Leaving a Legacy: Urvashi Vaid’s Lasting Impact on Michigan’s LGBTQ+ Community

Foundation gave an average of $2.5 million a year to Michigan LGBTQ+ causes under Vaid’s leadership

The Michigan LGBTQ+ philanthropy community is in mourning following news that longtime LGBTQ+ activist and philanthropist Urvashi Vaid died at age 63 earlier this month.

Vaid was a superstar in the movement for LGBTQ+ equality long before philanthropist Jon Stryker moved her to Michigan to helm his Arcus Foundation. An attorney, activist and author, she had previously served as executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. In that role, Vaid helped create the annual Creating Change conference.

Upon moving to Kalamazoo in 2005 to serve as executive director of Arcus, Vaid hired former Detroit Black Gay Pride Executive Director Johnny Jenkins to serve as program manager of Arcus’s Michigan Program. Together, Vaid and Jenkins hired Bashar McKay to serve as program associate.

“Urvashi, her approach was, I think, more holistic than other people at the time,” said McKay. “At the time, there was such heavy focus on marriage everywhere and that wasn’t Urvashi’s M.O. Urvashi’s M.O. was about changing hearts and minds and changing policies.”

Vaid made it her mission to change the culture in Michigan and open up minds to the LGBTQ+ community. She wasn’t looking for a quick policy change — she was looking for something permanent.

“She wanted something holistically done that just couldn’t be undone due to somebody passing another law or a court ruling,” McKay said. “She wanted the culture of the land to change throughout the country.”

Jenkins admitted he had little experience in philanthropy when Vaid hired him.

"She invested in a community activist who knew very little about managing a multi-million-dollar grant portfolio,” he said. “What she wanted was someone with strong analytical skills and relationships on the ground.”

Under Vaid’s leadership, “Michigan benefited from the distribution of millions of dollars designed to advance social justice in LGBT rights, racial and economic justice,” said Jenkins. “She was committed to cultivating collaboration and building capacity among LGBT organizations across the state.”

Sean Kosofsky was director of policy for the Triangle Foundation when Vaid came onboard at Arcus. While Triangle and Equality Michigan would merge in 2010, taking the name of the latter agency, they were operating as two separate entities in 2005.

“When she came in as executive director at Arcus, she noticed that Michigan Equality was getting funding and Triangle Foundation was not,” recalled Kosofsky. “She was puzzled by that, so she worked to make sure there were resources for both organizations.”

McKay estimates that Arcus gave an average of $2.5 million each year to Michigan LGBTQ+ causes while Vaid was in charge.

“Arcus essentially funded most all of the successful programs in Michigan,” he said.

Though it wasn’t her personal primary cause, Vaid did advocate for marriage equality while in Michigan, as well as amending the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation.

“She made sure money moved to important community organizations and statewide organizations in Michigan,” said Kosofsky. “Her leadership of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force was instrumental in shaping queer advocacy at Triangle Foundation and other organizations for many years.”

Former Between The Lines publisher Susan Horowitz first met Vaid in the early '80s when they were both living and organizing in New York.

“She was an incredible thinker — bold and daring,” Horowitz said. “She knew how to move forward and bring so many with her no matter the challenges. She encouraged all of us to push and do more than we could imagine.”

Vaid was more than just a thinker and leader. She was a teacher as well.

“She was an incredible mentor to so many in the state and across the country,” said Horowitz. “I encourage those who did not get to know her to read her books and Google her projects and continue on the path she blazed.”

McKay said he looks back fondly at his time working with Vaid, and to this day keeps something he learned from her.

“She used to say, ‘To what end?’” he remembered. “We used to have lots of conversations. We were moving a lot of money and putting it in the hands of a lot of organizations, and we had to make some difficult decisions. She would always say ‘To what end? Where are we going here, and what are we trying to accomplish and how are we doing it?’”

“I’ve always kept that with me in my world in thinking about long-term change,” McKay continued. “What are we doing today to create change in the future, and what does that change look like, and how are we going to get there?”