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Affirmations Responds to COVID-19 Crisis: Making Adjustments, Facing Challenges

By |2020-09-09T14:05:25-04:00April 2nd, 2020|Community Impact, COVID-19, Michigan, News|

Online Offerings

In the first of what will be weekly addresses via Zoom videoconference, Affirmations Executive Director Dave Garcia reported on March 27 that although the center is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most groups have moved online and that the Affirmations LGBTQ community center is financially stable for the time being. Garcia said these virtual updates would continue on Fridays at noon until “we can go back to semi-normal lives.” There were around 30 participants for the initial meeting; they are being recorded and made available on the Affirmations YouTube channel for those unable to join live.

“As you might imagine, it’s been a crazy time for all of us,” Garcia said. “I want to take a moment to again appreciate the staff at Affirmations and all the hard work that they’ve done. It’s been long days for us but I think we’re doing pretty well.”

Almost all of Affirmations’ groups — including all of their recovery groups — are now using Zoom videoconference technology.

“Let me start with a little bit of a silver lining,” Garcia said. “Normally our AA group, for example, Alcoholics Anonymous, was getting about 20 people, in-person, per day, Monday through Saturday at the center. We had as many as 71 on their last Zoom meeting. Some of those folks came from out of state, some from as far away as Sweden and Scotland.”

Groups like Motor City Bears, the center’s trans groups and even their largest in-person group, Senior Koffee Klatch, are now using Zoom.

“Now, there’s been a lot of challenges with that group, as you might imagine with the older generation,” Garcia said, referring to Senior Koffee Klatch. “But we’ve had a lot of one-on-one individual training sessions with them. They’ve called John Douglas, our operations manager, if they’re having any trouble at all, and he facilitates them in a step-by-step process on the phone, getting them into a Zoom meeting — and at the last Senior Koffee Klatch meeting we actually had about 30.”

To further assist seniors, Garcia said Affirmations has purchased 10 7-inch tablets for those who do not have a smartphone or access to video technology. They will be available for loan, and they will enable more individuals to participate in groups and remain part of the community at this critical time.

Youth programming continues, too. Learning modules are being offered as are drop-in hours on Fridays and Saturdays, where there is adult supervision — just like in-person drop-in — to prohibit adult strangers from randomly joining the virtual gathering.

 

Work in Progress

That concern — privacy and confidentiality on videoconferencing platforms — was brought up by a group leader after Garcia’s update. Granted, in some ways it’s beneficial to open the “room” to anyone in the world with internet or smartphone access, but one must be aware bad actors can spoil the interaction, too. Unfortunately, this is exactly what played out just a few days later. Garcia posted the following to his personal Facebook page on March 31:

“Today our zoom groups were overrun by white supremacists drawing swastikas on our screens and calling everyone fags etc. We’ve had to spend many valuable hours today changing everything and adding passwords and other security measures so our groups can safely meet. It’s a huge time suck and blow to staff morale, but I told them today that it is a stark reminder of why Affirmations is still so needed and why we get up every day and do the work we do,” he said. “It is unfortunate that some people attack in moments like these, but I still believe there is far more good in this world than bad and my staff will not quit.”

Safety precautions include using a password that has been given directly by a staff member and employing the Zoom “waiting room” function so participants can be vetted one by one. This will likely allow fewer people around the state and country to join the groups, but the primary concern must be to keep the rooms safe for those who do, Garcia said.

Garcia also talked about the Community Action Network, an advocacy group that was started by CenterLink in partnership with the Los Angeles LGBTQ Community Center at the time Garcia worked there. Now, Garcia said, they’ve brought that model to Michigan. Known as the Michigan LGBTQ+ Community Centers Network, this coalition of executive directors from the nine LGBTQ centers across the state recently held its second meeting — virtually, due to the circumstances. One of the timely topics discussed was the expansion of online offerings.

“In some ways, I think we’re never going to go back to normal,” Garcia said, in reference to Affirmations’ programming. “I think we’re gonna have a bit of a hybrid [where] we will, of course, have our face-to-face meetings at Affirmations, but why not continue a video component element so folks from around the whole state, or country or even the world can join some of our groups where it makes sense?”

He also envisioned the benefit to people in rural areas having access, especially youth and seniors who may be isolated.

 

In the Black, for Now

“All grants are on track at this time,” Garcia announced in the address. “Obviously, the health and public health of the community is my first priority; that’s why we shut the center’s doors and have moved in this direction, but I’m the executive director and I worry about the finances. We turned a corner; we had just finished the 2019 audit and for the first time since I was here the last time five years ago, our 2019 audit has Affirmations back in the black.”

Garcia explained how the current pandemic may impact Affirmations financially. At present, they’re not generating any income through room rentals and trainings conducted across the state. Certainly, he’s carefully watching for individual giving to continue at its usual level. As for Spring Bash, it’s been postponed until the fall.

“We had our largest single event scheduled for the 18th of April, the black-tie Spring Bash,” Garcia said. “We had to cancel. We’ve postponed it; we’ve rescheduled it. That event brings in anywhere from about $100,000 to $120,000 of revenue. That’s 15 percent of our budget. So while we have moved Bash to Halloween — it’ll be a black-tie masquerade — think of what that does in terms of cash flow, when you’re expecting $100,000 to $120,000 in the month of April.”

As long as the fundraiser isn’t outright canceled, Garcia said he is not worried. A wine party like the one that was so popular last fall will likely be scheduled for mid-July; however, Garcia said it was too early to make any formal announcement.

Following the update, Garcia spoke with Between The Lines and shared a concern about major donors. He said he’s making phone calls, but in some cases that may not be enough.

“One of my biggest concerns is, what does this mean for our longtime grant partners, especially the Big Three?” Garcia asked. “We have longtime relationships with Ford and General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, and depending on what this means for their business for the rest of the year, what will that mean to how much they can give through their foundations? Those foundations are tied to the markets. They all have foundations or endowments.”

As an example, Garcia explained that Affirmations receives interest from an endowment provided by the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan. Emergency one-time grants are something Garcia is exploring, too. He’s also looking into what the federal stimulus package means for nonprofits.

Garcia reported that for him, it’s business as usual — from a distance. When a board member needed to sign a document recently, he left it in his mailbox and he spoke to her from his window. The Affirmations staff is hard at work, but they find moments of levity. Show-and-tell or some other icebreaker before their morning meetings via videoconference has become part of their daily routine.

“You forget how much you laugh with your team before a meeting or just after a meeting … those human interactions,” Garcia said.

About the Author:

Ellen Shanna Knoppow
Ellen Knoppow is a writer, editor and activist.