Meet the South Carolinians connecting queer youth to mental health resources

Reckon is collaborating with KMSG and Candid, two groups that consult with non-profits, to profile some of the challenges facing philanthropic organizations across the country. Read more about this series here.

Trans and LGBTQIA people in the South face significant threats to their rights and safety. Discrimination, harassment, and violence are common, with high rates of hate crimes and police brutality targeting these communities. Recently, there has been a surge of legislation aimed at rolling back the hard-fought rights of trans people specifically (and the broader queer community at large), including bills that restrict access to gender-affirming (health)care, ban trans youth from participating in school sports, ban drag performances and restrict the rights of queer groups to gather in their own spaces, and allow discrimination against LGBTQIA individuals under the guise of religious freedom. These efforts further marginalize an already vulnerable population, making it essential to continue advocating for and supporting the rights and well-being of trans and LGBTQIA individuals in the South and beyond.

With those threats in mind, KMSG and Reckon wanted to explore work going on at the local level to support Southern queer people. We Are Family (WAF), led by Domenico Ruggerio, is a non-profit organization based in Charleston, South Carolina that works to improve and uplift the lives of LGBTQIA youth and their families. WAF’s mission is to provide support systems and resources in response to emerging needs in their community. At a critical time for queer and trans youth, WAF’s unique model of advocacy brings youth voices front and center as a means to build a more inclusive and long-term form of leadership.

Reckon and KMSG spoke with Domenico to learn more about the importance of this organization’s presence in the Lowcountry and their goals as they look towards the future of their grassroots work.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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KMSG: Can you share how you became involved with We Are Family?

Domenico Ruggerio: I have been involved with We Are Family in the role of ED for almost two years. Prior to being in South Carolina, I completed graduate school in SUNY New Paltz and I spent 12 years working in higher-ed running LGBTQ centers and student of color cultural centers. What brought me down here, in 2014, was working at a local university in town, the College of Charleston, where I was running a leadership program. After four or five years doing that, I pivoted to the world of nonprofits. So I got to know a lot of the nonprofits doing some much-needed and important work in the South Carolina Lowcountry. I made my way to Teach For America South Carolina, first supporting our teachers in the state and helping move the needle on educational equity in the state. What first got me really interested in the work of We Are Family is that [it was] very much a grassroots, boots on the ground nonprofit. I joke with my team that we’re so grassroots that we are out in the yard, eating worms and planting seeds for our youth. We have a small and mighty team. There are three full-time staff and three part-time staff running 12 activations across all of our programs. One thing that makes us really unique and interesting and special in the South, and especially South Carolina, is all of our full-time staff are queer and non-binary folks of color doing this work.

KMSG: In light of how you describe your on the ground work, which program or programs do you see as the most impactful?

Ruggerio: We have a holistic approach to the work that we do; we provide both direct services as well as youth leadership development, movement building and grassroots organizing. We are very intentional in ensuring that the basic needs of youth must be met before we are able to work with them on the leadership skills that they can carry with them to lead in their communities. Our most-needed and most resource-intensive work that has come out of these past couple of years, during the thick of things with COVID-19, is our Mental Health Assistance program that we launched in April of 2021. This program provides free therapy to queer and trans youth in our region – especially for youth who wouldn’t be able to afford it. There are plenty of studies coming from Trevor Project [and other similar organizations], that states proposing for and having conversations around legislating trans youth bodies, the sports that they play, the books that they read, and the medical services they can receive lead to higher rates of suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, and social isolation for queer and trans youth. We see all of that coming from the legislation and bills from our state house and it trickles down to our youth. We partner with a network of 19 affirming therapists and that is truly life-saving work. We’re really proud to have launched that program and have continued to sustain it long term. Since launching our program, we have provided more than 1,000 hours of one-on-one therapy sessions.

KMSG: That’s incredible. It’s also a really good example of how I think organizations on the ground, like you, can react in real time to the issues.

Ruggerio: Yeah, we’re nimble because of our size and the nature of the work we do. The interesting thing is that this [programming] is coming from emerging needs of our youth and the folks that we work with. Looking at the landscape, I would say our mental health services and youth advocacy work is meeting the moment.

KMSG: Right, there is a lot of legislation around gender-affirming care and how that is provided. You’ve talked a bit about how that affects queer and trans youth mental health; have you seen any other direct effects? If so, I’m curious to hear how you handle this with the community.

Ruggerio: We’re getting a lot more hate mail than we’ve ever received, and it’s our badge of honor. We have to be much more cautious and mindful of the way that we advertise our services. When we have in person events or meetings, like social support groups, we have to be very, very mindful of not making that information public – more so now than ever before.

KMSG: Something we focus on is the importance of giving to community-based, progressive nonprofits in the South, because they do not get consistent funding. I would be really interested to hear, as an executive director identifying funders, if you experience a lack of education and understanding around the importance of organizations, like yours, who are based in the South.

