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A Fragmented System of Organizations February 1, 2009

Posted by aufderhr in Uncategorized.
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After deciding the basic plan for what we wanted to achieve we started to contact other organizations in the region that could give us some guidance, offer volunteer opportunities, and perhaps provide a speaker.  A few Internet searches provided many different types of organizations, which could usually be put in one of the following categories: legislative activism or local support center/shelters.  Usually the organizations either focused on homelessness issues or LGBT issues, but not both.  The few cases that focused on both were the local support centers that had more direct contact the people they served.  Though I expected this fragmentation, it is amazing to see it in practice.  Each group is very specialized for their issue.  In most cases if you ask about anything outside their normal scope they refer you to a different organization.

We started contacting local support organizations that might be willing to host us for a volunteer project.  Some were youth homeless shelters that also offered programs for LGBT youth; others were local community centers for LGBT youth.  These kinds of organizations were most likely have some focus on both homelessness and LGBT issues.  Larger groups usually did not cover such a specific issue and recommended we contact more local groups.  For example, when we called the Minnesota branch of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, they essentially told us that they don’t really deal with those issues (which may be evidence of elitism in LGBT movements as Jane suggests in her post).  They recommended a local LGBT youth center instead.

We encountered some of the same problems when tried to contact groups that specialized in the Minnesota Youth Advancement Act.  We are particularly interested in a subsection of this act: the Minnesota Homeless and Runaway Youth Act.  We contacted a group called Grasstops.  According to their website,

“Grasstops directs the Minnesota Youth Advancement Act (MYAA) for the Minnesota Youth Services Association, a comprehensive effort to pursue public policy reform to increase opportunities and resources for youth, and was part of the advocacy effort that successfully secured $1 million in state funding for Runaway and Homeless Youth Services!”

This seemed the obvious choice contact, but when we did contact them, though they were happy to talk about the MN Youth Advancement Act in general, they had transferred the work on the MN Homelessness and Runaway Youth Act to the MN Coalition for the Homeless.

What we have found as we attempt to contact organizations in the MN area is a highly fragmented and specialized system.  Each organization has its own group of issues, especially the larger organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the MN Coalition for the Homeless.  They have identified certain issues and if your issue does not quite fit, they refer you another organization.  The problem with this is that bridge issues that span multiple organizations—such as LGBT homeless youth—get lost in the cracks at the state and national level; the organizations dealing with broader areas and legislation.  The organizations that do deal with these bridging issues are the local organizations that serve people in one city or district.  Because people’s problems cannot be divided into specific categories, these organizations are forced to deal with multiple issues and the bridges between them.  However, because their resources are focused on helping individual people, they usually cannot expand to making broader cultural or policy change.

When considering this problem I always think of the European Union.  The EU is very fragmented and has often been asked the question “If the President of the United States wants to call the EU, who does it call?”  Carleton Out on the Streets has faced the same problem.  Who do we call?  The answer so far is that there is no one organization.  Instead we call organization after organization and try to gain the information we need from each in an attempt to bridge the gaps.




1. DG - February 2, 2009

I suppose these are the circumstances in which coalitions among groups come in handy, though if the field is as specialized and fragmented as it seems to be in this case, generating the kind of sustained commitment in even a coalition setting seems like it would be quite difficult. I suppose one answer is to play the specialization game–if there’s no one organization to serve the needs of homeless LGBT youth, then one could be created. But that also simply intensifies the problem of too many niches, few issues that bring groups together.

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