Polestar: noun, a thing or principle that guides or attracts people.
TRAVERSE CITY – Five LGBT individuals in Traverse City have developed an exploratory committee named Polestar to research the interest and sustainability of an LGBT community center to serve Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska, and Antrium counties.
The committee envisions a space for LGBT people to gather and have a cup of coffee, watch movies, throw potluck dinners, and create a directory of LGBT-friendly businesses.
The closest community center is located in Muskegon, 130 miles to the south, which means that those seeking aid have to travel a significant distance to reach LGBT-inclusive services. Some individuals travel all the way to Ferndale to utilize the many services Affirmations provides.
“The community up here in northern Michigan is fractured. There are pockets and not everybody knows about one another. In creating the center we are hoping we can connect everybody together and provide information and services. Our tagline is ‘educate, advocate and connect,'” said Rebecca Fuller, a committee member who moved to the area one year ago.
Many LGBT people living in the area, she said, moved there 20-30 years ago and have since given up on connecting with the local LGBT community.
“There are a lot of people who have just gone on with their life and haven’t spoken with each other,” she said.
With a population of around 14,000 spread throughout the five-county area, it’s no surprise that communication and maintaining social connections is a significant hurdle for LGBT people in northern Michigan. Rural areas are known for being more isolated; however, Polestar wants to change that perception and connect the local LGBT community.
The group began assessing the interest and community needs on March 1, when it launched its own needs assessment survey. They expected the assessment would gather 200 responses from March to the end of June, but to the group’s surprise they received more than 250 responses within the first four weeks.
“People continue to take it,” Fuller said. “We’re still getting responses. Just got one yesterday. We’re really surprised and encouraged by the amount of responses.”
According to the survey, the local LGBT community wants more social opportunities and outings so they can meet people and develop a stronger sense of community. They also want to see extended health and youth services. Many people have also called for a guest speaker or events of size so they will feel more secure being out and about.
“A lot of people living in these small communities aren’t all out, they fly under the radar as much as possible,” Fuller said. “We’ve gotten a number of responses from people who are not fully out in their communities, people that are trying to go by unnoticed. And a lot of that is for safety reasons. They feel they’d have push-back, especially at work.”
Building A Community Center
“There’s nothing out here. We haven’t even opened up a center and we get inquiries by phone and through the website from health care providers wanting to hook up their clients with services,” John Young, a committee member said, adding that they have been friends for years. They met a few years ago at a Wednesday night coffee social group, which ended, and they continued to meet weekly.
“When I met Chris, all he talked about is an LGBT community center, and one of those Wednesdays I got tired of hearing them so I went home and googled how to start a community center. And if you google that, right away an organization called CenterLink comes up,” Young explained.
Within a week, he and the Polestar team were on a conference call with CenterLink.
Many of the top LGBT community centers in the state are members of CenterLink, including Michigan’s largest LGBT community center, Affirmations. The organization helps current and prospective community centers improve their organizational and service delivery capacity and increase their access to public resources.
“We’ve gone at an incredible pace,” Young said. “This whole conversation started at the end of this past February. We believe we’re going to have a physical location within a year. And we’re proud of that. I’m sure it’ll start out small and we can help to grow it.”
“Traverse City is relatively small but it is the anchor for all of northern Michigan,” said Eddie Grim, a committee member. “So a center here would have a large influence over northern Michigan. And there will be ways that it will reach out beyond that area by necessity.”
The group is working 10-15 hours a week to develop the center. Young believes that sometimes individuals such as themselves just have to “take a leap of faith,” but the success of the proposed center is all about money.
“If it can’t get financial support, it’s not going to happen. We’re not yet a non-profit. But our goal is to be non-profit by the end of the summer,” Young said.
Polestar’s bylaws are written to be flexible, Grim said, so the group can function as a small entity and then later on, when there’s more provisions, Polestar can work on bigger projects like education efforts.
“I would use the word surprising. I think there’s a timing that just seems to be right,” Young said. “I don’t think any of us envisioned it coming together so quickly, and so well.”
Community Meets Polestar at Town Hall Meeting
Nearly 100 people attended a Town Hall meeting in June to introduce Polestar to the Traverse City community, and to see what kind of support exists for the community center project. The meeting was important to supplement the information the committee has gathered from their survey; however, the meet and greet also provided an opportunity for the community to address any concerns they may have.
Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan and Mary Jo Schnell, executive director of the Benton Harbor LGBT community center were both present along with the first openly-gay mayor of Traverse City, Jim Carruthers.
The next step for the center is to finish filing for their 501c3 status in the next two to four weeks, and to lay the groundwork for strong programs and services. Young said he expects to have designated community center space early next year.
To follow Polestar’s progress or learn more about their fundraising efforts, visit http://www.tcpolestar.org.