Ruggerio: Considering the size of our team and the range of our programs, as the ED I wear many different hats, and [fundraising] is the hat that I consider my strength. And, my goodness, in nearly the past two years, it’s been an absolute learning experience for me in terms of getting a sense of how not only LGBTQ organizations get funded in the South, but also how social justice, grassroots orgs, get funded more broadly.

We haven’t been able to, and we don’t have the infrastructure to do, any sort of state or federal grant applications right now. So all of our foundation grants, which make up about 60% of our revenue, are from family foundations. I spend a lot of time working with our existing funders and having to be upfront and honest by saying, “I’m gonna need you to make an introduction to other funders and advocate for our work…can you do a donor briefing for us?” If it’s a family foundation, I’m always asking, “Can y’all host a dinner [for us] to meet your friends and talk about our work?” The funding landscape is tough. Having said that, our multi-year funders, specifically Cyprus Fund and the Freeman Foundation, understand our work and recognize that there is a funding disparity and a real need.

We Are Family hasn’t been a darling for some of the really big funders; there’s very much an invite-only sort of process that exists. In a way, it’s gatekeeping. Also, the We Are Families of the world don’t get funded, and the South doesn’t get funded, in the same way as other parts of the nation. But the South is where it’s needed, where the highest concentration of queer folk are. I will also mention that South Carolina doesn’t get as much love as North Carolina and Georgia.

KMSG: Yeah, that really resonates. I think it very much tracks with a lot of what we’re hearing from other smaller nonprofits, specifically in the South. There’s not a lot of outside money coming into the South, but even within the South, there’s a lot of disparity between the states, with a lot of the funding going to states like Georgia and Florida.

Ruggerio: My big philosophy around that is that we, as a community-based, grassroots organization, have to live our values and push back against the frameworks of competitive resource-hoarding. Fortunately, there is a real sense of support and sharing of information between us and our sibling organizations in North Carolina. For example, in conversations with other ED’s we share and ask, “Have you heard about grant X, or do you know of any capacity building grants?”, or, “Let me introduce you to the program officer.” I push back against the attitude of, “We made this connection, so now we must hold it tight to our chest.” I mean, I understand why some organizations do that, but that’s not how I look at the work. For me, it is very much a win if I have a similar organization competing for a grant and they receive it – that’s fantastic.

KMSG: Hearing your perspective and approach to grants, I’m really interested in hearing more about the Trans Love Fund you’ve established because, based on what I’ve read, it seems very much in line with pushing back against resource-hoarding and providing funding where and when it’s needed most.

Ruggerio: Absolutely. The Trans Love Fund is a fantastic micro-grant, meant to be a rapid-response resource for low barrier needs for any trans and gender non conforming people in the entire state of South Carolina. So, if you’ve got a bill to pay, if you need support with rent, food, or medical expenses, [the application for funds] opens up the first week of every month and we disperse funds until we’re out. This came from one of our other programs, called Spirit Day, a national push against Anti-LGBTQ bullying in school. One of our 2013 keynote speakers was LaVerne Cox, and one of the youth speakers named some of the challenges that they’ve had for accessing HRT and shared the medical barriers that they faced. TLF came from that event and that need. Since then, it has served as mutual aid and what I really love about the initiative is that we have a committee of trans-identified folks in various organizations who make the decisions on how to disperse the funds, and we continue to fund that through sponsorships from local businesses.

KMSG: That’s amazing. I love hearing about how the decisions are made in terms of giving out the funds and that it’s a trans identifying committee. I suspect that’s relatively unique among organizations of your size. Considering how your programs have evolved, can you share what you see for WAF’s future in the next few years?

Ruggerio: The first that comes to mind in the next couple of years is really thinking about how to make the mental health assistance program sustainable long-term. Our model aims to leverage community knowledge and skills. We currently have 19 therapists in our network who give us one pro bono support for a number of hours per year. Afterwards, they provide one-hour sessions for $75. Our Mental Health Assistance program, like all of our other programs, is a key element of youth leadership. It has a Queer Youth Approval Board filled with youth, and they are the ones who give the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down to the therapists in our network. They give feedback on if they would feel comfortable speaking to them and they also help Chandler, our Mental Health Coordinator, with cultural competency training with nearly a hundred therapists in our area. I am very much interested in flipping the norm within nonprofits where typically Needs Assessment are conducted. I’d like to flip that by doing community asset-mapping. We have the resources that we need in our region, in Charleston and the Triad County area. We’ve got what we need to be able to think through how to sustain this program. There are pathways that need to be surveyed, like connecting with more institutions here in the community that have masters level or doctoral level social workers, and thinking about how we can partner with them.

Our five-year space lease ends at the beginning of 2024. I’m really excited to see what our next space will be. Two-thirds of our current space now is for our social enterprise, which is a thrift store. I would love to be able to build out whatever wish-list items and ideas the team has in terms of the space. I would really love to be able to have our space feel much more like a community center. But first, we’ve got to keep building awareness of – and support for – our work.

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