York St John Uni LGBT Network

York St John Uni LGBT Network

Andy Law is the Secretary and co-founder of the LGBT Staff Network at York St John University. The network does lots of great work in the University and beyond. They were one of only six universities to score full marks in Stonewall’s 2015 Gay By Degree guide. The network was shortlisted for an impressive four 2015 Inclusive Networks Awards. Jo Thompson, Head of HR, was named Network Champion of the Year and the network was highly commended in the Collaboration of the Year category for its work with the City of York Council and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the All Out conference.

We’d love to know more about the history of the network and how it got started?

The university prides itself on being an inclusive institution and employer, but actively seeks to improve the environment for its community. As a consequence, back in April 2013, I was approached by our Head of Human Resources (Jo Thompson) about the potential to set up an LGBT staff network. They’d trialled something a couple of years before, but unfortunately it never built momentum. I was involved in York Pride and York LGBT Forum at the time, and so was in a prime position to build something new using both my experience and the support around me. I took on the role of Acting Secretary and the Registrar (my line manager’s line manager) helped in securing an excellent Acting Chair in the form of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts (Dr Fiona Thompson).

Instead of rushing into it, I wanted to get a sense of the demand for a network and an idea of what potential members felt it should look like and do. So we devised a fairly comprehensive survey, distributed this far and wide and also hosted a drop-in ideas session. This consultation formed the basis of the network’s structure and initial direction. In September 2013, we held our first proper LGBT Staff Network meeting.

Why is an LGBT network needed at the University?

At our first few open meetings, discussions centred on various themes: study/work abroad, being open with students and making York St John’s inclusive nature more explicit. That last theme is one of the key reasons why we need a network even in an environment that may be as inclusive as they come (which the Network’s membership reflects, with staff from positions both senior and less senior and academic and administrative, plus a number of allies). It’s all very well having a long-running culture of acceptance, but if no one talks about it, how are prospective and new members of our community going to know this is a place where they can come and be themselves, without fear of prejudice? Our Network makes that very clear, both internally and externally.

The Network also provides an informed voice for consultation. Even in an accepting environment, the people leading on policy and services can’t know everything – the Network can act as a critical friend as and when needed.

It’s important to also be wary of the structural and institutional obstacles faced by trans and non-binary people – this is an area in which most are only just beginning to adopt models of best practice (if it’s even on the radar), and we’re no exception. The network needs to be (and is) a strong voice for change.

Photo : The network and their members supporting Stonewall’s #NoBystanders campaign

“The network needs to be (and is) a strong voice for change.”

What’s the purpose of the network?

In addition to the key foci outlined above, we organise events such as Queerstion Time (an LGBT-focused Question Time-style debate with prospective parliamentary candidates), a discussion on the Church and the variety of positions on gender and sexuality and a screening and question and answer session for World AIDS Day. For the last two years, we’ve held a stall in our central campus building raising money for regional charity North Yorkshire AIDS Action, and for York Pride this year we raised money for our SPARK scholarship fund. We also spearheaded the first ever city-wide collaborative approach to LGBT History Month in York in 2014, after which I developed an independent organisation to coordinate the festival in future years – next year York will be one of six regional hubs for the National Festival of LGBT History!

We also act as a channel of communication through which our members and the local community can learn about LGBT-focused events in the city. This takes place via our blog (which acts like a fully-fledged website).

How is the network coordinated? 

We have a Steering Group comprising seven staff and one student representative. Of the staff, there is a Chair (Fiona), a Secretary (me), a Social Secretary (Amy Lynch), ex officio positions for the Head of Human Resources (Jo) and the Equality and Diversity Adviser (Marije Davidson) and two general positions.

How important is social media, like Twitter, and online articles that people can access at home, to the network?

