Healer Oliver Sanders discusses the ups and downs of being a Healer and carrying out social justice work in his community while dealing with mental issues. Learn about his journey, as well as what the Healers are doing to combat burnout in youth organizing.
A new year can mean new beginnings for some. For others, it can also mean another year survived and conquered.
The Healers as a whole went above and beyond what I thought possible in just a years’ time. It honestly feels like we’ve been around longer than just a year. We put on a few visioning workshops, where we asked for suggestions from local communities of what can we do better in the future so that our youth don't have to suffer. We hosted our own conference and even made appearances at a few others.
This post is about my first year as a Healer and what that experience has been like for me because I have grown a lot in the past year and experienced a lot of new things, and sometimes it’s hard to remember accomplishments while surviving.
It does feel weird to talk about only my experience but the more I sit and think about it, the more I realize how important it is that I share my experience as a Healer because I went through a lot in 2018 that ultimately helped shape me and push me towards being a better community organizer and advocate and an overall human being.
January 10th, 2018 marked the beginning of the Youth Healers Stand Up!, and it was around February that I was recruited to the organization. I had only a vague idea of what this organization was going to look like being that I am a slow learner (which is not a bad thing!!) and also for the fact that it was really just starting. Other members could probably agree that while we understood that our main goal is to end youth homelessness in Philadelphia, there wasn't a clear idea of what else we were going to do or how we would get there, because we still had to learn and figure out how to achieve our goals.
Homelessness is an issue that isn't solved overnight. We, the young people of the Healers, had full control over what we were going to do as an organization, but it was a matter of where to begin.
If I remember correctly, my first time participating in a Healers event was the Youth Visioning session at the Icebox Project Space in a rapidly gentrifying section of North Philly. This was a workshop put on by the Healers in partnership with Rasheedah Phillips of Community Futures Lab to try to talk to young people who have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity and envision what a world without youth homelessness looks like. We all worked together to try and come up with ideas of how to get there and what sort of systems would be in place to prevent young people from experiencing homelessness.
I definitely remember how anxious I was. I learn differently than most folks, and I learn best by watching and doing. Unless I get the opportunity to actually do the thing myself while or after watching it be done, I'll have very little idea of what is expected of me.
That being said, I went into the visioning session very scared. My anxiety has been known to grab a hold of me and keep me from going to things that I would really love to go to. It was a huge accomplishment for me to even show up.
And I did a lot that day! I helped with set up and take down, and I made sure that all participants (over 100 youth from the community!) got a slice of pizza when it was time for that. I also helped present our values to a group of over 100 youth and helped manage them as well. We didn’t expect that many young people to show up, so while it was overwhelming, it was also really rewarding.
I feel like I did a good job with what I actually did do! It was a really overwhelming experience for myself, especially being that was the first time I had done anything like that, but I still made it through to the end and for that I have to give myself a pat on the back.
The visioning session was a success and we got a lot of our main goals for our 2018 platform from that particular session. There were a lot of bright, young minds at that session and I can't thank them enough for being there and being willing to share their ideas with us. I hope they were able to realize that their words have power and with that power, they can do great, incredible things.
Something I realized from the first Visioning Session for myself, is that I prefer to do this community organizing work from a behind-the-scenes style. I am much more comfortable writing up blog posts about current issues or handling some parts of the social media/photography aspect of the work that we do, though I haven't done as much of that as I wanted.
That brings me to the next thing I want to discuss.
I don't remember much else I did after the visioning session because I was slowly but surely falling into a dark depression. As someone who has struggled with depression and mental health issues from a very young age, this wasn't anything new to me, but it was still painful and draining to say the least.
In just a few short weeks, my personal life was flipped upside down with my best friend/roommate moving out with giving me only a week’s notice, leaving me at risk for being homeless again. In addition to that, I lost my job due to medical reasons and them not being able to reasonably accommodate me, which made my fear of losing my housing even worse. And to top it all off, I had decided to end my relationship with my first serious partner after almost 2 1/2 years, so it really seemed like the weight of the world was at my shoulders.
I am very fortunate to have not lost my housing, and also it helps that my friend has moved back in since then, but because of the darkness that had consumed me, I found myself struggling to find the balance between self-care and community organizing.
I thought that if I got involved with the Healers and did more events with them, it would somehow "heal" me, and I wouldn't be depressed anymore. The reality is far from that. When I forced myself to try to go to events, I would feel bad.
