Profile: Shor Salkas
Shor Salkas is easily the easiest person to talk to. They are humble, hilarious, curious and limitlessly kind. Shor has honed an enviable set of people skills through rad life experiences coaching public health professionals, facilitating community coalitions and training to become a therapist. By day, Shor works for the Minnesota Department of Health as a Health Equity Coach & Planner at the Minnesota Department of Health. And 24/7, they champion social justice issues in health, particularly for LGBTQ communities. We met for coffee at Nina’s Coffee Cafe in St. Paul and got to talking about comics, “call-in” vs. “call-out” culture, and how to champion health equity.
Who DO you feel most at home with?
My family. Trisha and Zohar are people that I am at home with a lot and I feel at home with. I really like being a parent as much as it a constant evolving mess and journey. Watching Zohar develop is amazing. Watching them grow and learn things is so cool. I love it so much.
I find a lot of home space with chosen family and in communities that I’m a part of, too. I spend a lot of time in queer & trans communities.
For a long time I’ve found home space with Widji people and people I went to the Arctic with and the extended Widji family I have, which has actually transformed a lot recently, and that’s been really fun to watch happen. I spend lots of time with older Widji folks that have kids because they have kids and that’s awesome. I mean this in a non-negative way, and I’m sure I was like this when I wasn’t a parent, but sometimes non-parents don’t see or understand all of the nuances of what children need on a daily basis so it’s nice to have that ‘understanding cloud’ of ‘I get it. You don’t need to explain it.’
What’s your evening routine?
We’re trying to revamp our routine because when Zo was born we started watching a lot of TV and we’re trying to break out of that. We used to play games and go outside and go on walks. We’re trying to do more date nights and ‘solo nights’. Tonight is Trisha’s solo night and I’m putting Zo to bed and she can go do whatever she wants; she can go to the gym, she can go out with friends -- whatever. Life with children. It’s so real!
What part of being a parent comes most naturally to you?
That’s a really good question because I first think about what doesn’t come naturally to me, which are things like: being a parent to an infant. I wasn’t bad at it, but you know how there’s a natural thing that you just know what to do when they’re crying? Trisha’s good at that. The baby stuff was not instinctual, but I’m really good at talking through things and creating a good emotional environment in a lot of different ways; like through music and play. I think that as a family we usurp traditional understandings of gender and expression and what it means to be family.
what ARE SOME EVERYDAY WAYS YOU ‘USURP TRADITIONAL UNDERSTANDINGS OF GENDER AND EXPRESSION’?
We talk about gender really fluidly, so when Zohar was born we’ve been trying to use gender-neutral pronouns. When people ask we say, “Zohar hasn’t told us how they identify yet.” That’s why we use they and them, but it’s also fine to use she and her or he and him and let them hear lots of different pronouns. That’s a part of their learning and growth. We’re offering lots of different options for clothes and for toys. We’re trying to be conscious of other types of gendered language. The grandparents often use very gendered language stuff, which is fine, we’re figuring it out as we go. We’re trying to stay away from, “this is what it means to be a boy” or “this is what it means to be a girl”. We have lots of ways of expressing ourselves and feelings are normal and it doesn’t matter what your body looks like, everybody has feelings.
We’ve tried to consciously look for books with stories about kids of all different races, religions and genders. One of our favorite publishers is Flamingo Rampant. Their lens is highlighting different types of families that aren’t highlighted in normative literature. There are some books that are so amazing that they’ve published. There’s this one about a two-spirit kid, a native kid, who is struggling with their gender identity and their community really comes together around a ceremony for them and they find an elder who can mentor them, who is also two spirit. It’s really beautiful. They also have one about Passover that we read to Zohar.
My partner, Trisha, keeps telling me that I should be writing kids’ books. I write little books for Zohar, so I’m thinking about it. One of the books I wrote is a number book for Hanukkah. I also want to write a book about ‘How you came into the world’. There are some books for kids about how babies are made, but I haven’t seen a lot about queer families. The book will talk about our donor and our relationship with him. We want it to be part of their story. I’ve written the book down by hand, but I haven’t ‘Shutterflied’ it yet. I just need to do it. It’s on the list—the master list of things that need to get done (Laughs).
