Affirmations LGBTQ community center in Ferndale has recently announced the addition of two new board members. Both new members, Brandon Gleaton and Roxanne Mitchell, are African American. And that was intentional.
Affirmations has long struggled with allegations of racism and claims of a lack of diversity on its board, among its staff and in its programming. In 2008, the center formed a Multicultural Advisory Committee in recognition that Affirmations "was failing to meet the needs and wants" of the African American LGBTQ+ community. MAC was made up of volunteers as well staff and board members that drew from a broad cross-section of the community.
David Garcia joined the center as executive director for the first time in 2011.
"I came as the MAC committee was finishing," he recalled. "I was involved at the very end. Then when the MAC report was published we used the suggestions of that report as an entire arm of our strategic plan."
When the report was completed, it came with action steps to make Affirmations "a model for racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion," he said. Garcia, himself Latino, tried to implement as many ideas from the strategic plan as he could. His first hire was Johnny Jenkins, a former executive director of Detroit Black Gay Pride and a well-known leader in Detroit's Black LGBTQ+ community.
"We tried to make the center more welcoming than it had been in the past," Jenkins said. "And from my standpoint, we were able to do that."
Jenkins said the center tried to build relationships with local people of color groups, gave them space to meet and increased POC participation in the youth program.
"There was a long history of just a lack of engagement with Detroit's Black LGBT community, and we made an attempt to address that," said Jenkins. "We did art shows, poetry nights, open mics — all of them were multicultural occasions, and we were very intentional in how we promoted these events to make sure that the space was welcoming to everybody."
Garcia left the center for the first time in 2014 to take a position in California with the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center. Darrious D. Hilmon, who is Black, was brought on to replace Garcia as executive director following a nationwide search. Hilmon did not stay at the center long — a mere seven months — but during his tenure, he let Jenkins go. Soon after, efforts to improve diversity within the center fell by the wayside as the board faced financial challenges that led to reducing the center's operating hours.
Five years after leaving the first time, Garcia returned to the center and to the position of executive director and found that the work of the MAC report had never been finished.
"I guess it was just kind of put on the back burner," he said. "Not completely. But certainly when I got back here from Los Angeles, it was evident to me that we really needed to step up our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI work as it's called in the field."
Today there is a DEI committee on the board, which is led by board member Jennifer Johnson. She is, thanks to the two newest appointments, one of four African Americans on the board. Demetrike Wells, who first came to the center as a youth, is the fourth.
"There was a genuine and authentic desire to achieve true diversity on the board upon my joining," said Wells. "We understand that, in order to reach as many people as possible and positively impact the broader community, the leadership of the organization should reflect the broader community."
For her part, new board member Mitchell had been aware of the center for the past couple of decades. About two years ago, she attended an event at the center that allowed her an opportunity to speak with a couple of current board members.
"I was thoroughly impressed with their mission to fully support all members of the LGBTQ community by providing an inclusive, culturally affirming environment," she said, adding that she had heard of the center's issues surrounding diversity.
"I was aware of the diversity issues plaguing the organization," she said. "People of color did not feel it was a safe place to be themselves and feel socially accepted. People of color were forced to seek out sister organizations where they felt safe."
But now, Mitchell said she is happy to be a part of a new era for the center.
"The progress began with the acknowledgement of the problem, then moving to rid the organization of leaders that were unwilling to recognize the importance of diversity and inclusion," Mitchell said. "The organization is making sure that all hiring decisions are made by a diverse group."
Gleaton came on board after learning from Wells about the work the board was doing.
"He told me about the board's desire to have its body reflect the community's population," he said. "After hearing about the work of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, I knew I wanted to join."
With a committed 12-member board that also includes a trans woman and an Asian American woman, Gleaton said he is optimistic about the center's future.
"As with any organization, reflection and growth are essential," Gleaton said, "and we are growing to become more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive by changing the narrative that Affirmations is a place for Black and brown individuals to come and thrive as well."