Josh Kraft Works for Access to All, Including LGBTQ Youth

LGBTQ YouthJosh Kraft
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Courtesy of Greater Boston PFLAG—

Josh Kraft has spent nearly his entire professional career working for Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston (BGCB) beginning with running a middle-school outreach program in 1990 to his current role as the organization’s Nicholas President and CEO. In between, he founded a Boys & Girls Club in the basement of a Chelsea housing development and over the next 15 years grew it into a community pillar that serves more than 1,000 kids annually in a sleek facility known as the Gerald and Darlene Jordan Club. Kraft is a fervent believer that diversity is what makes Boys & Girls Clubs—and the entire country, for that matter—so successful. It’s why he’s fiercely committed to ensuring that all kids—including LGBTQ youth—who come through the doors of BGCB find a safe haven in which to thrive and reach their full potential.

Wise enough to know that BGCB can’t meet the needs of Boston’s wildly diverse youth population without plenty of help, Kraft has fostered collaborations with more than 200 community groups, including Greater Boston PFLAG, to ensure that all kids have the support they need to succeed, regardless of their circumstances. Additionally, Kraft participates in the philanthropic giving of the New England Patriots Foundation and the Kraft Family Foundation, which share the goals of supporting young people so they can reach their full potential.

For his long commitment to social justice, including fostering acceptance and respect for LGBTQ youth, Kraft will be honored with Greater Boston PFLAG’s Cornerstone of Equality Award at its annual Pride & Passion Benefit and Auction on April 27. Read on to learn more about Kraft.

Q: Let’s start with the most obvious question: how do you feel about receiving the Cornerstone of Equality Award? You’re joining the likes of Ambassador Rufus Gifford, Congressman Joe Kennedy, basketball pro Jason Collins, and Cynthia Germanotta, who leads the Born This Way Foundation with her daughter Lady GaGa.

A: I’m honored that the folks at PFLAG would even think of me for this award. To be included with these other people on any list is unique and pretty special, but to be included with them around LGBTQ issues, and the larger issue of inclusivity in general, is frankly humbling. I’m quite flattered.

Q: You’ve been associated in one way or another with Boys & Girls Clubs for more than 25 years. You started by leading an after-school program in the basement of a Chelsea housing project. How did you wind up there?

A: I actually started a couple years before that, running an outreach program for at-risk middle school kids in South Boston, through South Boston Boys & Girls Club.

Q: Well, how did you end up there?

A: I just applied to work there. It was my second year out of college. I had just finished a teaching internship at a private school, and coming from the “mean streets of Chestnut Hill,” as I like to say, South Boston was pretty eye opening. I’m talking about stuff I’d only seen on the news, or read about, like teen pregnancy, substance abuse, extreme poverty, and violence—including domestic violence. But at the same time I learned something great—and that was the power of Boys & Girls Clubs to support kids and families, and to give them a sense of opportunity and belonging, and most importantly, a sense of safety.

Q: So you started out as an outreach worker, and now you’re the President and CEO for Boys and Girls Club of Boston. What do you do to ensure that the diversity seen in the kids who come through your doors is represented at the management and executive levels at Boys and Girls Club? I’m thinking of an op-ed you wrote last year for the Boston Globe when you noted that decision-making is at its most effective when the decision-makers are at their most diverse.

A: Well I’m fortunate that I work with so many great people on our program staff and development, finance and operations teams. The magic is that everybody brings something different to our work. They might look like me but I don’t know what their personal experiences were, and they’re going to have insights and awareness that I may not have. Their upbringing may have been completely different for whatever reason—their family of origin or their socioeconomic circumstances, and many other variables.

Or they may not look at all like me. They may be African-American or Latino, and they bring that perspective to the table. Or they may have a different sexual orientation or gender identity than me and that is another layer of perspective. To make informed decisions on anything you’ve got to include a lot perspectives. You can’t expect to succeed by approaching the world with one point of view. What’s great is when people from a number of different backgrounds and perspectives agree on the same approach—that’s when you know you’ve made the right decision.

Q: What policies or programs, or other efforts have Boys & Girls Clubs taken to make LGBTQ youth feel welcome in the organization?

