story and photos by Tricia Dewey
I want to make impactful touch points in the community for people to see our organization as ‘the go-to place’ for LGBTQIA+ resources in the Mid-South.
As the New Director of Community Services for OUTMemphis, Neal Holmes feels the power of his ancestors in his work. “I’ve always felt the presence of those who have come before me,’’ he says. “No matter where I’ve worked or lived, I feel like I have the spirit of my ancestors uplifting and guiding me.”
Holmes brings this sensibility to Memphis most recently from Pittsburgh, where he was a therapist and hospital administrator. Even though he lived in Pittsburgh for close to 16 years, he considers himself a Southerner, hailing originally from Louisville, Mississippi, and attending an HBCU college in Mississippi, Jackson State University. He believes that his life and professional work experience will serve him well in his new leadership role at OUTMemphis.
“I want to make impactful touch points in the community for people to see our organization as ‘the go-to place’ for LGBTQIA+ resources in the Midsouth.”
Holmes hopes to collaborate with many community partners and if needed have honest, frank, and difficult conversations. He is looking forward to this aspect of his work. “I enjoy dealing with and navigating conflict. Maybe that’s my past therapeutic background, but I truly believe that we all have preconceived notions and biases that we all have to check every single day. So, I want to be open to doing that in my work and being transparent in that way.” In part, that has been the reason for his excitement about his new position: “as an out gay person of color working in the community I want to collaborate with allies to develop external partnerships through community outreach.”
His role will be twofold at OUTMemphis: assisting with programs and services related to community engagement and to assist with forming external partnerships with organizations and allies to enhance current programs and services. He will manage the programs and services that are sexual health and trans related in the Cooper location; that does not include the Metamorphosis Housing Project program (OUTMemphis’ program for youth facing homelessness). His work includes oversight and budgeting of senior programs. He will also manage OUTMemphis’ “virtual desk’’ for staff to respond to inquiries about various LGBTQIA+ needs throughout the Midsouth region.
Recently Holmes met with The Haven, which works to help eliminate HIV in the Midsouth, with Choices, which is a long-time ally, and with several mental health organizations to get a feel for their therapeutic approach and their fee structure. He is also updating the online resource guide for any LGBTQIA+ identifying organization that is a safe space and making new touch points for community partners.
In addition to the programmatic work, Holmes wants to be out and about. “I really enjoy meeting with community members and having conversations about how we can collaborate. I really want to understand our needs within the community and how we can address them in a systematic way. I want to try to break down as many microaggressions and macroaggressions as I can within systems. Understanding how to navigate them will take time and patience. However, at the end of the day, I hope we can come to a middle ground where there will be some understanding, compassion, and room for growth.”
Recently Holmes spent time with two participants at the newly opened Youth Emergency Center (YEC), OUTMemphis’ facility that provides housing or drop-in services for youth ages 16 to 24. He says, “It’s very emotional for me to work in this space, because I myself experienced homelessness when I was a teenager. Having a resource like that would have meant the world to me.” Luckily Holmes had mentors who helped to guide him, but the YEC can help transition participants to more permanent housing or provide a drop-in center for youth during the day, filling a critical need for LGBTQIA+ youth.
There is no shortage of work waiting for Holmes, especially with the added complexity of the pandemic. He embraces the challenge and promises to lean into tough conversations. “I think it’s really important for me to be mindful of the impact I can have working here in this position as a member of the leadership team. I take my role very seriously. It’s an honor for me to work with our awesome staff. I feel like I’ve been entrusted with a calling to serve….I am humbled and excited to be in this role, and I am empowered in my identity as a person of color to continue the community advocacy work that others have done before me for all members of our community.” His ancestors are surely cheering him on.