If I committed to something and wasn't able to show up, I would still feel bad. I kept committing to things knowing that I wasn't in the right mental space to be doing this type of work.
Community organizing is draining and takes a toll on folks mentally, and sometimes it can bring up old traumas that we aren’t equipped to handle yet.
It's easier for me to say now because my mental health has gotten a lot better since then, but I definitely recognize and understand the importance of being able to step back and say "I've had enough for now. I need to take a break for my own mental health."
I was raised in thinking that mental health issues aren't valid because "they're in your head." Well... yes. That's why they're called mental health issues!! These illnesses occur in our brains, which is an organ very capable of getting sick like the rest of our organs.
If taking care of a broken bone involves lots of rest and self-care, why is it seen as shameful that mental health issues require similar care?
I'm definitely not saying that depression is cured by a nap and an ice pack or something of the sorts but taking care of one’s mental health should be seen as normal just like tending to a broken bone would be. I shamed myself for wanting to stay home and not do anything, when in reality, that's part of what I needed.
I got to a really low point last year. Lower than I have been in a while.
But I still survived. And I've grown from it. I've learned that it's okay to take space for yourself if your mental health is asking you to do so. I've learned that forcing myself to do things that I think might make me happy, can actually do more harm than good if I'm not in the right mindset. I can't focus on what young people are saying to me, telling me what we can do better in the future, if all I'm focused on is how awful I feel and all those intrusive thoughts telling me I'm not good enough.
I can't heal the world if I don't take the time to heal myself.
I started getting better towards the last few weeks of last year and have slowly began connecting with the Healers again. I'm almost constantly wondering what can we do for our cause? What's the next step we can take?
While I type this out, I'm working on another post for the Healers blog talking about what shelters can do better to protect trans and LGB folks, so stay tuned for that.
Doing this stuff is definitely a lot easier for me now that my mental health is at a much more manageable state. I'm glad I was able to take a step back and take care of myself, and I feel very lucky to have been able to access therapy that works well for me.
If folks are reading this and wanting to go into this type of work and advocacy, please remember to take care of yourself and just know that it's okay to take a break if you need to.
Organizing and advocacy work is mentally draining and so we are working on a model for a support group that we can utilize to better support each other in these processes, and then eventually present to our organizing community so that more people can use our model and help take care of each other.
I would like to end this by inviting fellow youth organizers to follow our work in developing a peer support group for young organizers called the SOUP, Supporting Our Unified Power. Stay connected so that we can share this resource with you this coming summer!
Follow the Healers and their work in promoting peer-to-peer support both in youth organizing and youth services by signing up for our newsletter. Email youthhealersstandup at gmail dot org to stay connected!
Stripping Title IX Protections for Trans People: What Does it Mean? What Can You Do? by Oli M. Sanders
Before I begin, I wanted to acknowledge that some of this content can be triggering to folks. There is going to be mention of some transphobia experienced in school, transphobia in shelters, and the whole post itself is about the recent attack on the trans community by the GOP Administration.
Another attack has been made on the transgender community by the current administration. Last year, there was a memo leaked stating that the current administration was creating a definition for “sex” under Title IX that would exclude transgender, gender non-conforming (GNC), and intersex people. The definition of sex is proposed to say, “a person's status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.” Currently there is no definition for sex in Title IX.
And for those who aren’t aware, Title IX protects people from gender-based discrimination in places such as schools or other federally funded institutions like shelters. With this proposal, trans folks are having their identities stripped from them in addition to not having protection from discrimination in school and other places. It doesn’t help that earlier last year, the administration has already rescinded an Obama-era decision to allow trans and GNC students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity in school. All of this is extremely harmful and dangerous to trans, GNC, and intersex people in this country.
There is still a lot of confusion about what exactly this proposal means and what it will do to the trans community. The unknown can be very scary, and this is one of those times. At least to me it’s scary. I’m no stranger to transphobia, just like most other trans/GNC folks.
I think about when I was living in various shelters throughout Philly and how lucky I was that I had my ID and that it reflects who I am as a person today. I was incredibly scared to be in adult men’s shelters as a 19-year-old queer individual, but I felt so lucky that I was several years into my transition already because I was always read as male at that point in time and never had my gender questioned. I heard transphobic comments and jokes not only made by the people who were living in these shelters with me, but also from the staff working there. It wouldn’t have been safe for me to have come out as trans.