What’s something friends come to you for advice on?
I talk to a lot of people about gender stuff and social justice stuff and equity stuff. I do a lot of both professional and personal consulting, which is great and just kind of built-out as people have wanted to talk more about it. I love that, so that’s great.
I just joined the Widji Board. I’ve known Matt Poppleton since I was twelve, so it’s a really beautiful circle of life thing. He was the first counselor I met at Widji, actually. I went up with SPA and it was his first winter there. We met and he remembered me when I came back that following summer. I mean, I was always one of those kids people remembered because I’m really loud and fairly verbose.
Recently, Erin Walsh invited us to come up for a reunion and I was like, “Trisha, let’s go! You’ve never been to Widji. It will be really fun to go to the Northwoods for a long weekend.” So we went and Trisha was like, “This place is beautiful and I understand why you love it. And honestly I don’t really see our family being reflected in the culture of this space.” And I was like, that’s real. If we have a kid who is gender non-conforming, it’s a really binary system.
Even they way they talk about achievements is really binary. I felt this as a camper. A lot of canoe culture was, “Who can carry the canoe the farthest?” I felt like in canoe culture there was this hyper-masculinity around “How far can you go?” “How strong are you?” I was lucky because I had people like Erin Walsh and Laura Wellington to soften when that culture reared its head, but it still happened in my peer circles.
It was really interesting to hear Trisha say, “I don’t know if this is right for our kids at this point.” I told Matt about that. I mean I love Widji. There are some things that happened for me there that were so foundational for me finding the self-confidence to be who I was in the moment and that is invaluable. There are things that happen on trail that you can’t quantify. For a lot of kids and certainly for kids who are thinking about coming out or from marginalized communities it can be so good for identify development and emotional development. And there’s also a lot of other shit that is really harmful around equity that we need to work through. Our staff needs to reflect on bias and racism. That has to be a part of the culture as we’re opening doors around access so kids from marginalized communities can feel at home at a predominately white camp. So I said to Matt, “If I join the Board, I’m going to push you on these things,” and he was like, “Okay, when can you start?” They are ready. I think they are really open so I’m excited to see what happens.
Do you ever feel a burden of representation to educate people on queer and trans and gender stuff?
I find in community there’s a wide array of responses to that question. There are a lot of people who are like, “Yes, it is a burden,” “I don’t want to keep educating people,” or “I should be paid to educate people.” That’s a firm line for a lot of people and I totally get that.
The way I kind of maneuver around that line is: well a) I like talking to people and don’t necessarily like ‘educating’, but I like shifting people’s worldview, so if a training or conversation can shift someone, I’m happy to do it. I have the benefit that I have a job with benefits and I get a paycheck every month and so I feel like I have some flexibility in terms of what I can give. I get that some agencies and groups don’t have budgets and I think it’s great that they are still reaching out and wanting to do the work. Some people can’t have that flexibility, and I get that, but I can and I want to have that flexibility for people and agencies that want to ask questions and do the work.
In Minnesota, whether it’s issues of race or issues of gender identity, there is often a fear of asking the wrong questions. They don’t ask because they don’t want to offend out of fear’s sake -- whether that’s a fear or offending or self-preservation. I started training to be a therapist and within that training and framework and within the public health frameworks that I work within, I have the privilege and capacity to create an environment where I’ll say, “I want you to ask the F-ed up questions here with me because I want to work through what that’s all about.” And I’ll say, “Here’s why I wouldn’t ask this in community” Or “Here’s why I wouldn’t ask this of another queer or trans person.” I want to work it out so that we can build their capacity to build positive relationships.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love interfacing with the councils that are meant to advise MDH on health equity issues and being the person that works on, “how are the meetings going to run?” and “what are our goals?” I’m good at creating process and coaching and facilitation. The people on the councils are great so getting to learn from them and hang out with them is awesome. The other big part is I’m institutionalizing and formalizing a health-equity-coaching model internally for program assessment work and policy assessment work and technical assistance. Figuring out that process has been cool. I’m working with the other people who will be coaches to help bring that to life.