A: With all of the clubs, and we’ve been doing this for about 12-13 years, we train our staff on how to support LGBTQ youth. Every February on our staff development day, we bring in presenters on a variety of issues to be aware of when working with our diverse youth population, including LGBTQ youth, and we return to what we’ve learned in that training throughout the year. The clubs also hold their own training sessions throughout the year, and some of them are directed at how to best support LGBTQ youth. In fact, years ago, maybe 12 years now, when I was at the club in Chelsea, I brought in Kim Westheimer for several three-hour training sessions on LGBTQ youth issues. She’s now with Gender Spectrum and she really pioneered this work in Massachusetts for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That training we did with Kim was quite good and it was all about supporting kids that were questioning their sexuality or who knew they were gay or lesbian or bisexual, and how we as a staff should support them and help them through that process. Things like how to help them feel safe in their decision-making and living their life. We also learned about unconscious bias against LGBTQ people and just how being aware of that can lead to a safer environment.

Although the training focused on LGBTQ youth, a bunch of us realized that the training could be used for any group, or any kid who may feel different for whatever reason. I remember thinking at the time that if there’s a kid who’s obese and hearing people make derogatory comments about his weight, how do you protect him? And look, I’m not naive to think we’re going to create these perfect spaces where everything is pretty and clean when the reality is the world can be a tough place. But when it comes to supporting all kids, you’ve got to do two things. First, you have to make them feel safe and able to express themselves authentically. Second, you’ve got to equip them with the tools they’re going to need when they are out in the world and people may not be as welcoming as we are here at the Boys & Girls Club. For example, they need to know how to advocate for themselves, and how to ask for help when they need it.

Q: There’s quite a history of resistance to bringing in pro-LGBT policies or programs into youth groups, you know you have Boys Scouts as an example, resistance to gay-straight alliance in public schools, did you encounter any

A: —I wasn’t the CEO at the time I brought the trainers to Chelsea, but I just did it. And then I know a couple of the other clubs did it. And since then many of the other clubs have done club-only training. And that continues. For example, PFLAG is starting a gay-straight alliance in our Chelsea club.

Q: You made an important observation that the training on LGBTQ youth applied to other groups of kids. But there are some issues that LGBTQ youth face that other kids don’t, like family rejection, higher rates of attempted suicide, religious discrimination. What responsibility do you think youth-focused non-profit leaders have to meet the needs of LGBTQ youth?

A: Well I think we realize that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and that 50 percent of transgender youth attempt suicide. But I think it’s important that as a youth-serving agency, the goal of Boys & Girls Club of Boston is to serve every kid, and the number one thing is to make every kid feel safe. And that means we’ve got to be inclusive of LGBTQ youth. This is an example of why we have over 200 program partners. We simply can’t provide everything for every kid—no organization can—so working with PFLAG and other groups provides our staff or our club members with support on issues that we can’t handle alone. I think when you’re doing any kind of community work, if you really want to serve your client and serve the community in the right way you’ve got to bring in program partners to collaborate with because you don’t have all the answers.

Q: With the presidential election and the first two months of the Trump administration, it’s been impossible to escape politics, and the vitriol associated with the campaign. Has any of that seeped into your work, and if it has, how have you dealt with it?

A: Last December, at the holiday party in Charlestown, we had people from the largest housing development in the neighborhood celebrating with the owners of condominiums priced in the seven figures. All of their kids participated together in holiday performances and activities, and that’s what we should all be celebrating. Our South Boston club has done a couple of theatre performances, Annie in January and the Lion King last June, and if you saw the names on the programs—it was Somali names, Irish-American names, Latino names, Asian names, all throughout the program playing the roles. So there they are coming together for a common purpose. So politics does not come up explicitly, but we are, through our work, an example of how we can and should be living together across all sorts of differences and divides.

I think the most important thing we all need to keep in mind is that kids are the future of our country. We’re all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if anyone—especially a kid—doesn’t feel safe, they’re never going to be able to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So creating safe environments for all kids is important to me personally. That’s why I’m humbled and honored to be chosen for this award and with such people and such a great organization. I just hope to continue to work with everybody involved to create safe places for every single kid and their families because in the end it makes our community better and our country better today and in the future.

Pride & Passion 2017 takes place April 27 from 6-9 p.m. at the Boston Marriott Copley Place. In addition to the awards ceremony, a cocktail reception and dinner, Pride & Passion will also feature a live auction. Tickets are $200 and can be purchased online.

 

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