Today host Lori Boll speaks with Dr. Emily Meadows (she/her), one of SENIA’s keynote speakers for our upcoming virtual conference. Emily is an LGBTQ+ consultant specialized in international schools. In addition to her doctoral degree, Emily holds master’s degrees in both Sexual Health and Counseling, and has worked as an international school counselor for over a decade. She researches, publishes, and trains school communities on equitable policy and practice, while also teaching for the LGBT Health Policy & Practice graduate program at George Washington University. Having spent more than half of her life in international schools, Emily specializes in culturally-relevant solutions to promote equity and belonging worldwide.
Lori & Emily discuss Emily’s work in international schools and how she works alongside school leaders, faculty, and the community to ensure that members of the LGBTQ+ community feel safe. Emily also shares a sneak peak into what she’ll be sharing in her keynote presentation. Oh, and be sure to listen all the way through as Emily gives us all an incredible gift.
Resources Mentioned in Today’s Show
Dr. Emily Meadows (she/her) is an LGBTQ+ consultant specialized in international schools. In addition to her doctoral degree, Emily holds master’s degrees in both Sexual Health and Counseling, and has worked as an international school counselor for over a decade. She researches, publishes, and trains school communities on equitable policy and practice, while also teaching for the LGBT Health Policy & Practice graduate program at George Washington University. Having spent more than half of her life in international schools, Emily specializes in culturally-relevant solutions to promote equity and belonging worldwide.
Transcribed by Kanako Suwa
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Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour.
Lori: Well, hello there listeners. I hope you’re all doing well. Today, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Emily Meadows, who’s one of SENIA’s keynote speakers for our upcoming virtual conference in November. Emily is an LGBTQ consultant specializing in international schools and in addition to her doctoral degree, she holds master’s degrees in both sexual health and counseling and has worked as an international school counselor for over a decade. She researches, publishes and trains school communities on equitable policy and practice while also teaching for the LGBT Health Policy and practice graduate program at George Washington University. Having spent more than half of her life in international schools, Emily specializes in culturally relevant solutions to promote equity and belonging worldwide.
Today, we discuss Emily’s work in those international schools and how she works alongside school leaders, faculty and the community to ensure that members of the LGBTQ+ community feel safe, which is her number one goal. Emily also shares a sneak peek into what she’ll be sharing in her keynote presentation and be sure to listen all the way through as Emily gives all of us listeners a huge gift at the end. So I know you’re excited, this is a good one.
So now onto the show… oh, and before I go further into the podcast, let me just say that there’s a few bloopers in this podcast and you know what, Emily and I talked about it and we decided to keep those in. So enjoy us. Well, hello Emily and welcome to the podcast.
Emily: Thanks so much for having me, Lori.
LorI: Well, as I described in the introduction, you’re an LGP. Let me do that part again. Well, as I described in the introduction, you’re an LGBTQ+ consultant specializing in international schools. So can you give us a little background about your interest in this topic and how you came to be an expert in this field?
Emily: Sure. Well, I started out in education as a counselor and I noticed there were, there were some students who were maybe not out to their teachers or their families, but they might be out to their counselor and I wanted to be able to support them in a way that would both keep them safe, but also allow them to be as much as out as they wanted to at the school. But to be honest, even though I myself am queer, I didn’t really know how to do it. I, I had sort of intuitions but it felt like a big, it felt, it felt really important and I wanted to know that I was doing it in a way that was really centering the student and their needs. And so, I sort of, you know, did what I could in the, in the moment but I, decided to go back and do some graduate work to really dig into this and see what the research said. And so I in addition to my counseling degree, I hold a, a degree a, a master of Health Sciences Degree in sexual health. So looking at it sort of from the health sciences perspective, and then I also hold a PhD and my entire dissertation, I was looking at best practices around supporting LGBTQ students in international schools because I wanted to know that when I said here’s what we recommend, it was backed by research, not just my personal opinion or sort of my gut instinct.
Lori: And was it easy to find that research? Was it out there already or was that the research you did?
Emily: it, that was the research I did.
Lori: So got it.