The way we’re thinking it’s going to work now is a program within a Department would request a program assessment with a health equity lens. It will be a series of questions that they answer and two coaches will meet with them to talk through their answers, like “It sounds like you’re doing really well here. Let’s talk about why and how that’s worked for you so we can share that with the rest of the agency.” And then, “Let’s talk about where there are some gaps.” We’re not expecting everybody to do everything, but we’ll ask, “Where do you want to start working on things that are salient to your work?”
That’s how I understand coaching. It’s not that you have to do all the things or we have a prescribed list, but being able to see people’s strengths and weaknesses and help people build off of those. That’s kind of how I coached in my previous job at the Healthy Wisconsin Leadership Institute. I’ve done trainings on asset-based models and appreciative inquiry, which are two frameworks. I really like appreciative inquiry because it sets up an asset based model of, “What’s working in your community or workplace or team?” And then we ask questions about that and get people to reflect on, “Okay, this is what we’re really good at.” As well as suggest some places for growth. If you’re working in a coalition that has a goal is this or your mission is this, we ask, “How do we keep building off your strengths?” and “What else do you need to do to get there?” Or sometimes even asking, “Is that the goal?” “Is that the right goal?” I find coaching to be a really iterative process.
Where did you learn to be a great coach and facilitator?
In my last job, I managed a coaching program for community coalitions. Working in a mental health space you learn how to open conversations in different ways. I feel like it’s one of those things that takes practice, so I’ve learned a lot watching other facilitators and coaches do different types of trainings and different types of coaching and to some degree I think I’ve always been a fairly skilled facilitator so part of it was growing and opening my repertoire to understand nuance and people.
I’ve also done some trainings with a group called Training for Change. Their lens is training coaches and facilitators that work around social justice issues, so I’ve learned lots of different activities with them. I’m also a people pleaser, so I naturally want to make sure everything is okay!! One of the big takeaways I got from their training is that conflict and tension are really important and how we open those doors is really important. We can’t lead with conflict and tension, but if we can get there in an environment where the group is actually feeling good and heard and safe and when there’s conflict they can confront it together then I’ve done my job well as a coach and facilitator. That was a really important frame for me to learn. I did a weekend training with them. We were doing experiential learning, so we’d learn about a frame or activity and then we’d experience it. There was one we did at the end of a long day that was a very challenging emotional space activity. It purposefully was like “BOOM BOOM BOOM” to get people feeling really challenged. The next day they were like, “Let’s talk about that.” They explained they do that on purpose they know that a certain time and place and after long days people are more charged, they are done, and if they are feeling that way throughout the day they can’t do it anymore and need to let it out. It’s a good way to address stuff that comes up. It was an interesting frame.
What conversations do you wish people were having about health equity in Minnesota?
I wish that people were having conversations about health equity. I think we need to figure out new and different ways to get the folks who don’t think it’s their job to do the work. Health equity is actually broader than health care systems or the Department of Health or the traditional health field -- it’s everywhere people live and work and play. Health equity includes transportation and housing and jobs because in the communities I work in these are the biggest indicators of health outcomes.
It’s really important in health equity work for us to think of health beyond the traditional mechanism of healthcare delivery. That’s something that we’re starting to do. We’re starting to have conversations across sectors and ask, “How do we include health in transportation policies?” “How do we talk about housing as a health issue and a health equity issue?” We’re starting to see all these things as dynamic and that’s kinda what the health in all policy movement is about. It’s asking of any policy that we’re creating (whether its big P like statute level policy or agency level policy), “Are we thinking about equity and health equity?” And if we’re not, we should be. At the end of the day, there can’t be a disconnect between the policy-work and the communities we serve. You can’t lose sight of identities and individuals and what they need because then the policy is shit if it doesn’t reflect community need.
Can you give an example of a breakthrough moment to prioritize health equity in Minnesota?
At the institutional level, I think a really big example was the construction of the Green Line through St. Paul.
