by Jessica Carreras
Members of West Michigan’s LGBT community are calling for the organization created by the merger of the Triangle Foundation and Michigan Equality to live up to their word – they want the new group to represent the entire state.
Johnny Jenkins, Michigan program officer of the Arcus Foundation’s LGBT Rights Program, says that an effective merger is key to winning equality in the legislature and at the ballot box. But how the effort plays out is up to them.
“They’ll definitely be better positioned to get more done, to have more of a presence in Lansing an to really focus on building a statewide organization that represents more than just southeast Michigan,” Jenkins said of the new organization. “That’s really key.”
He elaborated that while anti-gay opponents in the state are able to quickly mobilize to fight against LGBT rights, the gay community lacks that speed and interconnectedness.
“Our opponents can mobilize their base almost as the drop of a dime by pushing a button or sending out news releases to churches,” he continued. “Right now, we don’t have that type of infrastructure in the state.
“I’m hopeful a more effective statewide equality group can help determine solutions to figure out how to strengthen up a statewide communications network.”
Jenkins explained that Arcus, while not directly involved in the merger, was clear on its stand that the two organizations needed to be come one. The Kalamazoo-based foundation is the largest funder of LGBT programming in Michigan, and last year, granted $500,000 to the Triangle Foundation, while Michigan Equality received nothing. It was a clear message that Arcus would not support both efforts.
Jenkins said he “wouldn’t call it pressure,” but that he knew Arcus played a role in the progression of the merger.
“What we did was we shared our opinion and we advised,” he said. “But they had to make the ultimate decision whether this was something that they could work out together and decide whether it was something worth exploring. They took the ball and ran.”
But it was clear to Arcus, he added, that the status quo “wasn’t working.”
Especially not for West Michiganders, it seems. At one of the merged organization’s focus groups held over the past week, which took place at locations all across the state, participants stated bluntly that on the west side of the state, many community members didn’t care about the merger because they didn’t feel particularly tied to either organization.
Alison Strasser, director of operations at the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center, agreed. “To be quite honest, we’ve never really had either of those organizations have much of a presence in our area at all,” she said.
Jennifer Hsu, director of the OutCenter, located in Benton Harbor, said that though her relationship with Triangle only began after a hate crime was committed in her area, her contact with the organization since then had been positive.
“I’m really excited to see their work come west,” she said. “I know that in my conversations with Alicia, a lot of what she was talking about was getting a lot more of the West Michigan news brought to the statewide spotlight. I’m really excited to see how that plays out because I think there are a lot of issues that affect West Michigan – especially with faith communities – where we could use more statewide support.”
David Garcia, head of the KGLRC, hopes that the new organization’s focus stays in Lansing, pushing for rights that will affect all members of Michigan’s LGBT community. “They can work on second-parent adoption, ENDA, gay marriage, they can do it in Lansing in a way that we can’t locally here in Kalamazoo,” he stressed. “We don’t have the means to be sending a lobbyist to Lansing to represent LGBT issues or, for that matter, Kalamazoo’s local issues.”
Whatever the focus, however, Jenkins maintained that any efforts would be better structured and more likely to succeed with one organization in charge.
“We need to out-think (opponents) and we need to be two steps ahead of them as opposed to the opposite way, which is why we’ve been losing and why we have no rights in this state,” he said. “And right now, that’s the priority: achieving LGBT rights and equality in the state of Michigan.
“If there’s less confusion about who is taking the lead around LGBT issues, then … a merged Triangle/Michigan Equality can be more effective in what the community needs them to do.”