I’ve been a volunteer facilitator with DRM for about eight months; I’ve run about 6 in-person sessions and 3 online ones, and it has been fabulous! I’ve learned so much, had inspiring experiences, and been tremendously heartened by the reception we have received.
Our one-hour classroom sessions, online or face-to-face, tend to follow a similar pattern. As a facilitator, I welcome the participants, give some background, set ground rules, and lead a discussion on what the acronym ‘LGBT+’ stands for. I’m pretty much a warm-up act for the real stars – our role models – who talk about their lived experiences as young people up to where and who they are in their lives now. Students then ask questions: either about LGBT+ stuff that concerns them, or about aspects of the role models’ lives. We finish off by signposting to further support and information.
It is tremendously fulfilling work, not just because it can be so useful to young people in schools, but also because I’ve received so much from them, their teachers and our role models themselves.
The role models:
I’ve been moved by all of our role models’ different stories, and really respect how powerfully and sincerely they openly discuss issues from their lives including: mental illness, addiction issues, bullying, suicidal ideation, religion, and so on. Early on in my DRM career, I made the mistake of watching all the role model story videos in one afternoon as I was emotionally overwhelmed by how much honesty they had.
At first, it was fascinating to hear about people whose experiences were very different from mine – trans and non-binary people for example – when I’m just your standard old white gay bloke. Often, I had to mentally adjust my own notions about things, whilst, of course, pretending that I’d always had a deep understanding of it – I am a facilitator after all! But even though the role models’ stories are for students, I have never failed to be inspired and instructed by them, including people with similar stories to my own, as everyone has a different ‘take’ on their life.
The young people:
As part of the facilitator training, we discussed dealing with difficult or unruly participants, but so far, I’ve found it considerably easier to work with young people than my ‘day’ job of training adults. The main thing I’ve been struck by, however, is how much knowledge on LGBT+ issues they bring to the session, which means discussions can quickly move away from basic level to often surprising questions. One asked us who our inspirations were, and really put us on the spot: we hadn’t studied for that test!
The other lovely surprise is how much empathy they have for the role models. There are often follow-up questions about how they coped with some of the things they’ve talked about, whether their parents intervened and so on. I’ve been very touched by the concern these young people have for others, whether that’s LGBT+ people generally or the role models they’ve met.
The teachers and staff:
I have been wonderfully ‘hosted’ in every school I’ve been to, with teachers going out of their way to welcome us and make the session work. This has especially been the case with online sessions where technical stuff always goes wrong, and teachers have been quite marvellously patient at getting it to work. Also, the teacher has to work harder in an online session, often acting as an intermediary, which they have all done with amazing goodwill. Other teaching staff often drop by to wish us well, which is lovely too. Once or twice in in-person sessions I’ve had a drop-in teacher who is unhappy with some of what we’re saying, but they’ve never heckled, just asked rather leading questions or ‘had a word’ afterwards.
Oh, and finally I’d better mention our own staff! The support and training I have had throughout the process, plus the organisation and appreciation afterwards have been wonderful, and made the whole experience even nicer. I had really useful feedback from the professional facilitators, and the rest of the team have all been wonderfully supportive as well. I love doing these sessions and am looking forward to running more of them and learning more.
– Ash Charlton, Volunteer Facilitator