Anything else you want to say about the work you’re doing?
Yea, actually. I don’t think I’ve told you about this yet. So the Twin Cities have never had an LGBT Community Center or a queer and trans community center and it’s been one of those things. I don’t even know all the history and baggage with community folks and leaders, but it usually gets shut down and again I don’t really know what’s behind a lot of it, but I’m currently working with a lot of community folks to host conversations about 1) what it would look like to have a queer and trans community center here, 2) how we make sure it is very much informed by what the community wants and needs and 3) how do we build a sustainable model that’s not feeding into the horrible non profit industrial complex stuff that happens often – just like that scarcity model that often arises in the non profit industrial complex around grantmaking and money and staff and all that stuff.
So we’re thinking about what does it take to create a social enterprise like something that is a non-profit/for-profit model that the for-profit feeds into the non-profit. We’ve had three conversations so far with over 100 people and I hope to move on some identity development of the community center and move on what is a social enterprise model that will work. People really want a food-something, so whether it is a cafe or restaurant to be providing employment and training and job skills to people and also creating a space of coming together and eating together because that’s important to us. So it’s a big thing and I’m excited about it.
How do you stay so positive and grounded?
I used to really love biking, but I haven’t been biking much, but I’ve been trying to get back into it. I need a burley to bring that baby with me. I think since we had kids everything changed, but I think finding a little time here and there to bike or exercise go on a walk or read comic books, I really like reading comic books. I’m into the Saga series. It’s very good. I’m reading Black Panther right now because that’s really in and it’s awesome. I read the Buffy comics because I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I really love Buffy the Vampire Slayer SO MUCH. That’s like one of my go-to shows. So reading comics. I like going to the woods. It’s all about getting out. We’re going to try camping with a toddler this summer. We like going to the North Shore or anywhere along Lake Superior. We do an annual devil’s lake camping trip with Trisha’s family every summer and that’s the one we’ll try to do babies in tents. BABES IN TENTS! We like being near water. It’s very calming.
I think staying grounded is something I’ve developed overtime. When I was in my mid-twenties and doing community work I was a bit more of a fireball. And maybe a little like, “Oh, how do we accommodate everyone’s feelings and needs??” And now I’m like, “Drama is going to happen.” As a facilitator, I’m like, “Okay, how can we figure out how we can work through it and come out somewhere else?” Maybe we don’t know where, but know better how to open space so that I can ask questions and try to open conversations with people that are maybe more meaningful and positive than leaning into the past drama. That’s a skill that I’ve been working on within myself to try and develop to harness the good things in people and to sometimes say, “Hey, it seems like something’s up. Let’s figure it out.” Calling people in or calling people out on what’s happening; and that’s hard. Sometimes in community that’s really hard.
Can you explain ‘calling in’ versus ‘calling out’?
Especially in a lot of marginalized communities, a culture evolved around calling people out, which is I think a little more abrupt feeling, so like, “You fucked up and I’m going to tell you about it.” That’s the gist of call-out culture for me. It maybe doesn’t take into account that everybody fucks up, that’s part of life, but how do we continue to build on that relationship or fill that gap because often times when people do or say things that don’t feel good its coming from somewhere. How do we recognize that and then create a space for learning and growth? That how I understand call in culture is how do we create that space and really help people. The person across the table may decrease their defensiveness. I think part of our culture is a concern with how to appear ‘good’ or ‘professional’ or ‘successful’ and if you get called out, then you must have done something wrong. Rather than: everyone makes mistakes. So shifting the narrative to how do we learn from mistakes, so that next time you know how I want to be treated so we create a call-in culture.
Can you give an example of how you personally have tried to call someone in?
An example that comes up all the time is if someone uses the wrong pronoun or language or something like that. There are ways to call people in on that by saying, “Hey, I just wanted to remind you that I use they/them pronouns.” “Do you need to talk about how to practice that or what that means to me?” Then offering space for practice and more understanding.
