Programmatic expansion, fund and staff development, political advocacy and more are all either current or future projects at Ferndale’s Affirmations LGBTQ community center. From the outside, that list might seem like an average set of goals for such an organization, but many in Southeast Michigan’s LGBTQ community who have been following the center’s trajectory will know that they are made more impressive when accounting for the fact that the Center was on the verge of shuttering its doors last December.
Ask newly reappointed Executive Director Dave Garcia about this seeming 180-degree shift and he’ll attribute it to the efforts of the Center’s dedicated volunteers and board of directors, coupled with his own gained experience working at the Los Angeles LGBT Center — the largest community center of its kind in the nation. He said that despite the organization’s rocky past, its presence is a vital and lasting one in the local community, one that deserves recognition.
“The last five years have been difficult for the organization, but I think people need to also take a step a back and remember that we’re 30 years old this year and a lot of LGBT organizations can’t say that,” Garcia said. “And while there have been a lot of ups and downs throughout the organization’s history, we still exist and we’re still here and that’s a lot to be proud of.”
Garcia’s LGBTQ advocacy career began in 2000 after he was fired from his role as community services coordinator of Swartz Creek Community Schools for attempting to start a Gay-Straight Alliance. Subsequently, he went on to become the executive director of the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center, now known as OutFront Kalamazoo, Affirmations in 2011 and the political director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. When asked why he made the decision to return to Michigan after securing a role across the country, Garcia said he felt pulled to come home.
“I was quite happy in Los Angeles and they were quite happy with me, but as I was looking here at what was happening in my home state of Michigan I was excited to see Gov. Whitmer be elected and our Attorney General Dana Nessel be elected — those were all positive signs. And the reality is, a community center has a role to play in registering our community to vote, for example, and getting out the vote efforts. And the state of California, while extremely important, we all know where that’s going to go in 2020,” he said with a laugh. “And Michigan is a purple state and we have a responsibility to our community … to do everything we can in terms of political advocacy within the law of what we can do as nonprofit to make sure that people who are elected in 2020 are fair-minded individuals who respect our community and will protect our community.”
Affirmations is a nonprofit, listed as a 501(c)(3) in the tax code, and therefore tax exempt so long as its earnings do not fund a private shareholder or individual like a politician. For that reason, Garcia, who has been vocal about the importance of community centers like this one taking political action has been criticized, but he said that politics and the LGBTQ community are inextricably linked.
“I think what made my policy team unique and so effective in Los Angeles was precisely because we were embedded within the community center. Because everyone that walked through those doors are clients of ours and if they are facing a problem, legislatively or otherwise, in the medical arena or name it, we have a responsibility to help them,” Garcia said. “And, for example, I personally think that the religious exemption, what we are seeing across the state of Michigan and in the country [with] these laws that are passed and making it legal for folks to discriminate against us as long as religion is their weapon, I believe the religious exemption is the biggest threat to our community since HIV. The community center has a role to play in fighting back and educating the community about what the religious exemption is and why it’s so important.”
He went on to say that in Los Angeles he and his team developed a resistance squad roughly 200 volunteers strong that worked on issues of political advocacy affecting the community nationally and locally. He said that that kind of local involvement from an impassioned community is something that he’s eager to see in Ferndale and that it will serve to benefit the Center in the long run, too.
“Those community members that want to get involved in political advocacy, those are volunteers who someday can become donors or donors who someday can become board members,” he said. “Whatever we do here, it should be engaging the community and many people want to get involved in political advocacy. Now look, we’re a nonprofit and we were in Los Angeles. All that means is that we can’t give money to political candidates and we can’t endorse political candidates, everything else we can do. So, I certainly learned in Los Angeles the importance of the community center’s role in political advocacy and education.”
Now that Garcia is starting to settle into his old role since his appointment earlier this spring, he’s debuting a way to get started on gaining a stronger volunteer base to not only help politically but within the center’s physical space, too.
“One thing that I’m excited about is that we’re developing right now, as we speak, a campaign to of course raise money but also more than double our volunteer base,” he said. “So, we’re calling it the Coming Home Campaign with the idea that I came home from California and I’d like all of the donors who have ever given to Affirmations from the time the organization was founded in our 30th anniversary year, to also come home and come back to the community center.”