There’s a lot that needs to be fixed within the shelter system regarding trans/GNC folks, but if this proposal were to go through it makes me think about where I would go if I was still homeless. Would they put me in men’s shelter because I look like a cisgender* man? Would they send me to a women’s shelter because of what I was assigned at birth? Or, would no one accept me because I don’t fit comfortably in societies idea of a man or woman, and would I be forced to stay on the streets? The latter is what a lot of trans folks already experience.
I graduated high school in 2014. My alma mater is a small school in a small rural community about 2.5 hours northwest of Philadelphia. I came out as trans to my school right before I started 11th grade. At that time, there were no protections for trans students, or if there were, I was not aware of them and was probably having them hidden from me, being that my high school and its administration is very transphobic. I spent the last two years of high school fighting for my right to be accepted and respected in that community. I was constantly arguing with teachers to call me the correct name, to use the correct pronouns, to acknowledge me as who I am and not what was written on a piece of paper. Every day was a fight to be seen. I had someone tell me that my teacher’s jobs were threatened if they used my “preferred” name and “preferred” pronouns**. My teachers risked losing their job if they wanted to respect me as a human being. Some teachers took that risk to call me the proper name, some tried meeting me in the middle by calling me my last name and avoiding pronouns at all, and others simply didn’t care and called me by my birth name and used the wrong pronouns. I had a teacher laugh at me when I asked her not to call me my birth name. I experienced bullying, harassment, and discrimination virtually every day I walked through my school’s front doors. It was an incredibly unsafe, hostile environment for me and the other trans people in school.
When I first came out in high school, I was identifying as a binary transgender man. I did everything I could to try and fit in and be seen as another guy and not some type of “other.” But no matter what I did, I was always told “no, you are this and not that.” I was constantly hearing that I will never actually be a guy and will always be a girl by both students and faculty. The one time that I tried making my principal aware of what I was going through, he told me that “boys will be boys,” and that there wasn’t much else he could do, even though students were giving me death threats. It was so dehumanizing and toxic that I am still shocked that I made it out of there alive. I’m still shocked and incredibly proud of myself for being able to graduate and receive my diploma from such a toxic environment. I had to fight for my right to exist every day up until graduation. I had to fight to be called the correct name when walking across the stage, to sit with the other guys in my class, and to be able to wear the same cap and gown color that the guys wore because I refused to leave that school as a “girl.”
If trans students’ protections from discrimination are erased, a lot of those young people are going to be pushed out of their school. What does that mean? Being pushed out of school means that someone was forced to leave their school for different reasons, including discrimination. They feel like they have no choice but to leave because their safety is threatened every day. There are plenty of schools with transphobic administrations that don’t even blink an eye when one of their students is pushed out of their learning environment. If a young person is pushed out of their school, they are more at risk to becoming homeless or housing insecure. In my own case, I imagine if I had dropped out when I wanted to, I would’ve been kicked out of my parent’s home then because they wouldn’t have supported me for dropping out, even if it was for safety reasons, because they did not support my transition or identity. It’s important to make sure that not only are trans youth experiencing support at school but also at home as well.
So many other trans people have similar experiences in school like my own. We aren’t supported in our learning environment, which is supposed to be a safe space ESPECIALLY because so many of our schools have adopted anti-bullying policies, and it leads to young trans people being pushed out of school and if they don’t have support at home either, they end up being pushed out of there too. According to the Voices of Youth Count survey, homeless trans youth tend to experience more severe types of discrimination and traumas. As well as LGBTQ+ young people in general who are homeless, usually become so not initially after they come out but after something else happens, sort of like the straw that broke the camel’s back. This country is failing trans people. They refuse to acknowledge us, let alone give us the protections and rights we deserve.
I had been working on this post for a few weeks now, trying to make sure that I had all the necessary information, trying to figure out what this really means for us. There was a viral video going around of a trans girl in school who was using the girl’s bathroom and was then exposed to several adult faculty members. What happened was a trans girl was using the girl’s bathroom, minding her own business, and the faculty of that school came in and unlocked the stall while she was in there, exposing her to several staff members. In the video, she calls them “perverts” for unlocking her stall while she was in there using it. I think that’s a very appropriate term for those staff members. So often, the argument against trans people using the bathroom that matches their gender identity is that we are “perverts” and that we are going to harm other people in the bathroom with us. In that video, you can see that this girl was doing no harm and that all the harmful behaviors and actions came from the cisgender adult staff members of that school who unlocked the bathroom stall exposing her, and then made her leave the school in a follow up video to the original one.
