Social work students and local nonprofit produce workshop for trans people in recovery

Participants of the workshop organized by Temple University social work graduate students and Prevention Meets Fashion (PMF).

In light of Trans Day of Visibility, a cohort of social work graduate students from Temple University collaborated with the organization Prevention Meets Fashion (PMF) to produce a self-empowerment workshop for residents of Morris Home, the only residential recovery program in the country that serves trans and nonbinary individuals. 

About 15 residents attended and participated in the workshop at William Way LGBT Community Center and took advantage of PMF’s gender-affirming closet, another feature of the program. Lovell Desir was there to support the project as PMF’s Affirming Fashion intern, where she works with trans and nonbinary individuals. 

PMF founder and executive director Nhakia Outland led Morris Home residents through an informal, conversational discussion about gender identity, authenticity and self-expression. She started with an icebreaker activity by asking the group what they think it means to be their authentic selves and providing supplies for residents to make a collage that represents how they express and conceive of themselves. 

“Oftentimes in the Black and LGBTQ+ community, we have to hide our true selves or pick which parts of us are allowed to take up space,” Outland told PGN. “We spend a good portion of our lives ‘people pleasing’ and neglecting healthy boundaries, which leads to unhealthy and risk-taking behaviors in order to feel accepted, loved, and needed.” 

When Outland asked the group if anyone had changed themselves to gain someone else’s acceptance, some residents said that they felt secure in their identities and that they stayed true to themselves. One resident said in the workshop, “when I started growing up, I realized I wasn’t going to change for nobody.” 

“Being your authentic self brings you to take inventory of yourself,” Outland told the residents. She asked the group what labels they thought that other people gave them, but that aren’t compatible with who they really are. Some residents shared stories about their gender transitions, how they conceived of themselves and how others perceived them, and how they felt about themselves during and after their struggles with addiction.

When Outland asked the residents how they would label themselves currently, some responded with “phenomenal,” “productive” and “growing.”

Outland added that being one’s authentic self shouldn’t be rooted in sadness, but joy, and that developing authenticity is a continuous process of growth. She shared some of her own experiences about how others labeled her and how she labels herself. 

At the close of the workshop, some residents and staff members shared their finished collages and described how they represent themselves.  

“I feel empowered, I feel stronger than when I walked in this door,” Paris, a Morris Home staff person, shared with the group. “Because I’ve been through so much, I’ve learned how to live my life to the fullest, one fashion outfit at a time. No matter how sad I am, I come in and I twirl, and I’m happy. I love getting dressed, and I’m always sunshine.” 

Another resident, Ace, who used only words in their collage, said that “I feel secure because I’m secure in my body today as a trans man. I put ‘not yet born’ because in my past life I felt I was born in the wrong body. My memories are what makes me today. I’m a ‘mister.’ I have an inside fight that I fight every day. I have to live a great life.”  

After the workshop discussion, residents were invited to try on clothes from PMF’s gender-affirming closet, and to have their photos taken in their new outfits. Some of the residents shared their thoughts with PGN on what they got out of the workshop. 

“I got a lot out of the discussion,” said Tracey. “It was good for me because you get different perspectives.” He shared that workshops like this reminded him that “everybody’s not our enemy, and I appreciate that.”

Another resident, Julius, said that he found this kind of group discussion setting unique and different from traditional types of therapy. 

“Being in a very diverse group setting like this and speaking about the before and after effects, and putting a creative process in it while having somebody speak who is well-trained in social work, and who is part of the queer community, it gives us the opportunity to process this in a different way than just therapist to patient,” Julius said. 

For Monica, having participated in the workshop “felt good to get others to let you know where you’re coming from. Sometimes when people see that enthusiasm come from you, that gives people the enthusiasm to encourage themselves, pick themselves up and make themselves better than people tell them they’re worth.”

Outland said that she hopes that workshop participants took away “some actionable steps to aid in their journey to finding their authentic self. It will not be easy and they will be confronted with self-doubt, fears, grief and loss, and eventually joy on their way to healing. Using fashion as a healing tool to do this is an added bonus.” 

The Temple social work students responsible for conceiving of this collaboration as part of their macro practice group project are Mark Moran, a clinical intern at Morris Home, Jerry Kai-Chun Fu, Micah Katz-Zeiger, Peter Babrow, Meghan Jolikko and Joseph Detrano. Alexis Scott took photos of the residents in their new clothing.  

The unique challenges facing trans communities was the inspiration for facilitating this collaboration, said Fu, who did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the research and surveys in the project.

“I found evidence from research saying that [trans communities] encounter some discrimination, difficulty and traumatic events in their lives, overall in the population,” Fu said. “We also figured out that if we enhance their pride and their connections to other people, it can help them to become more confident about their identity.”

Housing insecurity, employment discrimination, harassment and violence “leads to coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol, like getting into toxic relationships,” Moran said. 

The group met with Morris Home residents ahead of the workshop and facilitated surveys to let the residents “create their own self image,” Katz-Zeiger said. The purpose was to “provide some kind of qualitative research on how this type of workshop and empowerment intervention could have a positive impact on those who join them, whether it be on gender, on just how we go through the world.”

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