By Aamer Esmail, former Manager of Youth and LGBTQ+ Services at Access Alliance. Aamer is currently the Newcomer Community Engagement Coordinator at Supporting Our Youth at Sherbourne Health Centre
As Toronto welcomes and celebrates World Pride this week to highlight lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer (LGBTQ+) communities in Toronto and around the World, Access Alliance is celebrating its commitment to being an inclusive and positive space for LGBTQ+ and newcomer clients, staff and community members.
My own journey of settling in Canada has been shaped by organizations like Access Alliance. When I arrived here in 2003, I didn’t know anyone and did not have much of an idea of what life would be like. I quickly started attending and volunteering with LGBTQ+ community organizations as it gave me an outlet to meet new people, learn new skills and not feel so alone in my settlement process.
But for many of my peers, it was a struggle.
It was a struggle to find spaces that were accepting of us – of our newcomer identities and our LGBTQ+ identities. At times we had to prioritize one over the other just to fit in. At times we hid one to not stand out. At times we just didn’t show up as it was easier to remain invisible.
So what changed?
Back in 2009, I had the privilege of coordinating the Among Friends Initiative, a project I had previously been an advisory member to. A partnership between Access Alliance, The 519 Church Street Community Centre and CultureLink, the aim of the initiative was to recruit and train LGBTQ+ newcomer volunteers, and together we trained service providers in Toronto on how to better serve LGBTQ+ newcomers. This meant services for LGBTQ+ newcomers needed to be competent to support their settlement process while also being LGBTQ+ inclusive and positive. Over 400 providers were trained when the project ended in 2010 and we thought we were done.
But we weren’t.
We were at a crossroads.
Was this it for our LGBTQ+ newcomer programming as around the same time many other programs like the Stepping Up to the Plate project and LGBTQ+ Settlement Services were wrapping up?
How would we ensure that those LGBTQ+ newcomer volunteers that were part of Among Friends would continue to stay engaged and help transform Access Alliance to the next level? How would we work together with partners and funders to prioritize LGBTQ+ newcomer communities as a key population to invest in?
At every level of the organization – staff, management, and board – there was a commitment to continue.
And so we did.
We reviewed each program and service area at Access Alliance to ensure that LGBTQ+ newcomers were included in the outreach and delivery. Staff and board were trained about LGBTQ+ positive spaces. LGBTQ+ newcomers were mentioned in every grant application as a priority population that Access Alliance was mandated to serve regardless of the type of service provided. Annual Pride events at our east and west Toronto locations took place to not only celebrate LGBTQ+ communities but also to raise awareness within other client populations about our commitment to diversity and inclusivity.
Every step counted. Our programming specific for LGBTQ+ newcomers evolved dramatically. From the small grant to create the You Are Among Friends booklet, to the year long NewTQs Project, to now having funding from the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration for one on one and group settlement services for LGBTQ+ newcomers.
And I evolved as well. I went from being a youth who didn’t know anyone when I arrived to Toronto to being the Manager for LGBTQ+ and newcomer services at Access Alliance – working along my peers to shape what services can look like for LGBTQ+ newcomers.
There is still a lot to do. Many of us are still invisible in our communities, our workplaces, our families and even to ourselves. And while Access Alliance has come a long way, we are not stopping anytime soon!
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Access Alliance is celebrating 25 years of service to newcomer populations in Toronto. Our journey has been a collaboration between people sharing the vision of a society in which all of its people, whether born into citizenry or newcomers to Canada, have equal access to health services. Today, we commemorate 25 years of helping newcomers achieve health with dignity and in finding a sense of belonging within an open and safe community. In recognition of this milestone, Newcomer Health Matters will host a special series of blog posts, each entry published on the 25th day of every month up until the end of the year. See the previous post in this series.