Published: Monday, May 02 2016
Written by Diversity Richmond
Program Coordinator, Debra Terry, has been with Diversity Richmond for four years, first as an intern and then as an employee. As a seasoned activist, Debra has spent the past four years helping to strengthen the bonds of the LGBTQ+ community and advocating for the needs of LGBTQ+ individuals. Though she loves the work that she does, Debra will be moving on to her next adventure by the end of May. As her intern, I was able to sit down with her to discuss more about the journey that she has been on and the new one that lies ahead.
Becoming a Social Worker
Debra’s journey began as a graduate student in the Masters of Social Work (MSW) program at Virginia Commonwealth University, but becoming a social worker, Debra says, was an accident. She had studied psychology during her undergraduate program, and she originally wanted to do counseling. Social work was the quicker and cheaper way to pursue this career path, but when Debra started the program, she was not satisfied. In fact, she hated it and felt like she was “just trying to survive.”
But these feelings changed when she fell in love with her social justice class, which was taught by Terry Pendleton at the time. “It changed my orientation from micro to macro because I was so taken by issues of social justice. Through the class, I started to identify with the social work profession.”
Ending up at Diversity Richmond
During her first year in the social work program, Debra interned at Minority Health Consortium. At Minority Health Consortium, she did work focusing on HIV education, outreach, testing, and prevention. She was placed there because of her interest in sexual risk reduction in transgender communities. After this experience, she knew she wanted to work specifically in transgender and queer communities for her second year internship, and Diversity seemed like the best place to do this. Starting off at Diversity was rough and rocky because she was the first social work intern they had ever had, but she positions it as being a valuable learning experience for both her and the organization.
Debra credits her experience as an intern to Rita McNeil, her supervisor from Minority Health Consortium. Once Debra left there, Rita was gracious enough to volunteer her time at Diversity so Debra could do her internship here. If it were not for Rita, Debra says she doesn’t know where she would be right now.
Watching Diversity Richmond Grow
Over the years, Debra has seen many changes occur at Diversity Richmond. One of the most significant changes she has noticed is the intentional shift to become more inclusive. When Debra started, Diversity Richmond was still known as the Gay Community Center of Richmond (GCCR). At the time, a community-based needs assessment had been conducted and found that many identities within the community felt excluded from GCCR. Many felt that the organization seemed to be channeling most of its energy into catering to the needs of specifically white, gay adults.
Since then, Diversity has rebranded and made a conscious attempt at becoming more inclusive, but as Debra mentions, there’s still more work that needs to be done. “It’s a process. It’s never over. We always have to be inclusive, truly inclusive, and we have to have a really intersectional lens that we do this work through, to make sure we are working with, and supporting, all members of our community.”
Most Rewarding Experience
Debra’s time at Diversity Richmond has been full of rich experiences, both rewarding and tough. When asked about her most rewarding experience, Debra mentions the Trans Inclusive Shelter Project (TISP). TISP is a program at Diversity Richmond which Debra, personally, got to develop and implement. The goal of the organization is to influence policies and practices of homeless shelters and services in order to create safer places for transgender individuals experiencing homelessness or unstable housing. The idea for the project was sparked by a single client of Debra’s. A young transwoman reached out to Debra looking for resources because she had just turned 18 and was asked to leave her grandmother’s home, but she had nowhere to go.
At the time, Virginia’s policy on housing according to gender identity did not exist, and Debra’s client was forced to go into a men’s shelter. Since then, things have changed. Shelters are now required to house folks according to their gender identity, and the team of advocates who make up TISP including Debra, Afton Bradley from Fan Free Clinic, Nichele Carver from the Department of Housing and Community Development, Alex Wagaman from VCU’s School of Social Work, and Rae Obejero from St. Joseph’s Villa continue to work toward inclusive, affirming policy and practice within homeless services.
Even though this is the case, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done around educating and training homeless shelter providers on competent and friendly care for transgender individuals. In order to address this issue, TISP is getting ready to do a statewide, educational webinar series in May. This will be Debra’s last project both with TISP and Diversity Richmond.
Debra’s next journey is going to be in the mountains in Montana. Her and her partner will be moving out there at the end of May to continue working on the cabin they currently have half built. Debra’s extremely excited to be heading out there because it’s going to be something brand new for her. “We’re going to build and play in the snow and figure things out.”
As for her work, Debra is approaching it as an experiment. The closet city is an hour and 15 minutes away, and the closest town might be a bit too conservative for the work she wants to do. “...There’s an LGBTQ+ community center [in the city], and homeless shelters, and Planned Parenthood, so the things that I have interest in and/or experience in are not at my fingertips. I thought a little bit about organizing and trying to do some rural organizing, but I just don’t know. And I think that’s okay. Because the first thing I need to do is to go out there and take care of me and myself and do what I’m doing with my partner. And as far as work goes, I think I need to go out there and look and listen and be quiet, and see what’s out there.”
To Community Members
“As it relates to my beloved LGBTQ+ Greater Richmond Community, and as it relates to this work, and my organization, I would say... we always need to be effortful and mindful of inclusion in the work that we are doing. We’ve seen a lot of really great successes, but we still have a lot of work to do in our community. It can be really easy to grab our little success and just run away with it and feel good (and we should feel good), but I think we really need to focus on the vast amount of work that needs be done.
It’s really important to look around and stand with the folks who need us the most, and be with people who are facing the greatest obstacles due to systemic oppression, homophobia, transphobia and racism. That’s where our focus should be; standing with, sitting with, working with our folks who are most vulnerable to bigotry and violence. Fundraisers, and mixers, and social events are important. But we also need to be out in the community working with local homeless shelters, in schools talking with students and teachers, on the street with our fellow protesters, and remembering to show up and challenge politicians and employers to be inclusive.”
Debra’s last day is officially April 27th, but she’ll still be helping out around Diversity Richmond until the end of May. Be sure to stop in, wish her goodbye, and say thank you!
Pictured: Debra Terry and board member Rodney Lofton