A huge step towards a better and more inclusive Burbank is being made through the development of the Burbank Community YMCA’s new Social Impact Center.
Burbank Community YMCA Directing of Marketing and Social Responsibility, Rob Rodriguez, has been with the YMCA for just over seven years. They originally started out working with the YMCA in their home state of New York. When they relocated to California three years ago, Rodriguez again began working at the YMCA through their Burbank location.
While they started in administrative work for the Burbank YMCA, Rodriguez’ passion for community activism led them to their current role of Director of Marketing and Social Responsibility. In their personal journey regarding gender identification, Rodriguez found recognition in the term non-binary, which refers to anyone who may not resonate as being exclusively male or female. The comfort they’ve felt in finding a term that fits their identity is something they hope to pass along to youth in the community of Burbank.
“I identify as non-binary, and for so many years I struggled with that because I always felt like I existed in the world between feminine and masculine,” Rodriguez said. “And [I was in] that space in between. So when, a couple of years ago, the not the term ‘non-binary’ came out, I jumped on it immediately and I was like, ‘That’s me.’”
When Rodriguez moved to Southern California in 2018, they found themselves surprised at the lack of LGBTQIA+ inclusivity in the area. In Rodriguez’ experiences, even bringing up a discussion on the matter was taboo amongst Burbank locals.
“The first thing I asked [after moving] was, ‘Where’s the pride festival? Where’s the LGBTQ gay bars?’…and instantly, everybody [said], ‘No, we can’t talk about those things, that’s not Burbank,’” Rodriguez said.
Determined to lead the City towards progress, Rodriguez was instrumental in the Burbank Community YMCA displaying their first LGBTQIA+ pride flag. They also spearheaded the YMCA’s planned Block Party for Diversity, which evolved into the creation of Burbank Pride, an inclusive City event to show support for the LGBTQIA+ community. The YMCA partnered with Disney, the BUSD Board of Education, and the City Parks and Recreation Department before COVID-19 halted the June 2020 event.
COVID-19 also initially shut down all operations of the Burbank YMCA, as it wasn’t considered an essential service. Burbank Community YMCA COO, Bryan Snodgrass, and President and CEO, Mary Cutone, then approached Rodriguez with the idea of implementing resources to make positive changes in the community. Around the same time of this proposal, Black Lives Matter protests were increasing in number following the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. So, the YMCA team decided to expand their vision and include social justice in their model. Furthermore, Rodriguez’ upbringing in the New York foster care system inspired the third tier of the Social Impact Center’s foundation.
“[We said], ‘Let’s do protests and social justice work and let’s use our voices and our platform for good,’” Rogriguez said. “And then I [thought], ‘Well, there’s no foster care advocacy and resources here in Burbank’… so we decided [to] open up a resource center that focuses on those three buckets: LGBTQ resources and workshops, social justice impact work and foster care advocacy.”
All ages are welcome at the Social Impact Center, although children in middle school and high school are the primary focus group. The center will provide Burbank youth with educational workshops addressing topics like safe sex practices, social justice, and gender identification. Informing young people on social justice is a project that is notably timely in the midst of recent hate crimes directed towards the AAPI and transgender communities, along with the growing amount of awareness of police brutality.
“Our social justice workshops are going to be… [some] of our most successful ones, especially during the climate that we have right now,” Rodriguez said. “We want to [discuss] things like, ‘What happens if you get pulled over by the police?…What if you’re a trans individual and your I.D. doesn’t match your face and what you appear to be on the outside?’”
The center is to be Burbank’s very first LGBTQIA+ resource center, as well as the first self-owned and certified LGBTQIA+ center under the YMCA in the nation. Through creating a space where young people can be unapologetically themselves and learn about LGBTQIA+ culture, the hope of the YMCA team is that the stigma associated with the subject can be worn away to create a more informed Burbank.
“Half of our youth today don’t even know the term non-binary or transgender,” Rodriguez said. “They just think gay is is the only term there is. And there’s a whole spectrum of LGBTQ identity identifying terms.”
Mary Cutone has been with the Burbank Community YMCA for a total of 12 years and has served in her role as President and CEO since 2016. Cutone started out her career as a school teacher and has a passion for youth services. She believes the Social Impact Center will send the message that the YMCA welcomes all children as they are, which can allow them to evolve with self-confidence and a sense of belonging.
“Youth development is about helping young people…to not be on the outside and to not be pushed aside or marginalized in any way,” Cutone said. “And so for me, the LGBTQ center is really just one more place for kids to feel good about who they are, and that they matter and that the Y welcomes all of them.”
The Social Impact Center has been created using a dated space that previously served as a YMCA gymnastics studio. IKEA donated $5,000 in furniture to the center, and Nickelodeon and Warner Brothers also contributed furniture pieces for the renovation. Movie and game nights, makeup classes, and referral services for HIV testing and mental health counseling are just a few of the many offerings the center will consist of. Right now, Rodriguez and Cutone are in the process of planning programming, scheduling and decorating in preparation for the center’s June 11 opening event. Being able to adorn the Social Impact Center with images and messages that represent love in all forms points towards a future Burbank in which the YMCA leads the way to diversity and acceptance.
“We are seen as a beacon of love, a token of hope,” Rodriguez said of the Burbank Community YMCA. “And we have up to about 2,000 to 4,000 members that come in at a time. So…having a [photo of a] safe same-sex couple on our walls just gives someone that warmth and that clarity to say, ‘You know what, I can be part of a better Burbank because the Y is doing it.’”
Cutone says that Rodriguez is an “inspiration” for guiding the creation of the Social Impact Center. She, along with Snodgrass, have even nominated Rodriguez for a celebratory award on behalf of the Burbank YMCA, which will be bestowed in June, to coincide with Pride Month. Rodriguez’ input has helped the Burbank YMCA shift their model towards a more inclusive system which will allow youth in Burbank to flourish.
The Social Impact Center will be a place for Burbank’s youth to visit and “express themselves in a way that they can’t anywhere else,” Rodriguez says. This space, along with the pending Burbank Pride event, have been built on a foundation that will empower every child in the community to be proud of who they are. This is the ultimate reward for Rodriguez, Cutone, and the entire Burbank YMCA team.
“We could serve 100 kids, and if one kid walks out and they go, ‘Mom, I feel really good about myself today because of the Social Impact Center,’ our job is done,” Rodriguez said. “And the same for Burbank Pride. When that [event] happens, if 1,000 families show up and 999 walk out and go, ‘That was stupid,’ [but] one kid…goes, ‘Mommy, I have something to tell you. I think I’m trans,’ We did our job.”