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Our Space: Where it’s safe to be yourself

Our Space is a multi-faceted community center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) youth ages 14–24, to connect with other LGBTQ youth and community. 

Our Space started in 2010 by Stephanie Perron, who was a social worker at the time. Perron noticed that LGBTQ youth were disproportionately represented in the foster care system, and created the program as a way to support demographically at-risk youth.

Since its inception, Our Space has evolved to provide an array of services and events for youth such as a “Know Your Rights” Summit, Youth Pride, and “This is What Queer Love Looks Like,” a multigenerational showcase featuring a variety of art and live performances. The Center provides free resources such as snacks, clothing and support groups, and youth can attend Our Space events and get connected to therapists. Additionally, Our Space offers comprehensive offsite trainings that educate folks on sexual orientation, gender, and gender expression such as “Trans 101.” 

Our Space is located in Hayward just an ten minute walk (or a five minute bike ride) from the Hayward BART station. Their unassuming, olive grey office building hosts a multiplicity of programming that supports exploration of identity and has helped a diverse community grow.

Our Space’s drop-in hours are on Wednesdays from 3 p.m.–5 p.m. I arrived at the start and got a grand tour of the space by a radiant youth named Jessie Reynoso. She asked for my name and preferred gender pronouns and proceeded to welcome me in. Each room is painted in boldly colored warm hues and is decorated with frames of queer ancestors, string lights and positive affirmations. The lime green kitchen has a cabinet filled with snacks. The adjacent magenta room has a hanging rack filled with a wide variety of donated lightly worn and new clothes and shoes that are all up for grabs for Our Space members.

In the main conference room, black leather couches form a semi-circle around a coffee table in the center of the room. The walls are painted matte black with scattered rainbow specks, which provided a cosmic and cozy feel to the space.

We sit down, and Reynoso shares that she became connected to Our Space through her high school’s GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) during her freshman year—she is currently a high school senior and has been at Our Space ever since. Reynoso always knew that she was a girl, but was bullied and physically disciplined for wearing feminine clothing. She credits the program for helping her understand be confident in her identity.

“[Our Space] helped me realize who I truly am, and to love myself no matter what,” Reynoso said.

She identifies as transgender, and Our Space gave her the language to advocate for herself. Reynoso’s past high school experiences changed when she became a part of Our Space and found a community that supported her for who she was.

After a few minutes, another Our Space member, Matthew Lam, enters the room with baked goods that he picked up for the program members while visiting Los Angeles with his family. He sets them down on the coffee table in the center of the room, and encourages everyone to dig in. Kanoa Kau Arteaga, Our Space Program Manager, enters the room shortly thereafter and sets down a berry-flavored sparkling water and tortilla chips on the coffee table for folks to share. As everyone begins to get comfortable, Kau Arteaga begins the Our Space daily check in, which consists of sharing your name, pronouns, and an answer to a rotating ice breaker question. Today, the ice breaker was to share an animal that you identify with, and why. 

After going around in a circle and getting to know the folks briefly, participants of Our Space gave me permission to interview them about their experiences with the program. Lam and I left the group in the main room and entered into an adjacent, warm orange conference room.

Lam, who uses he/him pronouns, is a soft spoken high school senior who found out about Our Space through a counselor referral. As a first generation American, coming out has been a learning experience for him and his family. Lam has had to set boundaries and communicate his identity across cultural divides. He is thankful to Our Space for helping him navigate his journey and went on to illustrate the importance of queer youth spaces, which are far and few in between. He pointed out that a majority of queer spaces are often in bars or clubs. 

“It sucks that we don’t get to know other queer people in a genuine way or get to explore and learn more about queer identity until we’re adults…that ignorance of oneself and each other is something that’s very limiting, and I wish that there were [sic] something that we could talk more about,” Lam said. “I think spaces like these provide that conversation and education.”

Next, I spoke with Armaine Dizon, who uses she/her pronouns, and found out about Our Space through her school’s GSA during her sophomore year of high school. Dizon’s GSA visited the space on a field trip where she and her classmates played interactive games that centered on queer identities, stigmas and misconceptions.

“You must be open to learning there isn’t one particular identity, but rather multiple intersectionalities of identity, and there’s always something new to learn. I would say that Our Space has definitely taught me that,” Dizon said.

As a participant, Dizon appreciates the leadership roles that she’s had the opportunity to take on, such as event planning for Youth Pride, which involved organizing games and activities specifically for queer youth, and extensive public outreach and MCing for “This is What Queer Love Looks Like.” 

Next, I spoke with Diego Basdeo Fitzpatrick, who uses they/them pronouns and is a Youth Advocate and Outreach Specialist at Our Space.

“This is my community. This isn’t me helping disenfranchised youth. These are my people, and this is my community,” Fitzpatrick said.

They went on to say that this work is interconnected to their history, trauma and experiences growing up. Each time they are able to connect and assist a young person, that work feels like it is retroactively healing themself. They also added that financial support is a big deal for keeping the program alive. “Investment in youth will always provide returns.” Developing youth leadership skills and providing youth with an enhanced sense of identity will strengthen the foundation of future generations of LGBTQ people. This is just one of the many reasons Basdeo Fitzpatrick loves the work they do.

My visit concluded by speaking with Program Manager Kanoa Kau Arteaga, who uses he/him pronouns. He expressed that Our Space has a contract with the county of Alameda which  encompasses a huge majority of the East Bay. Although Alameda county is a generally well-funded county, the way in which resources are distributed, in correlation to the location of the program, Our Space struggles to meet the operational costs of running their unique programing which encourages conversation around the intersections of gender, race and class with queer youth.

Kau Arteaga adds that they “always appreciate adult volunteers, any little bit helps; even something as simple as having a pizza delivered on our community center nights. All of those little things are helpful in creating a sense of family for young people.”

This year, due to funding cuts, Our Space will merge their “This is What Queer Love Looks Like” and Youth Pride events into one mega-event, which will be held at Humanist Hall in Oakland, in March of 2019. In the meantime, ongoing fundraising in preparation for the annual event, calls on adult allies and the community to donate funds (if they are able), their time (through volunteering), and good energy to creating safe, affirming spaces for queer and trans youth.

Our Space is located ten minutes from the Hayward BART station and provides a community spot for LGBTQ+ youth.
Our Space is located ten minutes from the Hayward BART station and provides a community spot for LGBTQ+ youth.