There are many ways to do social change: I’m loving this one
This Friday is the annual GLOBE Community Awards and I will be attending with a table of colleagues. I’ll be representing an organisation I never thought I’d work for in a million years. VincentCare is an old, established Catholic charity that provides services to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. We also work with people experiencing family violence, or who struggle with poor mental health, or drugs and alcohol.
I started working here in May 2017, right in the middle of the marriage equality campaign and leading into the postal survey. As you will no doubt recall, the most vociferous opposition to our community at the time came from the Australian Christian Lobby and the Catholic Church. My job at VincentCare was to coordinate Rainbow Tick accreditation, a mechanism for making an organisation as queer friendly and inclusive as possible.
The irony was not lost on me.
But fast forward to the end of 2019 and VincentCare is a finalist in the “Protecting Our Community” category alongside two giants of our community, Switchboard Victoria and LGBTIQ Legal Service. We’re in that line-up because the staff of VincentCare – from the Board to the case managers and everybody in between – embraced the deeply transformative process that is Rainbow Tick accreditation.
Rainbow Tick is not well known in the LGBTIQ or broader community and I’m on a mission to change that.
At its core, Rainbow Tick is about challenging systems and creating cultural change, and embedding that in a service or organisation so that it’s sustainable over time. It’s about raising awareness, developing understanding and shifting attitudes. It’s not political, or radical, or sexy – it’s an accreditation process – and not generally regarded as a way of creating fundamental change – but I believe it is exactly that.
I think it’s a secret weapon.
Over a period of two years, that old, established, Catholic charity has become the go-to place for some of the most vulnerable people in our community: young, queer folk who’ve been kicked out of home, gay guys trying to deal with out-of-control party-drug use, trans and gender diverse people struggling with unemployment and long-standing trauma. All of them have been welcomed at VincentCare by respectful queer staff and allies who understand something of their lived experienced, and who have been able to provide them with specific targeted support and appropriate referrals.
Right now our new crisis accommodation facility in North Melbourne is nudging towards a 20% queer occupancy rate, and 60% of the residents in our drug and alcohol rehab are queer. In the last year, our Northern Community Hub in Glenroy has supported close to 50 queer clients and is receiving referrals from all the key LGBTIQ agencies. Their offices are permanently lit up with rainbows like an IDAHOBIT Day party.
When we surveyed our LGBTIQ clients last year, 100% agreed that VincentCare was a good place if you’re LGBTIQ.
Rainbow Tick is also about staff and making the work environment as safe and supportive as possible. I’d say the vast majority of our queer staff are out and they often tell me they feel safer here than they have in any previous workplace. We’ve set up an LGBTIQ Staff Group and meet regularly for lunch at our different sites; those lunches are always a highlight for me. I know our straight colleagues feel immensely proud to be part of an organisation that is leading the way in LGBTIQ inclusion. And everyone involved in this project talked to other people – friends, family, neighbours – they spread it. Widely.
Actually, I take back what I said about Rainbow Tick not being radical.
In order to achieve all that, VincentCare staff undertook a broad range of professional development training, everything from “101”, working with youth, elders, and the trans and gender diverse community to intersectionality, drug and alcohol issues, and intimate partner violence. We overhauled our data management system to include questions about identity, orientation, pronouns and intersex status, and coached staff on the why, what and how of asking those questions.
We scrutinised over 200 policies to ensure they complied with the principles of Rainbow Tick and developed an on-line library of peer support groups, relevant research and resources. We reviewed all our staffing procedures and documentation and formed a Gender and Sexuality Committee.
We established safe referral pathways for queer clients, wrote guides for staff, and did outreach with queer and mainstream agencies. We celebrated important days in the LGBTIQ calendar and marched at Pride for the first time. Rainbow flags and symbols, welcome statements and inclusive images filled our waiting areas, offices, and consulting rooms – and still do.
I’ve been an advocate for 30-plus years and I know there are many different ways to do social change. Having guided a large, faith-based organisation with 270 staff and some 100 volunteers through the process of Rainbow Tick, I have witnessed its capacity to bring about real, sustainable and meaningful change; Rainbow Tick works. And the beauty of it is that we can go about this work quietly and effectively even under a hostile government with proposed discriminatory laws.
So in pursuit of my aforementioned mission, I have spoken to some 50 or so different organisations about Rainbow Tick since we achieved it at VincentCare – about how they can create a better service and workplace for LGBTIQ people, about how they can help, support, affirm, protect, value, acknowledge, appreciate, and celebrate people from the queer community. And I’ve ask them to spread it, too. Widely.
So the job I agonised over accepting turned out to be a pretty good move. It’s taught me many things, not least of which is that we have to build bridges and work outside our bubble. Right now, I’m glad there are people in our community who are marching and rallying and lobbying but, to be honest, I’ve run out of puff for all that. Fortunately, there are many ways to create change and right now I’m loving the Rainbow Tick way.
Rainbow Tick is managed by Rainbow Health Victoria and you can find out more about it at www.rainbowhealthvic.org.au/rainbow-tick