Emily: We do have, as you know, there is a, a fairly robust body of research documenting both the risks and the protective factors for LGBTQ youth in certain countries and the reason why we have it in some countries and not others is simply because it’s much easier to do this research in certain places than others. There might be obvious safety risks to both the researcher and the participants in some countries or it simply wouldn’t be approved. So we don’t have the research everywhere but because we have enough from enough different countries and essentially the results look very similar across, across geography and across culture, we can extrapolate from that. So that was, that was sort of what I was doing was looking at how can we apply this in, in places where it hasn’t been done before?
Lori: So interesting. So you consult with international schools. I’m, I’m guessing they seek you out – they must have a need or they want to improve their practice at their schools. So what is generally the first thing you want to know when you’re working with an international school?
Emily: Right? So I always ask before we do any work together, I always ask to meet with the people who’ve called me to ensure that my practice is a good fit for what they’re looking for and also that I can do my work effectively. So one of the things I want to know is where does your leadership stand in terms of supporting LGBTQ safety. And I work with schools really all around the world at all different stages of LGBTQ affirmation including schools where it’s brand new and where leadership is not even clear what the L, the G, the B, the T and the Q stands for.
So it’s not a, a barrier necessarily, but it is important for me to know that starting point because that helps me understand where we need to begin without leadership, without sort of having an understanding where leadership is, it can be hard to get off the ground. And I don’t want to involve teachers in work that they might potentially be fired for, for example. So I’m always thinking about the safety of the, the folks involved before we get going.
Yeah, that’s, that’s interesting. I, I wonder, well, I guess what I’m trying to say is that everyone I’ve talked to in any sort of inclusion role, whether it is for special education, whether it is for BIPOC community, it’s always, we always talk about leadership, it has to come from leadership and that they have to be supportive.
Emily: So interesting. I didn’t realize that was a theme across all of the, the folks that you’ve been.
Lori: Yeah, it really is because, you know, if they have to be the ones that ask for the policies or create the policies because the staff is there, they’re ready to work with all individuals and if the leadership is not supportive, then they’re stuck. Right. So.
Emily: Absolutely. And I think, you know, sometimes what I there are some schools that I work with where I will spend literally a couple of days on site with just the school leadership before I even meet anyone else to ensure that they have what they need to be able to support the work.
So a lot of times when leaders call me, they’re used to being yes, the ones in charge. But also they’re in charge usually because they have a lot of experience, a lot of expertise and they’re seen as being really competent and they are generally very competent in so many ways. But this, because it’s a relatively new area of work and education, this is a place where a lot of leaders say, you know, I actually don’t feel super confident in, in being able to lead this work. And so I usually say, look, you don’t need to, to be the expert, you don’t need to lead it in that way right now but we need to make sure you’re not a barrier. And so it provides support to help get them to, you know, to a place where they feel confident, at least walking alongside me in a leadership role to begin with. And then we can hand it over to them and other co leaders in the community because sometimes some of the strongest leaders are going to be students, for example, or our counselors et cetera.
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about policies. If schools don’t already have a policy for inclusion of members of the LGBTQ+ community, where do they need to start and what are some areas that really must be included in?
Emily: I’m a really strong advocate for embedding this work in policy. This binds it to the institution in a way that is different than having inclusion work be held in the hands of a few really strong advocates because as we know, with international schools, folks leave. And so we need this to, to be really part of, of the the fabric of the institution.
But the other reason is not just to protect LGBTQ people, which is my primary goal, but it also protects the school. If the school doesn’t have a policy, then important decisions are being left to individuals to make. And there may be lots of different opinions. I can tell you if you’ve been on social media lately, I think there are lots of opinions about how this should be done. And so if it’s up to one principal or one head of school or one classroom teacher to decide what, how, how a a support will be managed, that person is really in a vulnerable position. So when it’s an institutional policy that protects the school, it and it takes it takes the debate out of it and focuses the work on, on the needs of the child. And so I can actually, if you have a way to add links to this podcast..
Lori: I can.
Emily: Ok, great. So I will I will email you a resource to add to our, the, the show notes which is a template for an LGBTQ nondiscrimination policy that I have written and it’s designed to be shared and used among international schools and it will give you all of the sort of language you can literally copy and paste it. Your listeners can copy and paste and take it and use it in their school and it covers things like what to do around pronouns.
