Our Live Oak community was created over time with a great deal of thought, sensitivity, struggle, love and commitment. Live Oak’s leaders and staff hoped, and continue to aspire to create a place where others can grow, learn, share, struggle and belong while doing the work they believe in.
Live Oak Founders Jeff Levy and Bruce Koff, met each other in 1996 and founded Live Oak in 2004. During an interview conducted by Live Oak’s former Director of Training Kelly George, they share the founding and evolution of Live Oak. After committing 15 years to building and growing the organization, Jeff and Bruce left Live Oak in 2018 to continue to pursue their personal and professional interests and passions.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you were thinking/hoping for/intending when you founded Live Oak?
Jeff: At the very first lunch Bruce and I had when we were discussing a client we shared, we began talking about how we could work together more frequently and how we might create some kind of structure for training other therapists. Soon after we met Bruce and I scheduled regular meetings where we’d primarily discuss cases, but also dream about creating some kind of practice together. The more we collaborated, which included facilitating a gay male survivor group together, the more we enjoyed working together. At the same time, both of our practices were full and as we got more referrals that we couldn’t accept, we began to talk more seriously about creating a practice together where we could train other therapists and where we would also know that when we referred clients to colleagues, we had more familiarity and confidence in our colleagues’ training—especially relating to LGBT affirmative practice.
Bruce: Jeff and I had several goals in mind. First, we wanted to create a place founded on the principles we ourselves shared. Second, we wanted to have a place of learning and training, so that we could share clients with one another and collaborate with confidence. Third, we wanted to create a place known for excellence in it’s own right and not dependent on our reputations alone. Finally, we wanted to hire people with a passion and provide them with a place to transform that passion into service.
What do you feel it is most important for people to know about the history of Live Oak?
Jeff: I think I’d want people to know that Live Oak has a history based on a commitment toward affirmative practice with folks who hold one or more stigmatized identities. Both Bruce and I had our own experiences of marginalization–and I think this was a driving force in creating a place where anyone–holding any identity–would feel safe.
Bruce: The most important aspect of history is that Live Oak was not just a group practice, but a place with a mission–organized by passion, ethics and clinical excellence that recognizes the value of difference.
How did you feel Live Oak was different from other organizations when you founded it? How did you work to make it different?
Jeff: Because of the forces influencing the creation of Live Oak, we have been different from the day we incorporated. While we are incorporated as a for-profit organization, I think both Bruce and I have brought our years of working in not-for-profit organizations into the way we think about providing services. In so doing, we have created this “hybrid” of an organization that is committed to providing services to people who might not otherwise be able to access services in a structure that is not encumbered by lots of hoops that folks have to jump through. We can have an idea and implement it. As long as any person’s ideas are consistent with our values as an organization, we can support people in pursuing their dreams and creating their niche at Live Oak.
Bruce: We worked to form a community of individuals who shared our values. Our selection of staff and trainees reflected this, as did our insistence on a cohesive structure that provided opportunities for multi-directional learning and care.
How and why did you choose the values Live Oak is founded on?
Jeff: Our values seemed to organically evolve based on the work we do. Because of our commitment to affirmative practice and valuing difference, the other values that we have developed over time seemed natural. I’m not so sure we chose our values as much as our values chose us!
Bruce: Jeff and I quickly realized that we shared these in common. Once we founded Live Oak, we were able to articulate these easily. There is no mystery here. Each principle is simply and profoundly necessary and has always guided the organization and our clients toward healing.
How have you seen Live Oak evolve and change since the founding?
Jeff: I’m pretty sure neither Bruce nor I dreamed Live Oak would grow as it has as fast as it has. Through the years, we’ve experimented with all sorts of permutations and variations of structure to be where we are now. We’ve seen our dreams of creating a space for people of all identities and intersectionalities (a word that was rarely if ever used when we founded Live Oak) come to fruition, and we have a more diverse and inclusive staff than we had when we began.
Bruce: Live Oak remains Live Oak: a place of passion, ethics, and clinical excellence. Its growth has introduced a level of management and bureaucracy that is probably necessary for efficiency. It has grown to a point where maintaining cohesiveness as a community can be challenging. It’s increased diversity is always a strength. From a clinical perspective, I hope that Live Oak will always emphasize the importance of professional learning, thorough assessment, and sound case formulation.
How has founding and being a part of Live Oak changed you? How do you think it has changed others involved – clients, staff, etc?
Jeff: I left agency work because I didn’t want to be a manager anymore. And here I am 15 years later having participated in the development and management of an organization that has over 30 full time people. Through starting Live Oak with Bruce, I’ve realized that I actually enjoy creating programs and the process of collaboration more than I knew I did. I’ve also come to appreciate the value of discomfort as part of the process of growth and change. These past 15 years I have probably experienced some of the greatest discomfort of my life. This has also resulted in some of the most profoundly moving and meaningful moments of my life as a social worker and as a human. I’d like to think that the value of discomfort transcends my own experience and is infused within the organization, influencing both clients and staff—and supporting us in addressing the ever-evolving social and political challenges we face individually and collectively.
Bruce: By affording me a daily opportunity to witness the courage, talents, strengths and capacities of clients and staff, I have become more humble. Empathy and humility are essential to wisdom and healing. I would hope that all staff, trainees and clients experience these at Live Oak.