Prism Community Collective: Changing Systems. Building Community.

The Hate State.

In 1992, Colorado earned this label with the passage of Amendment 2. The state constitutional amendment prohibited any city, town, or county in Colorado from passing laws or regulations protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. It effectively invalidated existing anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ+ people and prevented the enactment of any such laws in the future.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Amendment 2 unconstitutional in 1996 and many things have changed for the better since then. But discrimination and hate continue to ripple through the state and country. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), at least 510 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation were introduced in 2023, almost three times the number in 2022. Nearly half of US states passed discriminatory bills.

In Colorado Springs, where Amendment 2 originated, the LGBTQ+ community still grapples with discrimination and a lack of affirming resources. Existing gaps and barriers were only compounded in the wake of the bias-motivated attack on Club Q in November 2022, which ended the lives of five people and forever altered countless others.

After most mass violence events, it’s a best practice for cities and behavioral health organizations to stand up Community Resiliency Centers (CRCs) to meet the needs of survivors and families. Following the Club Q tragedy, a community resource expo was organized by the Colorado Springs Police Department but shut down a little more than a week after the attack. That left survivors to seek out resources on their own, but they either weren’t aware resources existed or didn’t know how to access them.

“The system failed us,” says John Arcediano (he/him), a survivor of the tragedy. “When you go through something like that, you can barely function. Expecting survivors to find and navigate resources when they’re in that state is unreasonable and irresponsible.”

Inside Out Youth Services (IOYS), the only LGBTQ+ focused organization in the area, did everything it could to help fill the gap. Community Health Partnership (CHP), which had been partnering with IOYS on its LGBTQ+ Health Equity project, offered support in the first confusing and heartbreaking weeks after the tragedy. Ultimately, IOYS needed to turn its attention back to its own mission and shifted leadership of the response to CHP.

A New Way of Thinking

The goal, at first, was to work with community partners to set up a CRC that would provide mental health resources and other supports. This approach aligned with CHP’s mission of “transforming the way people work together to solve complex community health problems.” Rather than standing up a CRC on its own, CHP would bring together community partners and individuals who could do the work together.

“A lot of CRCs are set up by a mental health organization that’s taking an existing model and replicating it for a particular population or group of people,” said Rachel Keener (she/her), CHP’s Senior Manager of Health Equity. “CHP doesn’t provide direct services so we didn’t have a model we could copy and paste. We were working out of our comfort zone but I’m glad it happened that way. It allowed us to think critically and explore different options of what this could look like.”

CHP began by doing what it does best: listening, learning, convening, and engaging. The team met not only with community partners but, perhaps more importantly, with those most impacted by the tragedy. They prioritized making connections, building trust, and being responsive to what they were hearing.

Out of these conversations, it became apparent a traditional CRC wasn’t the answer. Instead, the community needed a long-term, sustainable resource center that could serve those impacted by the tragedy, including the broader LGBTQ+ community.

“We had a bias-motivated crime creating a ripple effect on the LGBTQ+ community, who were already dealing with discrimination and fear. Even if they weren’t there the night of the shooting, they felt the impact of this, too,” Rachel notes.

However, to be effective, this new approach would require thinking, working, and leading in a different way.

A New Way of Working

Because most CRCs are based on an existing model, they offer services like mental health counseling that are based on best practices but aren’t necessarily tailored to those they’re serving. Consequently, they end up closing their doors because survivors stop coming.

“If the way we’ve been doing something is not having the desired impact, then it’s clearly not working for the community or service providers and we need to start there,” says Rachel. “CRCs don’t usually bring in survivor voices right away because survivors don’t immediately know what they need. There’s truth to that but there’s also a way to facilitate it. It doesn’t surprise me that if a resource was created on my behalf without my input, I probably wouldn’t be excited to go there.”

Going against the grain and changing a system that doesn’t work isn’t easy. In fact, it’s so hard that most people don’t attempt it. But for CHP, change is non-negotiable.

What followed was a long, often challenging year. The team convened partners and community members, secured funding, found a building, met people where they were (often literally), listened to those impacted, disrupted the status quo, and held space for uncomfortable but necessary conversations. These efforts often required those involved to reflect on their own ingrained practices and assumptions and alter “the way it’s always been done” to ensure that the voices and needs of those impacted remained solidly at the center of the work.

A New Way of Leading

Almost 18 months after the attack, Prism Community Collective officially opened its doors to the community on June 5, 2024, just in time for Pride Month. A grant from the Anti-Terrorism Emergency Assistance Program (AEAP) will fund operations and staff for the center for three years.

Prism’s mission is to dismantle barriers, increase visibility, and build connection to ensure that those impacted by the Club Q tragedy, including the greater LGBTQ+ community, can live celebrated and liberated lives. It will offer access to affirming mental and physical healthcare, resource navigation, opportunities for connection, peer support, and more.

At the center of it all are the experiences and perspectives of survivors, victims’ families, and the local LGBTQ+ community. Bringing their voices into the process has been crucial and helps ensure that Prism remains truly responsive to their needs.

One of those voices belongs to Stoney Roberts (they/he). With a rich background in advocacy and community organizing, Stoney was a member of CHP’s LGBTQ+ Health Equity Community Advisory Council prior to the tragedy and then served on the Community Advisory Board for the development of Prism. Even so, they didn’t consider applying at first.

“I don’t have what some people would consider a lot of the traditional training for a role like this,” they say, “but I do have the background to understand the unique circumstances that face the community in Colorado Springs and how difficult it can be, especially for somebody who is not only queer but falls into these other intersections.”

Stoney sees Prism as not only a place to find resources but as a catalyst to larger systems change. “As you move through systems like healthcare, there are a lot of barriers. Prism can’t eliminate barriers completely but we can try to make it more accessible for survivors and community.”

As a Club Q survivor, John Arcediano understands those barriers firsthand. The failure of the system to provide care and resources in the aftermath of the tragedy led him to join with others to advocate for survivor rights. Because of that experience, he made the decision to leave a 15-year corporate career for the role of Program and Outreach Manager with Prism. He is the first survivor in the country to work for a center assisting other survivors.

“I’m finding that building this community (at Prism) is what is healing and helping me grow as a better human,” he says. He believes that Prism will help others in much the same way.

“Prism is a way for survivors and the community to come together, to advocate for one another, to find resources, and just be themselves. When they walk through the door, they’ll be welcomed with open arms and find a place of healing, of comfort, of community.”