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The beauty of inclusive spaces

Inclusion in the workplace leads to happy, safe, and successful employees. Studies have shown that increased diversity leads to better decision making, higher work engagement, and bigger profits. An inclusive workplace prioritizes employee health and safety and supports diversity through equitable practices in hiring, managing, and empowering. They are the exact kind of workplaces that Operation Fresh Start vets for job-hunting participants.

Andrew, age 17, recently worked with CareerScape, an OFS career counseling program, to establish his long-term career and education goals. His favorite part of the program was reviewing the different jobs he could apply to, and, as he said, looking at “what jobs make me more comfortable and make me feel more safe.”

Andrew identifies as male and uses any and all pronouns, but generally goes by he/him. He is gender nonconforming, meaning that how he presents and dresses does not match “traditional” gender norms or what’s prescribed as “normal” in our society. For his senior prom, he wore an elegant emerald dress and bedazzled his eye makeup and hair with sparkling rhinestones. Hair and beauty is a passion of Andrew’s.

Andrew in three different photos, left to right, in his emerald prom dress with rhinestones, in an orange outfit with braided hair, selfie with blue eye makeup

“Once [COVID-19] quarantine hit, I was really struggling to find myself,” said Andrew, “I started experimenting [with hair] a lot, so like, multiple bleach fails and dyeing fails. I started to get into braiding, I started braiding my own hair. I seen how hair has really helped me. And the more I did it on myself and others, the more I just fell in love with doing hair. It just brings me this amazing kind of peace.”

It’s shaped his career pathway. With help from CareerScape, he visited Chanell Ardor Schools of Beauty and Culture and spoke with its founder about classes and tuition. He also got to job shadow at Union Hair Parlor to see the in’s and out’s of the business.

Andrew watches Vals, a stylist at Union Hair Parlor, work on a client's hair

“I’m really excited,” said Andrew about the prospect of enrolling, “I’m going in for business and cosmetology, so I’m very excited to be able to have all those opportunities. I’m going to open up my own business, and eventually, I’m just going to be famous and do all celebrity hair.”

In order to save up for tuition following high school graduation, Andrew needed a new job. CareerScape coordinator Aram Donabedian worked with OPEN (Out Professional Engagement Network) in Madison to find welcoming workplaces for queer individuals. Andrew applied at a Hilton hotel to work the front desk, which aligns with his charismatic, friendly attitude, and landed the job.

“Aram was very helpful. Nice. Patient. I probably still wouldn’t have a job if he did not help me,” said Andrew.

When asked what makes an environment welcoming, Andrew spoke first about his current school. “They’re really, really nice. They ask how I identify, and they have all gender bathrooms.” He thought back to his previous high school. “I didn't have those kinds of bathrooms in my old school. It was uncomfortable going to the boys bathroom, getting a bunch of stares, and then [switching] over to the girls bathroom because I felt unsafe going to the boys bathroom, and I just got a bunch of stares from there, too. That was a lot to deal with, being scared to use the bathroom because you don't know what people would do or say.”

“[At Hilton], there’s a couple of LGBTQ+ people there who I can relate to a lot. [Everyone] is really caring. They have my pronouns, all of my pronouns, on my nametag. I feel like they see me.”

A 2021 report by The Williams Institute stated that 46% of LGBTQ+ employees have experienced unfair treatment at work at some point in their lives, and 38% reported experiencing harassment at work. LGBTQ+ employees of color were more likely to report being denied jobs and verbal harassment. About 34% of LGBTQ+ employees said they have left a job due to how their employer treated them based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. In order to avoid harassment or discrimination, many LGBTQ+ employees reported that they changed their physical appearance, avoided talking about family, and/or changed their bathroom use at work.

“For me, growing up and being closeted, I was always scared of how people would treat me if I came out,” said Andrew, “I was terrified because I didn't know what people would say about me, my family, especially like my siblings, my mom, my dad, but once I did it, I got a lot of love and a lot of support from family and friends.”

Besides hair and cosmetology, Andrew has always found an outlet in art. He focuses on 3D art, combining different mediums and materials for pieces that reach out of the canvas.

Photos of Andrew's art, left, sunflowers and daisies adorn an afro made of black yarn, right, a painted portrait with about six feet of braided black yarn representing hair attached

“My art is mostly Black Lives Matter art, like black history, and like, the beauty behind hair. Even if you don't have hair, you’re beautiful. I just want people to feel through my art, how it makes me feel, without having to explain it. Whatever hair type you have, skin tone, you’re beautiful. Don’t let anyone else tell you different.”

Andrew agrees that there’s a correlation between his art, hair, and queer identity, saying, “All intertwined in a big ole ball. Those things just mean so much to me. It brings back what I went through, and what I am now. I still have a ways to go, like finding myself, but it’s okay to have confidence and not care what anyone says about you. If you keep pushing everything down, it’s not going to go away, unless you get up and do something about it. Get up and be you.”

Regardless of someone’s presentation, sexual orientation, gender identity, or race, everyone is deserving of the same respect in school and the workplace. It ensures that emerging adults like Andrew are valued and able to pick a pathway to happiness and success.

“I just want everyone to know,” said Andrew, “If you still feel alone, or you're still in the closet, you're scared to come out, or you're out and no one appreciates you for it, I do. I do. Know that I am in your corner, just cheering.”


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