Q&A with Keith Little - An Educational Specialist at Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI)

May 31, 2019 5 min read 1 Comment

Q&A with Keith Little - An Educational Specialist at Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI)

Our Limited Edition Dana Stripe supports the Hetrick Martin Institute (HMI), the nation’s oldest and largest LGBTQ youth-serving organization. In honor of Pride Month, we spoke to HMI's Educational Specialist, Keith Little, to learn more about HMI's programs benefitting LGBTQ youth.
As the HIV Educational Specialist at HMI, my goal is to educate our members on the importance of being healthy, sex-positive and to know and reduce their risks of HIV transmission. For my members who are HIV-positive, it is my hope that they use their stories to bring awareness and have healthy conversations about HIV, stigma, sex and moving towards an AIDS-free generation.
It’s a special time here in New York as it is Pride season and there are so many exciting events taking place. It is monumental that World Pride is being held in New York City for the first time in history as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. Stonewall is a historic event in LGBTQ history as the rally gave birth to what was the movement for liberation and the fight for gay rights. The anniversary of the Stonewall movement means just as much today, as our community continues to see their rights under attack.
Here at HMI, we are excited to be celebrating 40 years of service to our community. We’ve done so much work to build our young people up and provide them with a safe space where they are able to be themselves. We provide tools and resources to assist them on their journey through this world. Our staff, interns, and family continue to give hope to every individual that life gets better. So much of what we do at HMI has a lot to do with the overall wellness of our youth.
What does HMI health & wellness programming look like at HMI?
The youth who access HMI’s services comes from various walks of life. They are coming to terms with their identity. They are having trouble at home. Some of them have no home to go to and engage in risky behavior to survive.  It is very important that when they arrive at HMI, that they feel heard, wanted and safe. We’ve implemented wellness into all of our programming that ranges from support groups, art, dance, and career building in order to achieve this for our youth. Programs like Kiki Lounge and Ballroom Knights are programs for our youth who are involved in the Vogue/Ballroom scene. We also have Stories in Motion, which is a dance program. Stuff Nobody Teaches You, is a program covering basic life skills, like building credit and resume writing.  
Why is it important, especially for LGBTQ young people, to integrate wellness into their lives?
We know through studies and by experience that when you implement any form of wellness into your life, you will lead a more resilient existence. Whether the idea of wellness is adjusting the way you diet and exercise, meditation, or becoming involved in activities you’re passionate about. This is especially important to youth in the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ youth still face so many challenges, and having a healthy outlet to express themselves is integral to their success. A lot of our youth are LGBTQ people of color, who might have grown up in places or with families where mental health isn’t prioritized. However, when they are at HMI, they engage in conversation about sex, depression, and can utilize their talents in arts and dance as healthy forms of self-expression and wellness.
One of the groups we have here at HMI is our Kiki vogue program called Ballroom Knights. The youth from the Kiki ballroom scene use HMI’s space to dance and vogue. Vogueing is a form of dance that was popularized globally by Madonna, but was founded in the New York ballroom scene. We are starting to see this reemergence of ballroom culture becoming popular with the show “Pose.” As seen in the show, the youth at HMI spend time with each other building friendships and working on their dance craft. The youth sometimes form a house or may already belong to a house. A house is a group of “family” made up of people within the ballroom community and together they serve as a safe environment for each other.  Being around so many people that they can relate to is a positive reminder that things can get better.
How are physical and mental health & wellness linked, and what does this mean for LGBTQ young people?
We know through studies and statistics that those who identify as LGBTQ are three times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) These conditions can come from abandonment from friends and family, being homeless, and/or having to engage in risky sexual behaviors in order to survive. This is compounded with constant discrimination, marginalization, and lack of access to life-saving resources.  Also, according to NAMI, LGBTQ people are four times more likely to commit suicide or experience suicidal thoughts than heterosexual individuals (See NAMI websitehttps://www.nami.org/find-support/lgbtq). For some of our youth, they are also overcoming being HIV-positive. But, we know that when you feel better, you do better. I believe that the holistic approach to wellness can guarantee change. So, taking care of their mental health may assist our youth with overcoming some of their personal hurdles. Building their self-worth and assisting them in finding jobs and housing may reduce the pressure to engage in survival sex. If we hope to lower infection rates and reach an AIDS-free generation, we need to incorporate mental health, help build self-worth, and support programs to assist youth.
What are some helpful wellness practices that have been successful at HMI, and how can others integrate these practices into their lives?
One of the many practices that HMI has implemented, that I haven’t seen in a number of spaces, is asking preferred gender pronouns. With some youth members, their pronouns can change as they grow and explore themselves. I’ve worked in more than a few “safe spaces” and this is the first time that I have seen anything as affirming as HMI. It goes to show how accepting HMI really is and that the formula they have is working with our population. It is very important for our youth to be respected and referred to by their preferred gender names and pronouns, as these are a part of their identity. In some spaces, they may not be free to express who they really are, but here at HMI, we strive to make this place the one place where they don’t have to fear their freedom of expression.
What about health & wellness is important to YOU?
Personally, I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety so I am able to relate to our youth on so many levels. Once I was able to really take ownership of my own wellness, I started to see changes in my mental health. Those changes in my mental health started to pour into my life, personally and professionally. I started to workout, monitor what I was putting into my body, going to therapy, and meditating. I really took the time to take care of myself. Had it not been for the LGBTQ programs I grew up with in Jersey City, who knows what my story could have been.

1 Response


June 18, 2019

Excellent article! Keith is in a perfect position to lead, mentor and support the youth at HMI. He understands and has gained insight on what youth are going thru today, and how to navigate them thru the next phases of life. Thank you for giving back!

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