The following is a memoir from a former staff member at The Bridge who had a hand in starting programming that has evolved to continue to meet the needs of youth today. This story is shared with love by Kirsten Gerber Kraushaar.
It was all before the Internet, that’s for sure. My first significant exposure to the Internet was when I worked in aftercare and did a family meeting in a home with access to AOL. My Bridge years were all landlines and handwritten notes. Interestingly, I’m still in touch with almost all of my Bridge colleagues, and a large number of the then young people who informed my work. So…. 1992? 93? I arrived at The Bridge after having learned how NOT to do youth work at another youth program in the area. I was fortunate to get an interview there, but I’d done some rabble-rousing over there around better serving LGBTQIA youth and had definitely decided there were far better ways to advocate for and work with young people.
I’m not sure how things are arranged now, but we worked in teams of three youth workers with one managing what were then called “crisis calls” in the “log room” and the other two “on the floor” with the current group of youth staying there. Nothing was really happening yet for queer youth. There was some coastal action (the Harvey Milk School on the west coast) and some east coast organizations (Advocates for Youth, etc) were gaining a voice advocating for youth questioning. We built in a few basics my first year or so at The Bridge- seriously bottom line basics like more welcoming artwork, some brochures, confronting stereotypes, and a couple trainings for staff from PFLAG.
I got promoted to aftercare. Part of my job was to be The Bridge Streetworks representative (about 1994 when Streetworks began) so I hit said streets with the bag of socks and condoms and REALLY started talking to young people. I asked what they wanted, and they were asking for a safe place to meet other young people to ask questions about sexual and gender identity. I went back to The Bridge and asked if we could provide that space. There was a lot of initial push back, especially regarding parental permission. There was also worry about what other organizations would think, as well as supervision issues. Somewhere in the background, District 202 was revving up to open, and I was trying to get in on that too- that’s a funny story to tell someday. It was a big deal to offer the support group physically on The Bridge property.
Someone finally said yes, let’s try this! The biggest issue was, who should facilitate with me? Supervisors were worried about the impression that I could be converting kids, and all that BS. I was an out bi mom visible in the community, so I recruited someone else- the straightest, kindest male therapist I knew. An advisory board was put in place, just for me, in case I got in trouble. I made these little square black and white fliers and taped them up everywhere downtown. I mailed them to LSS, Offstreets (then named) and YAP. The fliers said something like “Think you might be gay, lesbian or bi? Come to The Bridge, 2200 Emerson, Thursday at 6, snacks.” The wording was very sparse due to the nerves of the middle management folks 🙂
Our very first night, Brad and I were ready with all the cookies and juice. Our first guests were a trio of VERY quiet, shy 16 year olds from a northern suburb. We weren’t expecting that, but it’s how we got our start. Those three youth came every week and eventually we folded in a bunch more regulars from far flung referrals. One of those original members became valedictorian in a huge senior class and came out during his speech. It was a huge deal at the time! I don’t think anyone ever saw those little black and white fliers. It was never clear how the word got out, but it did. It was the first community-based support group for questioning youth in the country.
We started speaking at schools, and The Bridge sent me to Advocates for Youth to learn about youth/adult partnerships. We were able to add an innovative peer education program focusing on HIV prevention. For a long period of time, The Bridge also gave me the space to provide a Saturday support group for (lesbian/bi) moms of teenagers. We had respectable numbers every week, from maybe 6 to 15 attendees, at all of these programs.
I adored working at The Bridge. I had incredible team members, mostly straight, who successfully ousted a scary supervisor, were willing to listen and learn to what seemed at the time to be crazy ideas, and had my back every single minute. Emily Scribner Opray (The Bridge, now Hennepin County) and Val Rashaad (Streetworks, now YAPs ED) are still my best friends and apocalypse team members. That straight guy who helped me start “So What If I Am” became my partner in family and crime in 1998. We have two daughters together, now ages 23 and 25.
I went on to become program director at District 202, and then a youth consultant at Minnesota Department of Health. I later opened a youth leadership and diversity training program on my farm in Minnesota and I became a farmer. Ha! Still to this day, I am a believer in our group slogan- “Young people are the solution, not the problem” (I bet somewhere in storage are a couple of those t-shirts). I’m pretty proud that The Bridge still offers this piece of my heart. Thank you.