Investing in Queer and Trans People of Color through Mentorship

Portland State University student Samantha L. Taylor (Photo credit: David Jacobo)
Portland State University student Samantha L. Taylor (Photo credit: David Jacobo)

Ed. Note: Samantha Taylor is the Queer Students of Color Resources and Retention Coordinator at Portland State University. PQ Monthly welcomes her thoughts and experiences in this, the first in an ongoing series.

The 2014-2015 academic year marks the implementation of our first successful yearlong Queer Students of Color Internship Program at Portland State University’s (PSU) Queer Resource Center (QRC). I have been working one-on-one with a student-intern to strengthen their leadership skills, assist in producing new programming for queer and trans people of color (QTPOCs; CutiePocs!), and develop the intern’s community- and conference-organizing skills. The QRC’s internship program is a testament to our commitment of engaging QTPOCs in on-campus student leadership.

When QTPOCs are promoted or invited into leadership positions we are still beholden to white supervisors and white cultural norms, all of which dictates an individual’s success relies solely on merit. This is a familiar fallacy. Due to the nature of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, we still have white people in positions of power and as decision makers in similar numbers as they historically have been.

As QTPOCs begin to slowly trickle into professional jobs and community leadership positions, we have to answer to mostly white/white-passing higher-ups—who, for fear of perpetuating oppressive behavioral actions that create an unsafe or otherwise oppressive workplace, often show trepidation in providing us with the types of relevant and supportive supervision we need in order to be successful in our work.

The hesitation in providing leadership is often referred to as a “hands-off” approach, though what comes through is an experience of mild deference that does not serve the organization or the community. This kind of hyper self-awareness stalls growth. It’s also quite effective at marginalizing QTPOC, however unintentionally, in our work environments.

Often our organizations operate under local liberal angst, where people push for the implementation of “diversity.” A coded word, in this case, meant to describe an obligation to hire a person of color. Rarely, if ever, does this code extend to necessitate the meeting of other “diversity quotas,” such as seeking out a qualified candidate who may be trans, or disabled, or queer, or—dare I say it—all of the above.

I don’t claim to offer perfect solutions as to how white supervisors can assuage their guilt and provide a better work experience for their QTPOC staff. However, I will suggest that an open and honest assessment of the workplace may be a fine starting point. For white supervisors of QTPOC, consider what it would mean to engage in a transparent, responsive and accountable process that seeks to follow through on identified needs and goals for QTPOC staff members. For QTPOC, how would it change your work-life to receive this kind of support from supervisors? And, is it enough?

Institutions must actively recruit and hire more QTPOC in full-time positions. When QTPOC are brought into low-level professional or community work requiring less skills, their supervisor must openly express and act upon an interest in their employee’s positive development to help them set and surpass work-related goals.

We live among a pervasive idea that says as long as QTPOC can get in the door and on the payroll, the work is done.

We are more than just your tokens.

QTPOC employees should not have to expend the energy, not to mention the valuable work hours that could be spent furthering our goals, educating our supervisors as to how to “manage” us. When this happens it becomes difficult for us to fully engage in our work and can detract from the mission at hand, thus negatively impacting our work and work environment.

What we witness within small microcosms of university culture are brief, though ongoing, conversations centered on best practices to engage with people whose gender expression or sexual orientation is different from one’s own.

Much of this work has been taken on by the QRC through facilitation of trainings and workshops with staff and faculty members of various departments on campus to ensure that queer and trans students are receiving relevant and respectful care. The QRC is a small and underfunded center on campus. While we try and do as much as we can to push for positive change, at this point we can only do so much with limited staff and resources.

I can honestly say that much of my success as a scholar, an artist and a community organizer can be attributed to the mentors I currently have and have had along the way. Based on this experience, I view it as my responsibility to provide others with similar exposure.

My best mentors have included previous employers, university professors and peers, most of whom are gay and/or queer. People who saw something in me, noticed I was struggling, and they elected to help me along my path, in one way or another. Thus investing in me, when all the external messages I received told me that I don’t belong here, or in college.

When overt discrimination (racism, transphobia, and misogynoir) and covert discrimination (nepotism and educational requirements) are employed as exclusionary practices that systematically target QTPOCs and track us away from professional, academic and community jobs, opportunities, and information to succeed, it would behoove us to turn inward and seek solutions.

Facilitating our own mentorship relationships can fill in the gaps left by organizations’ and universities’ supervisors who are not invested in QTPOCs, our communities, or our work.

To the QTPOCs reading this who are active in the community and at their universities: Be willing to make yourselves available as mentors, host skill-shares, and actively recruit and retain other QTPOCs who may or may not view college or social change work as an option.

Now more than ever it is imperative that we continue to build positive and impactful mentor/mentee relationships within QTPOC communities. As we witness Black and Brown people, majority youth-led, across the U.S. demand social change and justice, it becomes increasingly important that we control our narratives.

By putting our energies into our own communities, (re)focusing on our issues, knowing that we are the experts in our own lives, and imagining then actualizing solutions, I believe we can do the work to help develop our community’s next generation of leaders and social change makers.

Samantha L. Taylor is an undergraduate student at Portland State University. She is a McNair scholar, a writer, an artist, and an agitator. Samantha drinks copious amounts of black tea to get through the day, and consumes a fair amount of sci-fi to get through the nights.