We use Twitter to promote new posts on our blog. Whilst it never seems like we get much engagement from social media – particularly in terms of interaction – the statistics show that Facebook and Twitter are respectively the second and third biggest routes through which people access our blog, just behind search engines. This won’t take into account email clients – we have a mailing list through which the blog pushes all new posts – but regardless it’s clearly a significant engagement tool. I think if we invested more time in it – engaging with other content creators rather than just pushing our own content out there – the rewards could be even greater.

The university has a long list of Twitter accounts, ranging from specific degree programmes to faculties and teams to departments, so there was no real need for any kind of formal approval. We simply notified the marketing team when it was set up so they could add it to their list.

Photo : Network members celebrating their 2015 Stonewall Workplace Equality Index success

“We also act as a channel of communication through which our members and the local community can learn about LGBT-focused events in the city.”

Do you have support from senior figures within the University and how important do you think this visible support is?

As figureheads and spokespeople for the university, visible support is really, really important. I think it’s one area where we’ve been incredibly lucky compared with many other organisations. These are the people that convey the institution’s ethos internally and externally. They set the principles to which the rest of our community are encouraged to aspire, and in our institution we have a great number of high-profile staff who act as shining beacons of inclusivity, not least our University Chaplain!

From a more cynical perspective, having a dean as our Chair gives us great credibility, and along with the Head of Human Resources and her immediate line manager and strong ally, the Director of Student and Staff Services (Emma Wilkins), we have a great pool of influence upon which to draw. We could argue in favour of a socialist model in which we shouldn’t need this level of support to make an impact, but the fact is the majority of modern organisations remain inherently hierarchical. Our ability to effect change is greatly indebted to our senior buy-in.

Congratulations on your 2015 Stonewall Workplace Equality Index placing. Does the network play a part in submitting the submission document?

Officially, oversight of developing our submission sits with the Human Resources team. However, the key people in Human Resources who deal with this are members of the steering group, so it’s a bit of a grey area! There are also regular meetings between Human Resources, the Equality and Diversity Adviser and myself in the lead up to the submission, where we identify the evidence we can draw on as well as any last-minute action. On that point, following receiving feedback from Stonewall on areas for improvement, the Staff Network takes a systematic approach to developing an action plan for the next six months before the submission phase comes around again.

Much like scoring full marks on Gay By Degree was for prospective students, for people considering working at York St John our top 100 Workplace Equality Index ranking is a really great symbol that if you come here, you will be welcomed. As a recognition of all the work that had come before it, this was our proudest moment! We’re looking forward to the challenge come next year of being assessed on our trans inclusion.

What’s next for the network?

We will be using Stonewall’s benchmarks to continue to identify areas for development. We want to play a key role in addressing issues facing LGBT people both nationally and internationally; one particular issue we want to tackle is disadvantage and discrimination faced by trans people. We’ll be keeping up our work with local and regional networks to enhance our practice, the on-campus experience and the opportunities for the community to engage in dialogue and activism around LGBT identities. Business as usual!

Find out more :


Follow the network and Andy on Twitter :

About The Author

Thomas Anderson

Founder and MD of Inclusive Networks. Thomas was Chair of the award winning LGBT network for The Co-operative Group, ‘Respect’ (2011-14). Thomas named the network and designed and managed all of the branding, communications and engagement until he stepped down from the role of Chair in March 2014. He also created the branding, name, was Editor of the quarterly magazine and developed the launch of the UK’s first Inter-Retail LGBT network ‘CheckOUT’. He contributed to the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index 5 Year review. In recognition of his work in the diversity field he was shortlisted for ‘Diversity Champion of the Year’ at the 2013 European Diversity Awards, shortlisted for ‘Role Model of the Year’ at the 2012 Lesbian & Gay Foundation Homo Heroes Awards and shortlisted for the ‘Positive Action’ award at the 2013 Asian Fire Service Association Fair & Diverse Awards. He also won the 2012 ‘Pride of The Co-operative’ award. He was a judge for Scotland's biggest diversity awards, The Icon Awards in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

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