By Bridgett Harris

When Candace Woods first came to Colorado Springs at 19, it wasn’t to stick around. She moved here in 2004 to join an international nonprofit organization that focused on relief, youth services and development — in countries all over the world. 

Woods spent five years working in countries in Asia, including Thailand, where she helped with hurricane recovery efforts, and India, where she worked with at-risk youth experiencing homelessness. 

Returning to Colorado, she earned a bachelor of arts in history and political science with an emphasis in the Middle East and a minor in religion at Colorado College. Her minor in religion represented an important part of her life — her faith. She grew up attending church in Oregon and her father was a pastor. For Woods, it was only natural to incorporate faith into her education and her career. 

After graduation, she worked in youth- and ministry-related roles for several years before deciding to enroll in Iliff School of Theology in Denver, to earn Master of Divinity. She graduated in 2019, the same year she became the youth program manager at Inside Out Youth Services. 

It might seem unconventional for a pastor’s daughter with a Master of Divinity to take on the role of serving LGBTQ youth — even with more churches working to embrace and accept LGBTQ individuals, many still face discrimination from religious entities. But for Woods, the pairing was a perfect fit. 

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“As a progressive-leaning person of faith in Colorado Springs, it has been difficult to find the opportunities to do that kind of work here,” she said. “There just aren’t a lot of organizations that are upholding the values that I have. I’m really grateful to be able to have joined the team at Inside Out where their mission and my personal values align.”

While Woods does not serve in a faith-based role at Inside Out, her background does provide an opportunity for LGBTQ youth curious about faith to ask questions. Woods spoke with the Business Journal about her work at Inside Out and what it means to serve LGBTQ youth in Colorado Springs.

What inspired you to pursue your Master of Divinity and your specialization in social justice and ethics?

I’ve seen the power of what can happen when those faith communities come together to do good in the world, so I went to school for my M.Div. I wanted to look at how religious organizations or interfaith groups can come together to do the work of social justice in the world with one another. That was what inspired and led me into that space.

How has that helped you in your role at Inside Out Youth Services?

Working with young people was always a part of my sense of calling. Working now with LGBTQ young people in Colorado Springs and having an M.Div. is actually quite beneficial. A lot of queer youth in our city have been told that they can’t also be people of faith. Their faith communities have pushed them out or they have felt unwelcome. Being there and holding space for young people who might be looking to understand how spirituality can fit in with their identity has been a real joy of mine; to help, to just be there and listen and to show that you can be a queer person and a person of faith as well. 

What service does the Inside Out provide to the community? Why is it important? 

We’re in our 30th year of existence this year. We are the only staffed LGBTQ organization in all of El Paso County. We provide a community center drop-in space and preventative programming for LGBTQ youth and their allies who are aged 13 to 22. A lot of the work that we do centers on drug and alcohol prevention, suicide prevention and training young people on safer sex practices. We also support a lot of resiliency building with young people. Outside, in the community, we train people who work with youth on how to be better allies, how to welcome and accept and affirm youth in all that they are. 

What is your role at the Inside Out? 

I am the youth program manager. My job is a mishmash of case worker, support system, coach and educator, kind of all thrown into one. Essentially, I’m responsible for everything that happens inside the space with regard to our youth. I manage a staff of youth-serving professionals. We do a lot of leadership development and positive youth development. We believe that the youth are our partners in this work and that they have the best ideas about what they need and what they want to see happen in the world and in our programming. We partner with young people through working to give them tools to be successful in life. 

What programs have you developed or expanded in your time at the organization? 

With my experience as a sexuality educator, I’ve brought in comprehensive sex ed. We are doing a lot of work to train young people around consent, bystander responsibility and how to engage in safer sex practices. I’ve done a lot of work to build that out and it’s one of the things that I’m really proud of.

Why did you see a need for that?

Sexual education, as it is currently taught in many schools in Colorado Springs, does not typically affirm LGBTQ youth or give them the skills that they need to navigate their sexual lives. The passage of House Bill 19-1032 last year in the legislative session — which we were excited to partner with groups in getting passed — makes it law that if sex ed is being taught in schools, it needs to be comprehensive. It needs to include the experiences of LGBTQ people. However, we know that tools aren’t quite there yet and that it’s hard and some parents are scared of the subject. The sex ed curriculum that is used in the Springs is often heteronormative and not inclusive of trans identities. Inside Out is trying to provide space where that learning can happen. 

What is the best advice you could give someone working to expand their opportunities and grow their career as a young professional? 

Find work that’s meaningful to both you and the world. That is what has been really important to me — finding work that allows me to have a sense of purpose. 

Find the intersection where the world has a need you can meet with the skills and strengths that you bring so that you can do good and create change in the world. 

What is your personal philosophy on collaboration and leadership?

I’ll be honest that this is a lesson that I’m continuing to learn and to lean into. My personal philosophy is to be open and vulnerable when you’re challenged on something. We learn how to be on team together as we listen to one another, make space for each other and show up as our authentic selves. My advice is to lean in for that learning. It might be uncomfortable and challenging to think that you don’t have all the right answers, but be open to the fact that you might be wrong at the time. I think we have an ideal of leaders being perfect entities. The reality is that we’re all human, so creating space for accountability in that process of learning and growing is really important.  

What is the most exciting aspect of your work in supporting LGBTQ youth?

There’s so much! These young people are so dynamic and full of power and energy. Being led by them is really exciting. We joke in youth work that no day is ever the same. I think that is why we were able to shift and pivot really quickly with the pandemic and the way that it has asked us to shift and change our programs and how we show up for our young people.

What are some of the changes or adjustments you’ve had to make? 

You know, it’s just another day in youth work when we have to change something on the fly and make something happen that wasn’t originally planned. We were community drop-in center, so all that has had to shift. We’ve moved all of our programs online and are doing our suicide prevention, sex ed and dating violence prevention all in an online Discord server. 

How has that worked out so far?

It has actually opened up some really great, interesting opportunities for us to connect with young people who may have never had opportunity to come be with us in our physical space due to transportation issues or the fact that they might not be out at home. We’ve been able to reach new young people and give them support and care. It lets them have a place where they can be themselves and connect with their peers. That’s been really interesting.

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