuff in the show notes. It will be there, and I hope people contribute. But when it comes to the tactical stuff on the product and business side, are there particular tools or resources you were able to draw upon to put together online donations, the website, that kind of thing?
JOE: As far as platforms, is that what you're asking?
JOE: There are some great platforms that have been built specifically for nonprofits in order to help get the word out and help fundraise. That for us hasn't been the primary. In this type of nonprofit, typically, most of our donations are not donations or grants. They're things that we...like, I just spent two years on a grant that is quite substantial. But it was two years of work, literally 40 hours a week for two years.
So there are those tools, there's the GoFundMe, and there are all kinds of tools for sharing on social media in order to get people to donate. They're great, but you have to have a large circle in order to utilize those. And you have to have people that are willing to do that as well. So I don't think we have the tool that's the best tool yet socially.
CHAD: What would something that was better look like for you?
JOE: It's more getting corporations and businesses and private companies involved in what a lot of companies are already doing. They will seek from their employees giving initiatives. And they will seek information to what does the company want to support as a community? Because that's what their employees care about.
I think those things have a more sustainable development and a more sustainable footprint for nonprofits that when organizations get involved that are private and then offer to their employees a way to donate, that works best.
CHAD: Yeah. For thoughtbot, to honor Pride Month, we collected a series of donations that we were going to make. And there was team suggestion...because we have teams all over the place, we wanted to have a local impact. And then when it came to actually doing those donations, I think we had 10 to 20 organizations that we wanted to donate, not a huge amount of money to each one but hopefully, it makes a difference.
And the way that we needed to do that a person at thoughtbot needed to go and either find the donate link, the place to do it, and some of them didn't even have it. And we wanted to, you know, maybe it's a place in Brazil or something, and we need to get them the money somehow, wiring it or something. And so that was a fair amount of manual work to figure that out and then to make the payments.
JOE: And I think because it goes along with we're learning as organizations that we have to take care of the social and emotional part of employees just as well as we do the work environment. It's part of the work environment. So I think that that kind of goes back to HR, which is my background. HR should look at those things in advance and find local nonprofits to support local ideas and then maybe some national ones as well.
We all know of The Trevor Project and some of the great broader campaigns that do a lot of really good work. And have that ready so that when somebody joins your company you can show them and say, "Hey, by the way, these are some local organizations that we can do a payroll deduction for if you like, or we can buy annual contributions," and let the employees see that the company cares about the local area and also cares about things on a national platform that impact employees.
VICTORIA: I love that. I think that's a great way to involve corporations in giving back and connecting employees to their local communities and the local groups that need support. Is there anything else that you want to tell our listeners in order to support the LGBTQ+ Center or in general?
JOE: The majority of our youth are LGBTQ+. And that's because statistically, across the United States, the majority of youth seeking housing services unaccompanied are LGBTQ+, up to 40%. But we don't turn away any youth. It doesn't matter how they identify. It doesn't matter what their circumstances are. The only thing that we ask is if you're telling us you're homeless, then we're going to assist in that.
We do have age criteria of 16 to 24 because that matches the federal guidelines for the programming that we're in through federal dollars. So other than that, I mean, we still would help anyone of any age, but that's the big thing to know is that we help any youth however they identify.
And what could listeners do? Obviously, on our website or look into your community as well and see what is a support in your area and find something that you can contribute to.
VICTORIA: That sounds great. Thank you so much. Do you have any questions for me or Chad?
JOE: I think that what you're doing is great. I like that you are thinking of nonprofits as a company as well because a lot of people view it differently when it's actually a company. You have to figure out a way to sustain funding and bring money in just like any other organization in order to do the work.
CHAD: Yeah, I think that's a common misconception that people have. And I'm sure it's not the case with you and your organization. But I like to remind people that nonprofit really just means that it can't show a profit. So there are lots of nonprofits out there that just end up spending all of the money that they have. That is really also technically what it means sometimes.
JOE: And you bring up a great point. There's an IRS website to look up any nonprofit organization, and you can look at how they spend their money. I do that all the time before I make a donation. Because we've all heard those stories of CEOs, who make 30 million a year or whatever crazy number. You can always look up any organization and see how they spend their money.
CHAD: Yeah, that's a really good tip for people to do before you get involved with an organization with donations or your time and really making sure it matches your values and that kind of thing.
VICTORIA: Great. All right. I think we're about at time. So with that, I will wrap us up and let everyone know you can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at giantrobots.fm.
CHAD: If you have questions or comments, email us at email@example.com. You can find me on Twitter at @cpytel.
VICTORIA: And you can find me on Twitter @victori_ousg.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore.
CHAD: Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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