As any Steve Carell fan will tell you, the workplace is a tough place to survive. For those at the less visible sections of society, such as lesbian /gay /bisexual, and transgender people, just getting their foot in the door of a workplace can be as trying as the workday itself. This is where the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center (The Center) comes in. Opened in 2002, The Center serves as a multi-faceted resource for members of the LGBT community. The Center hosts an Economic and Workforce Development Department to support the financial aspect of many of their members’ lives.
Started in late 2003 with an initial grant from the Mayor’s Office of Community Development of $75,000, this program received strong support from Bevan Dufty, Supervisor for District 8 and an original founder of The Center. To date the program has served thousands of LGBT community members, and it has received additional funding from private companies as large as Bank of America and Wells Fargo. The Economic Development Program also receives fee income and in-kind support for their workforce development programs from a wide variety of companies such as McKesson, Charles Schwab, Clorox, and the Kimpton Group, as well as the City of San Francisco.
Ken Stram, Director of EconomicDevelopment for The Center, says, “Our philosophy is that it is not enough to have a job. People should have a good job. We’re helping people have jobs that provide benefits and a supportive environment.” The three main areas of focus for this initiative are workforce development, business development, and financial growth and planning. The broad range of this initiative means The Center does everything from hosting job fairs to leading workshops on managing debt and planning for retirement, as well as providing one-on-one counseling for LGBT people who want to start their own businesses.
One focused project for The Center is their new Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative (TEEI). This program specifically addresses the extra hurdles faced by the transgender community. Stram says that people still in transition or those who have recently gone through the transition process have often had to drop out of the workforce entirely or at the very least reduce their work time. If these individuals have changed their name it can be difficult for the employer to check references or complete a background check without the applicant disclosing their status up front. “A wall develops before the interview even starts,” says Stram. The TEEI program works on both matching companies with transgender individuals who are actively seeking employment as well as helping employers adopt workplace practices that support the needs of transgender people.
Stram points out that all of these programs benefit the overall economic picture of the Bay Area in both direct and indirect ways. Most obviously is the fact that it keeps LGBT employees in the city. According to the Department of Public Health, the average stay for a gay man in San Francisco is less than five years. A big reason for this high turnover is the economic difficulties associated with the high cost of living and tight housing market. The Center’s Economic Development Department provides a way for membersof the LGBT community to find jobs, start businesses, and contribute positively to the economic activity of the city. These support programs also make a substantial impact by increasing the diversity profile of individual workplaces. As Stram summarizes, “Diversity makes for stronger companies.”
Job fairs are one of the more popular events hosted by The Center. Stram points out that there is very little difference between a job seekers expectations regarding a job fair at The Center and one down at the Moscone Center (for example). “Ours are more intimate, but people still need to be professional and persistent. They need to take the time to follow up.” One difference for a job fair at The Center, however, is it eliminates the worry about whether or not to disclose one’s sexuality, “The nice thing about these job fairs is people can say to themselves going in that the employer is cool with me being who I am.”
Now in its third year, The Center’s Economic Development Department will expand the variety of programs it offers. They plan to increase the number of workshops for employers to learn how to make their workplaces more supportive for LGBT people. Another goal is to develop a mentoring program to help transgender job seekers find work and navigate the various obstacles they face in the workplace. Stram cites the examples of the sensitive conversations that need to take place surrounding a person’s transition in the workplace. “The Center is currently working with employers on these types of issues, because “You tend not to listen to advice unless it is from somebody you trust. It would be wonderful if someday services like these weren’t necessary. But that isn’t going to happen any time soon. In the future we want to do a better job of following the progress of the placements and building stronger relationships with employers and so we can be a resource when issues arise relating to retention arise.”