So students asking to use gender affirming pronouns that might be different than what was on their passport or their birth certificate or their enrollment, how to manage that. For example, it talks about what to do in terms of sports participation, bathrooms and locker rooms, disclosure and confidentiality and privacy and a number of really important topics that again, if you don’t have it written down as policy, it’s, it could be really scary for, for people to try to create this stuff and they end up googling it. You know, it’s, it gets really, it’s sort of where I was at. I mean, it’s inspired by my own history of wanting to do, do the right thing, but wanting to know that it was grounded in best practice and research and this this policy is so I’m happy to share that with, with your listeners.
Lori: Well, thank you. That was such a gift.
Emily: My pleasure.
Lori: Wow, that’s fantastic. So I’m also wondering about your working countries around the world. I mean, you’re, you’re everywhere basically and some countries are of course, very inclusive while others may not be and that might be in their, their governance or rules of and how they, they themselves, the countries treat members of the community. So does this have an impact on the work you’re able to do with schools, international schools in those regions, those areas?
Emily: Absolutely. As I’ve mentioned a few times and this is sort of one of my really core of my practice safety is, is top priority. So I’m always thinking about the safety first and foremost of students at the school but also of course of, of supportive faculty members, the administration and other community members, family members of the students and so in certain countries, drawing attention to one’s own support of or identity that’s LGBTQ could potentially put someone at risk. And so while I would never tell someone not to be out or not to be a vocal advocate, that’s, that’s a very personal decision and not something that I would get involved with. I am also really careful not to be the one to put someone, somebody in harm’s way and not to get a school shutdown or someone fired, right. We can’t do much good if, if our school gets shut down. So when I’m working in particular, these socially conservative countries, I’m really aware of safety risks and also of legal restrictions. But that being said, we can always look for areas where generally the community can agree.
So let me give a couple of examples. One example is when we are thinking again about safety, we have a lot of evidence that LGBTQ xhildren are targeted for harassment and even violence far more than their cisgender, heterosexual peers. And whether or not someone thinks that being LGBTQ is acceptable or not, I think every educator I know agrees that harassment is not OK. And so we can put in place, for example, policies and protocols that prevent and address harassment on the basis of identity. And we don’t even need to know the identity of the child being harassed. But if someone is doing harassment or, or causing harm to another child, for any reason, we can say, listen, we draw a line here. That’s not OK. So that’s one example.
Another example that at least within international schools, I think we generally have a consensus around is human rights. So the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the child, which has been ratified by almost every country on earth. The second article of the CRC is the right to nondiscrimination. So if you believe in human rights and you believe in the rights of Children, you can actively advocate for the right to nondiscrimination. And I always say, you know, if, if cultural norms are being weighed against human rights, I’m going to default to the human rights beyond be before cultural norms and that includes within my own culture.
Emily: Right. So not just me coming in and judging, but knowing that my own culture also violates human rights and I can advocate for, for doing better there too. So those are a few areas where we can begin to touch on, on some of this work. But I, I lived and worked in Kuwait for several years, I mean, I’ve traveled really everywhere. I’ve worked in many different places and I, I pride myself on being able to support folks wherever they’re at. And to find an opening because we don’t need to, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Lori: Right. Wow, you’re doing really good work, so thank you. It’s amazing. Let me ask about your work. When you do go into schools, you, you you look at the, you speak with the admin, you look at their policies, what are some other things you do when you’re visit, visiting a school?
Emily: So I do loads of training. That’s one of the, the biggest components of what I try to do when I get into a school, I do training and workshops for the entire community. So I’m, I’m happy to do sort of small group, targeted work with counselors with admin. I do a lot of work around athletics and working with coaches and PE teachers. But then I always say, you know, I would like to see ideally everyone.
So sometimes that means I get to see the entire faculty and staff including sort of like the HR person and the cafeteria worker and you know, the bus moms and we all come together and we talk about where are some of the common points that everyone can be involved with. Because when we’re advocating for safety and belonging in a school, it doesn’t work. If only a few people are interested, it really needs to be a community wide understanding and I want to make sure everyone feels invited to participate in this. And so trainings and workshop is a big part of what I do. Policy writing and revision is also what I do. I also look at curriculum.