I’ve been thinking about her and wondering how she’s coping and what her plans are for school. I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up getting pushed out of her school. I don’t know what her home life looks like, but this is a very good example of how trans students are pushed out of school and if they don’t have support at home, they get kicked out of there as well and end up being homeless. That girl and other trans students need protections in their schools to protect them from things like this.
We need to protect trans/GNC people, especially trans women of color who are the most vulnerable in our already vulnerable community. Title IX is supposed to protect people from discrimination and if this proposal is adopted, it will open up more opportunities to continue discriminating against the trans community. The trans community needs protection, not more policies taking away our few protections and rights. The trans community needs protection. I say that again because it’s so important that people know that and acknowledge our struggles. We are struggling out here and we need all the help and love and support we can get.
If this proposal for sex to be defined in Title IX as “a person's status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” goes through then we are reducing people down to their genitals and erasing the 1.4 million Americans who identify as trans or GNC. This would mean that even though I have been taking testosterone for 4 years and have had most of my legal documents changed to reflect who I am today, I would be referred to as a female because that’s what I was assigned at birth and is what my original birth certificate said. The only way to counteract what someone’s birth certificate says is to undergo genetic testing. The government would get to decide who I am, instead of me being able define that for myself. It’s dehumanizing and erasure.
If this proposal goes through, a lot of people will get hurt or worse, they will die. Whether it’s at the hands of transphobic violence or if a person decides they had enough and takes their life, a lot of people are going to suffer. The Trans Lifeline*** is a suicide hotline specifically for trans people and ran only by trans people. They reported that in the week after the administration announced this proposal, they had four times the amount of calls they normally get and had twice as many first-time callers than usual. People are already suffering from this and unfortunately, I’m afraid it will only get worse if the proposal passes.
Everything that I experienced in high school wouldn’t be considered discrimination with this definition of sex potentially being added to Title IX. I don’t want any other trans student to have to go through what I did in my final two years of high school.
I want a future where trans students don’t have to be afraid about whether or not they will be called the proper name or pronouns by their teachers, or if they will be allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
I want future trans and GNC students to feel safe in their learning environment and feel that if they do experience some sort of discrimination, that their school and government will be there to help them with whatever they need to heal and move forward.
There’s a lot to process in this post and I realize that. What can you, the reader, do now while we wait to hear if this policy will be adopted? From my understanding, it’s just a waiting game to hear if it will go through and be accepted, and if it is, most likely it will see a lot of rebuttal through court battles and might even end up at the Supreme Court. For now:
If you are trans, know that you are loved and worthy of respect. You are enough. You are an amazing human being no matter what the government tries to do to us. Your identity is valid even if the government refuses to accept that, no one can tell you who you are except for yourself. You know yourself better than some gross old men in government. You are strong, and we will overcome this.
***Trans Lifeline’s number: US: 877-565-8860 or Canada: 877-330-6366
*Cisgender: A person whose gender identity matches what they were assigned at birth.
**A trans person’s name and pronouns should not be considered preferred, they are mandatory.
****GNC: Gender non-conforming
This summer, I did an interview talking about my experiences being homeless while also discussing family trauma. However, what didn’t make it into the article was how I managed to get out of that situation, and all the hard work that me and my team at Youth HEALers Stand Up have done to keep youth, adults, and the community informed about what’s going on in our communities relating to youth experiencing homelessness.
In the mist of my desire to help people like me I became a Youth Healer.
A Youth Healer is a person that advocates for youth ages 13-24 that are dealing with homelessness and/or housing insecurity. For us, housing insecurity can mean a number of things like staying in an overcrowded home, couch surfing, or even a situation like having mold in your walls and it’s unsafe to live there.
During my time of being a Youth Healer I have had the honor of working on a bunch of different activities leading up to our Heal the Future conference I and my teammates have been working hard on helping to plan and coordinate.
My favorite experience this summer has been working with children of Bartram’s Village, an affordable housing complex that is in the process of redevelopment in Southwest Philly. I have gotten to meet so many wonderful kids there that are interested in changing their community and making it a better place. There, me and other members of the Healers created and led a visioning session and an arts workshop to help them take power into their own hands. These workshops teach them how to have a voice and a say with what happens in their community while it is going through redevelopment. While we teach them about how to improve their community, we also help them get together an ideas they would like to present at the Heal the Future Youth Power conference that the Healers are hosting alongside other great youth-led organizations.