The tagline for this project will be “There’s no place like home” and will provide volunteers three ways to volunteer their time and efforts.
The political side of volunteerism at the Center, this portion of volunteers will tackle issues facing Southeast Michigan’s LGBTQ community including everything from conversion therapy, religious exemptions, adoption issues, expansion of Elliott-Larsen and more.
This portion will focus on the entertainment aspects that Garcia said will make Affirmations a fun and vibrant community hub.
“And when I say entertainment, I mean things that all folks would be interested in coming into the building for. So, for example, we have the community room that many people are familiar with, the giant glass room, I believe that we can do a lot more black box theater in that room for example,” he said. “We have two pianos, well it’d be fun to have an evening of dueling pianos. We have a beautiful sky deck, we’d have to do more fun events up there like wine parties and more concerts in the building.”
“And then, the third committee to volunteer, is going to be an Aff-Ally program and that’s the basic needs we have from the community as far as volunteering for things like Spring Bash and Fall Fling at the front desk,” Garcia said.
With this developed volunteer program, Garcia said that the center can focus on fulfilling center needs that for too long have suffered neglect because of the emergency measures taken to preserve the organization. One priority, Garcia said, is the front desk.
“We as soon as possible need to expand our front desk hours. I understand that’s a frustration with the community right now, I share that frustration,” he said. “But until we can bolster up our volunteer base there’s not much I can do about that immediately.”
In the long-term, Garcia is dedicated to expanding on current successful programs that Affirmations regulars already attend to increase the appeal of the center to both regulars and new attendees alike.
“So, as soon as we have some more volunteers and I have some more ideas about going to our groups that meet here at Affirmations, many have been well-established for years. For example, the Brownbaggers and Senior Coffee Klatch and the Motor City Bears and asking if they would be interested in possibly adopting a day at the desk as a group would help us a great deal. With a little bit of training, but more importantly a good attitude,” he said with a laugh, “folks will just smile and welcome people when they come into the building. As soon as we can get more volunteers engaged, we’ll be able to expand our hours back to what I hope to be at least 10 in the morning until nine at night Monday through Saturday.”
It’s evident that Garcia’s efforts have so far dramatically changed the Center’s outlook, but he stressed that his progress would not have been possible had he not had the help of Affirmations’ board and volunteers, in particular, because the organization is only just beginning to recover from near-bankruptcy. He said that their continued help and the appointment of five new board members will aid Affirmations’ day-to-day operations until a larger staff can be secured.
“We don’t have the monies right now for me to go out and hire a bunch of staff. If I was going to make a staff hire it would be a development person because I need help raising money, without money you can’t open the doors for programs,” he said. “So, as soon as I’m able to get my head around some of the numbers here and get more of a kind of cash flow forecast for the end of the year and get more grants for the organization, then, hopefully soon, I’ll be in a position to start making new hires and start to build up the staff again.”
As of right now, Garcia is putting his focus toward developing his own relationship with both newly appointed and existing board members via a board retreat to be lead by Terry Stone of CenterLink — the national community organization for LGBT centers.
“You will see significant changes that improve this at the board level. That is not to say that the current board isn’t doing a good job, the current board has worked very hard, but even they would say that they need more board members, more qualified board members and we need more development and that’s what we’re going to do and are already doing,” Garcia said.
Garcia himself was involved with CenterLink for five years and has maintained a relationship with the organization. He said he hopes to leverage that partnership in the future to aid Affirmations and, subsequently, the community. He said his work with them so far has only proven to him that LGBTQ centers like Affirmations are needed now more than ever.
“Those community centers around the country, some of the larger community centers, we’ve only seen numbers grow — that’s true for Chicago, New York, Los Angeles,” he said. “I see Affirmations as no different than those other LGBT organizations and if we can have some stability and some leadership from the board to the executive director to the staff, we will start to see our numbers climb and, I think, climb dramatically here at the center — both for fun events and for political events, political advocacy and services to seniors and youth.”