OutCenter strives for systemic inclusion

Southwest Michigan nonprofit helps hospitality industry foster LGBTQ-friendly environments.
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OutCenter also serves the community through the Safe Schools Collaborative, a multi-faceted project providing workshops on sexual orientation and gender identity to school staff. Courtesy iStock

An LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit is offering to help the restaurant industry do better creating safe spaces for diverse patrons.

MaryJo Schnell, executive director of the OutCenter of Southwest Michigan, said inadvertent or intentional instances of discrimination can be reduced or even eliminated if restaurants will commit to helping their employees understand bias and the harmful impacts of hostile environments.

Schnell has over 30 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. During her nearly nine-year tenure at the OutCenter, which is based in Benton Harbor and covers Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties, she has created systemwide organizational change initiatives based on education and institutional partnerships and served LGBTQ at-risk youth.

While inclusivity training is needed in all industries, Schnell said it is crucial to create change in the restaurant industry, which is full of people-facing roles — whether it be customer to customer, server to customer, or staff to staff.

One example of a training the OutCenter did for a restaurant company was conducted for Moersch Hospitality Group in Baroda (south of Benton Harbor) in 2019 by volunteer Caroline Jones, whose wife is on the board of the OutCenter. Jones applied a systematic approach to ensure the inclusivity training targeted the needs of the restaurant group, which owns Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant, Free Run Cellars, and Round Barn Winery, Brewery & Distillery.

Jones worked with Kathryn McBride, the former OutCenter program coordinator, to develop experiential learning scenarios from restaurant-related LGBTQ discriminatory instances.

Schnell said the 45-minute training was powerful because it met the company leaders, managers and supervisors where they were at, encouraged team building, and involved them in identifying and shaping the conversation rather than lecturing them.

“There was a focus on the impacts of discrimination and understanding or becoming more aware of when your attitudes and behaviors are out of sync … or when you’re in that place where you don’t know what you’re talking about or you don’t understand what messages your attitudes and behaviors are sending that are potentially harmful to an LGBTQ person,” Schnell said.

Jones had participants in the training session break into three or four smaller groups to go over case studies of discrimination, then role-play how they would respond as a manager or supervisor in those scenarios.

“It allowed them time to be creative in their responses versus us standing up and talking about what they should and shouldn’t do,” she said. “It’s a much healthier conversation if they’re actually involved in trying to figure that out.”

Topics in the training included using the correct terminology and pronouns for various gender identities; being aware of LGBTQ regulations, issues and challenges; adding inclusive bathroom signage for transgender or nonbinary individuals; examining customer service, company culture and human resource policies; and creating safe spaces, whether it be through posted written anti-discrimination policies, changing job application forms to add “nonbinary” or “other” gender checkboxes, or having a reporting process in place whereby individuals can address instances of discrimination.

Schnell said the OutCenter also serves the community through the Safe Schools Collaborative, a multi-faceted project providing workshops on sexual orientation and gender identity to school staff and assistance to schools, youth and their families. The program is funded by the United Way of Southwest Michigan and in 2020 alone served 11,000 students in over 20 schools, resulting in 220-plus policies being overhauled, Schnell said.

The OutCenter also works with towns, courts and law enforcement officials on anti-discrimination and inclusion action steps. In 2019, the nonprofit was instrumental in helping the city of St. Joseph develop a non-discrimination ordinance that added employment, housing and public accommodations protections for the LGBTQ community.

Schnell noted the OutCenter serves conservative rural areas where LGBTQ children and adults often face isolation, disconnection and hostile attitudes. When the OutCenter provides training for businesses and employees, whether it be in the hospitality industry or some other sector, Schnell said she hopes it is reinforced by the other work the center does with children, so that the whole family is being reached with a message of love and inclusion.

“We’re everywhere now,” she said. “… And so, wherever that restaurant or service worker is going, it’s possible they’re going to cross paths with positive and affirming, inclusive messages about LGBTQ people. And the more we do that within systems like health care, etc., the more likely a systemic change occurs. It’s kind of like a hybrid between community organizing and systems change work.”

There’s a business case to be made for inclusion training, too, Schnell said.

“The more restaurants and service providers (are) aware of the change happening culturally around them, and the more that they want to be a part of positive change, that’s great for a brand, and that’s great for company culture. We always talk about a better brand and a better bottom line when you’re looking at inclusivity and equity.”

Schnell said the OutCenter would love it if more restaurants would participate in its training workshops, although they would have to be virtual rather than in-person, due to the pandemic. 

Businesses can reach the OutCenter to learn more about pricing and availability by calling (269) 934-5633 or visiting outcenter.org/contact.

For companies that are located in other regions, Schnell recommends they contact their local LGBTQ community center to inquire about training workshops and policy consulting services.

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