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FERNDALE- Affirmations was packed to capacity Monday night, as Antonio David Garcia, the new executive director, spoke about his vision for the community center and its role in connecting those interested in moving Michigan towards full equality.
The vibrant young activist, a single gay father who once walked 55 miles from Swartz Creek to Lansing to make a point about gay acceptance, is already making changes. The center is now open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day but Sunday. There are new members on staff and new programs in the works, including regular fitness classes, expanded counseling services, a taskforce to address aging citizen’s needs, the addition of faith-based programming and possibly even a charter school someday. “This is YOUR community center,” Garcia said repeatedly. “The sky is the limit.”
Garcia said he delivered the 2012-operating budget to the board, which totaled $890,000. He reminded everyone it takes money to keep Affirmations going, to the tune of $70,000 a month, but he also emphasized there is a lot the center can do around programming without money, relying on the hundreds of volunteers that help out regularly.
The center is also opening its doors to organizations that want to meet there and Garcia hopes Affirmations can be a place for fun and gathering, but also a central location for community organizing.
He reminded the crowd that, “Michigan lacks same-sex marriage. Michigan lacks enumerated anti-bullying laws. Michigan lacks hate crimes prosecution. And the state is considering removing benefits for partners of state employees. In Michigan you can be fired for being gay.”
Garcia also talked about the recent murder of a young transgender woman who used to come to Affirmations. “When Shelly walked through these doors, she felt safe,” he said.
“We have a lot to do and this is why we need Affirmations.”
The response in the room was one of overwhelming support and excitement. Every age group, gender expression and other demographic came out to support the new executive director, including representatives from organizations across the state.
Denise Brogan-Kator, executive director of Equality Michigan said, “We share the love. We are so proud to have (Dave) here. This collaboration is only going to get stronger.”
Nicole, a transgender woman who can only fully express herself at places like Affirmations, said that a lot has changed in the five years she has been using the center’s services. “I remember it in the old days when it was across the street,” she said. “It was so dark and stinky, and small. We need a bright place like this…It’s good to have it open more hours. Why have a community center if it’s closed?” Nicole said she values the library and being able to come to the center on Friday and Saturday nights to watch movies.
London Bell is an Affirmations employee who served on the hiring committee. After a nine-month search process, she feels the board made a good choice offering Garcia the position. “I immediately noticed that Dave was the light in the room – personable, humble, down-to-earth,” Bell said.
Many in the audience were former members or Center Partners who are considering getting re-involved. Carl Weiler said he stopped coming to Affirmations because there wasn’t enough programming that catered to those of retirement age. After attending a recent event on aging, held at the center, he has taken a new interest. “Wow. That’s all I can say. Wow. David is a strong leader and he’s doing the right things. The school thing is central,” Weiler said. “We need to stop bullying now and keep children safe.” Weiler is also joining the organization Senior Action in a Gay Environment to help address the needs of the aging LGBT community.
Rosemary Linares of Detroit Latin@s said she is “very excited about David Garcia. I knew him from Kalamazoo and I know he is very appreciative of intersectional analysis that is inclusive of racial and economic issues.” Latin@s is one of several groups that will be using the space for community organizing.
Garcia asked the audience to watch for an important upcoming survey that he and the board and staff plan to use to guide future programming decisions. He emphasized that a new strategic planning process was about to begin, which will include input from over 15 community demographics, as well as the survey data. He said the strategic planning process would rely on input from community members to guide any future programming.
There is one more change that Garcia called for, which he said is still being worked out with the board. He said they are simplifying their donation and membership process, and not having titles like “member” or “center partner.” “We are all Affirmations… I don’t care if you’re a 15 year-old boy who can only give a dollar, you are a member… This is YOUR community center.”