So ideally, I’d love for when I leave a school for teachers to have a better understanding of how they can integrate LGBTQ representation and affirmation and themes into their practice and even embed it in the curriculum, so that again, the turnover in international schools when the teacher leaves this work doesn’t leave with them. But it’s an understood expectation that if you’re in grade 3, for example, you are going to learn about XYZ. So that’s another, another example of what I do, but it’s, it’s extremely tailored so each school, the program is going to be specific to their needs, their priorities, their context. And, and so I might, like I said, spend a couple of days just with leadership, but I might spend time with students. I might spend time with, parents and each time it’s a little different.
Lori: That’s great. I’m wondering if you’ve ever had a very reluctant teacher or parent or admin who has experienced some sort of mind shift change after your visit?
Emily: I mean, almost every time. Yeah, I, I mean, there’s always reluctant people and I like to think of, of, I, I mean, maybe reluctant isn’t the word I would use but people who, haven’t felt invited in yet and maybe don’t see that pathway into the work for themselves yet. And my goal is to try to sort of illuminate that pathway for them and to invite them in and to make that connection for them. So they see how it’s relevant to what they care about and in their practice but you might be surprised sometimes it’s, you know, it’s, a person who says, you know, I’m gay and I’ve never had any problems here, so, you know, what, why do we need to do this. And then, you know, I’m thinking of a pretty specific example actually from recently, but it was, it was, was a a gay teacher who said, you know, “it’s fine. I’ve been here for years. I’m OK”.
And then when we started talking about some of the challenges that students face, he was like, “oh yeah, actually that, that is me and I never really, I had just so normalized it that I didn’t realize that that wasn’t OK”. And so that was really touching for me and really moving because, you know, to, to be able to connect with a queer educator like that was very meaningful.
Lori: Well, thanks for sharing that. So.. one example, yeah, I’m sure you have millions.
Emily: Well, it’s one of my favorite parts of the work honestly because I think it, it has become so contentious and so polarized and I really work hard to disarm people to come in and show my own vulnerabilities. It’s not about me saying, you know, here’s how I’m so much better, let me teach you. I’m, you know, I’m judgmental, but instead, sort of what do you care about and where can we, where can we come together and make this change for your community in a way that feels good in a way that is productive.
Lori: And ultimately, we’re all there for the kids, right? So helping them feel safe and I don’t think anyone could deny that you know, I hope not. That is one thing we have for sure.
Lori: Well, at our upcoming conference, you are going to be our virtual conference, you’re going to be our keynote speaker, which we’re all very excited about. So I’m just wondering if you can give our our podcast listeners a brief sneak peek into your topic.
Emily: Sure. Well, I was very excited to get the invitation because SENIA has been doing incredible inclusion work for a long time. And I also remember when we first talked about this, you know, me sort of, II I always ask what what our conference is doing to elevate the voices of Black and brown people. And you were right on top of that, you’d already thought about that. And you know, one of the co keynote speakers is Jason Arday, so we’re really looking forward to hearing from him. And so I was just very excited to bring, I think this intersectional lens to the field of inclusion.
So thinking about how we can honor and affirm all aspects of a child’s identity so that every child feels supported and welcome and that they belong in their school. And so the, the topic I’m looking at in particular is around gender and gender roles. I think all of us can think of a child who doesn’t fit into sort of the pink and blue gender roles, whether that’s an LGBTQ child or just a child who isn’t conforming to that really narrow vision of what it means to be a a particular gender. And so thinking about what educators can do to create more space within schools for children, of all genders and all gender expressions. And what also, how does that intersect with neurodivergence, because there’s an interesting connection there as well. So that’s a little teaser, I guess.
Lori: I love that teaser because that’s… yes. Thank you for sharing that. All right, Emily, I think that’s all we have time for today. But thank you for your time. Thank you for your passion and commitment to our LGBTQ plus students and community. And we look forward to seeing you at SENIA’s Virtual conference here coming up in November.
Emily: Thank you, Lori and thank you for making space on your platform for this work. When leaders in the field, like you create space, it sends a message that’s really powerful for others. So I’m very honored and very grateful to participate. I’ll see everyone there.
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Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and shownotes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcasts. Until next time… cheers!