The Heal the Future conference will showcase the abilities of youth activists and advocates and the many great things they have accomplished in creating change for youth in Philadelphia. The youth will be teaching others about ways to make change as a young person, ways to deal with ageism and discrimination, and strategies different youth groups use for different issues, from youth homelessness, to educational justice, mass incarceration, and workforce development for young people.
I am very excited for this event and very proud of my team and myself. I have also been able to plan out and participate meetings to recruit and prep youth led social justice groups in the city, called different venues to secure space, plan conference activities, invite decision-makers and youth groups to attend, plan discussion questions and event materials, and everything else we need in order for the event to run as smoothly as possible. I have also been getting to know the other members of Youth HEALers Stand Up, like Joseph Hill-Coles who is a Healer’s member, as a community navigator at Youth Service Inc. where he helps youth like me find housing, employment and other resources.
Not only have I a learned about so many different organizations and groups in Philly that are willing to help Youth in the community become who they want to be. I have also come to realize that not only do politicians and government officials have power, but we as young people in Philly have power to change the ways of our communities and to better ourselves and those around us.
To learn more about the Healers please register for our Heal the Future Conference, whether you are a young person who wants to make a difference, or who has struggled with homelessness, dropping out, or incarceration, OR if you are an adult who wants to help.
To hear more about Cori's work, check out her interview as a local Changemaker with Cherri Gregg on FlashPoint at KYW.
Hello and welcome to the Youth HEALers blog. This is an introductory post to tell you who we are. Today’s blog post is brought to you by Miguel and the free wi-fi at this coffee shop.
Who are the Youth Healers?
Officially we are a group of young people ages 24 and under who have experiences with homelessness and housing insecurity who are fighting to end youth homelessness in the city of Philadelphia.
The acronym HEAL stands for Housing, Education, Action, and Leadership which shows a little bit of what our mission as an organization is.
While our overall goal is to end youth homelessness in Philly, as Healers we want to be able to take our experiences and stories and share them to give a voice to the underheard. Young people are so often left out of the conversation when it comes to homelessness and so people don’t know what it looks like and don’t know what to do to help.
That’s where the Healers come in!
We’re here to educate the community about the life of young people experiencing housing insecurity in Philly, whether that means living in a shelter, couch surfing, or some other form of unstable housing that youth experience. We are also here help promote the creation of solutions by youth themselves to help empower and support youth affected by homelessness. We want to make connections with communities, leaders, and decision makers to make real change about the issue that is youth homelessness.
This has barely begun to scratch the surface of who the Healers are and what we do.
I can keep saying that we are fighting to end youth homelessness and what the acronym stands for until I’m blue in the face, but it only gives a slight glimpse into the life of a Healer.
Myself, I started with the Youth Healers in February or March of this year. It was still the very beginning for the Healers being that the organization formed in January, in fact I was told that the name Youth HEALers Stand Up was thought of just during the last meeting before I was brought in. I found out about this group when I was participating in the Philly Youth Count survey one of the adult leaders in my group told me about it and eventually connected me to Rashni, the adult organizer for the Youth Healers. I was telling this person that as someone who has experience with living in shelters as a small, anxious, visibly queer 19-year-old, I want to do more for people who are still in that situation. I want to be the person I needed when I was younger. I know that my experiences were extremely stressful and traumatic at times and I want to make sure that one day there is a future where no young person has to go through what I went through. That’s why I joined the Healers.
We have a number of initiatives in the works, from visioning sessions, to support groups, to developing models for youth-led housing programs. This summer however we are mainly focused on our Heal the Future Youth Power Conference.
August 18th will be our first annual Heal the Future conference, a conference put together by young leaders for young leaders and allies. We will be joined by youth leaders from local youth-led groups including:
The Young Adult Leadership Committee @ The Office of Homeless Services
Youth Fostering Change
Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project
Bartrams Village Dancers from Bartrams Village affordable housing community
Philadelphia Student Union
The Village of Arts and Humanities
We’ll be hosting workshops that focus on things like how to go about advocating for social justice while also dealing with housing insecurity, how to strategize for social change as a young person, and also teaching skills to adult leaders and decision makers on how to work with youth and make sure they’re listening to and respecting us.
With teaching these skills to adults and working with them so they can be better prepared to help us, we’re working on one of our current platforms which is to help professionals working in these youth serving institutions be able to more effectively treat and help youth with cultural differences, mental health issues, and/or LGBTQ issues.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT OUR CONFERENCE, REGISTER, OR SEE HOW YOU CAN SUPPORT THE HEALERS MISSION