I think especially around gender stuff and trans stuff it’s so normative to exist in the binary that people have to actually take a conscientious step out of it and most people don’t even know that. How can I offer that space rather than saying, “You need to do this and you’re fucking it up and you’ve offended me.” So there’s a difference and I think people feel that. That’s an interpersonal example that I do all the time.
Another example: So I work with coalitions and maybe something comes up that’s racist and people don’t even know it. Part of our curriculum was always embedding health equity in their coalition-building and people just didn’t get it and so we’d talk about, like, “Okay, what is bias to us?” “What are some of the assumptions that we make everyday?” Let’s talk about them and unpack them. Everybody makes assumptions, so like you make assumptions about me and I make assumptions about you, but how does that impact our decision-making? That’s an example of how calling in would happen in agency work.
HOW DO WE BUILD A CALL IN CULTURE IN MSP?
If you just can get people to think about where their biases and assumptions come from. So when people say, “I don’t know how to address racism in my workplace?” I’m like, “Let’s start here and think.” We all do it, but can you be in that moment and if you can even get to that place where you’re like, “I had this thought. I felt uncomfortable with it. Something’s going on there.” If you can even get there; that is culture change. That’s a shift in how we move from an automatic thought into: I had that thought. Something felt weird about it and I’m going to pause. I tell people if you can even get there, you can move beyond that, too. It’s about processing, so maybe that came from something I learned as a kid about how I feel about people who look different from me or whatever the case is, but consciously identifying where that idea comes from and conscientiously taking the time to pause and re-frame. It takes time. It’s not immediate. It takes pausing and reframing, but if you do that enough, I really believe it can change how people behave and change how they do their work. So especially in rural Wisconsin where there are a lot of issues around equity, I think if we can pause and think about it there will be much broader culture change around inclusivity and equity work. We can’t all know everything but we can be “here” more (points to heart).
How has your work informed the way you give back?
I have educational privilege that has set me up for a job and career where I get a lot of my basic needs met (housing, transportation, health insurance, food) AND I get to do what I am passionate about. I am really lucky and grateful for that, and so some of the ways that I give back are to support local community agencies and non-profits that are doing amazing work to change hearts, minds, and lives. I support them with money and with time and talent. I cannot underscore the importance of supporting work with time and talent as it is a powerful way to pour your skills and energy into something. I have supported a wide array of organizations and movements ranging from Black Lives Matter and immigration support to LGBTQ health agencies to youth service agencies to reproductive justice agencies and movements to educational justice and prison reform movements.
How can we be better allies for trans and non-binary friends?
There are so many ways! First, doing what you doing here: showcasing the lives and stories of trans and non-binary people is very important! There are some folks in the media now who are out as trans and non-binary, but not very many and certainly not nearly enough in local public spaces.
Some easy practical ways to be great allies is offering space for folks share their pronouns (could be out loud or on a name tag at an event) and then encouraging your community to hold each other accountable to using those pronouns, making sure that print and online material has language that is inclusive of trans and non-binary folks, and supporting venues for events that have gender neutral or single stall restrooms. In the long run, having trans and non-binary folks at the table for decision making and framing would be awesome!
Who else should we interview?
Favorite Comic Series: Buffy
Favorite Disney Movie: Coco
Favorite Publisher: Flamingo Rampant
Favorite Coffee Shop: Peace Coffee Wonderland or Blue Moon Cafe
Favorite Training: I love the work that Training For Change does.
I am grateful to Shor for helping us find and adopt language for Power of 100 MSP that is welcoming to transgender, genderqueer and non-binary friends. I had some work to do (and still do). Shor opened up the space for me to learn and grow about less traditional gender categories. I learned that some “women” spaces can feel exclusionary to trans and genderqueer folks, and trans women in particular, despite them sharing a great deal of life experiences. As we continue our work to elevate the voices of inspired community leaders and activate members to offer support, I am reminded that an ally’s first key step is to listen. Full Stop.
This interview occurred in May 2018 but was delayed because we were buried by Pitchfest prep. Luckily, Shor’s advice is timeless and you’ll want to adopt many of their ideas immediately for convos with family this holiday season, for your self-care, and to beef up your conflict management skillz at the office.