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How Grand Rapids Pride Center’s Executive Director Has Led the Organization Out of Pandemic Hardships

In three years, with Jazz McKinney leading, the GRPC's budget has jumped from $700 to $630,000

Jason A. Michael

Jazz McKinney, executive director of the Grand Rapids Pride Center (GRPC), is leading the non-profit organization into a new era — one focused on a renewed spirit of equity and community engagement for all.

A native of Detroit, McKinney moved to Grand Rapids in 2004 to attend Grand Valley State University. After a change in majors, McKinney ended up with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology. That experience is no doubt helpful to McKinney, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them, as they navigate GRPC into its post-pandemic era.

Here, McKinney talks to Pride Source about what brought them to GRPC and where they hope to take it. 

Today you identify as non-binary, but that wasn’t always the case?

I came out as a trans man in 2008. Here in West Michigan, we know that non-binary and stuff existed, but it was not very well known or popular. You could be a trans woman or a trans man. Those were your options. I came out as a trans man and that didn’t feel great either. I don’t think I’m fully a man either. So I just kind of floated for a while as I started to learn more. 

You also identify as two-spirit?

I’ve always known the fact that I was indigenous. I’m an indigenous mutt. I have multiple tribes in there. But as far as the identity, I think that journey happened as I learned more about myself. I grew up in Detroit when it was not cool to be mixed. You were Black and that was it. That is what I saw anyway. That’s kind of how my family was raised, to hide the indigenous side. Not necessarily between ourselves, but kind of that mentality that it’s already hard enough to be Black. So why add another piece to it? There are no protections in place for Native Americans, even less than Black people. So you kind of have to pick — which oppression do you want?

Prior to joining the center, you worked as a psychologist. Why were you drawn to this field?

I’ve always been a natural healer. I’ve kind of naturally been able to talk to people and make them feel better. I’ve always been interested in the way the mind works and how it’s connected to your body and soul. So, in a very colonized way of thinking, that to me meant that I would be a teacher or a therapist. When I got to school, they told me that psychology was not a teachable major. You couldn’t get a degree in psychology and education because you can’t become a psychology teacher. I said, “What are you talking about?” I definitely took an AP psychology course in high school. 

You came to the center in October 2020, at the height of the pandemic, as interim executive director. In March of 2021 the board dropped the “interim” and you became the center’s full time ED. What can you tell me about your early days at the center?

I definitely inherited a mess. Nothing against the previous ED. He did the best he could with what he had. Because of the pandemic, a lot of our services were closed down. So I could do some internal work. We started talking about our philosophy, who we wanted to be as a center. Also, during the same time we had the racial uprising. So this took place in the middle of the George Floyd situation. There was a lot of focus on racial equity or inequity, I guess. 

We as a center had gotten called out about how we have a history of racism, a history of not treating people how they should be treated and catering our services to a particular set of folks. It really helped us to be able to take the time to look at our policies and our focus. There was a group of folks that we were obviously missing. It was like 85 percent of the people we served were white. We took a look at that. We weren’t serving a lot of elders, we weren’t serving a lot of people with disabilities. So we really took a good look at ourselves, and we’re still in that process. 

And today? How are things going?

Things are going great. We’re in the middle of strategic planning right now. We might be changing our mission statement. We haven’t had a strategic plan in at least 10 years. We just need to have good practices and the policies in place so we can hopefully do better for our BIPOC community, our senior community, our trans community. We want them to feel welcome, as well as our white folks and our men. They’re still important. We’re just trying to make sure everyone else gets served, too.

Can you give us your greatest hits list? What have you brought to the center since you started?

I’ve worked very hard to change some of what I inherited. When I took over, 90 percent of our income was coming from our Pride festival. We had to cancel in 2020 and couldn’t pay our ED. In January 2020, we had $700 in our bank account. So when I say I inherited a mess, that’s what I mean. It’s been a time, let me tell you. However, now this year’s budget is $630,000 as opposed to the $200,000 I inherited. Now our funding goal is to get our funding to be 33% grants, 33% fundraising and 33% donations. We’re definitely close to that now.

Finally, who is Jazz at home, when they are not working to better the center? 

I have four children. I love paranormal fiction. And I have been with my spouse, DL, for 20 years. I am also passionate about working to decolonize gender roles and identities as well as discussing the impact that harmful gender binaries can cause within our communities.

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