Passing the Torch: Having Learned From the Past, Affirmations Plans a Seamless Transition of Executive Directors

Dave Garcia to step aside, with Cheryl Czach assuming ED role

Although Antonio Dave Garcia is stepping down from his post as executive director of Affirmations at the end of the year, he’s not exactly leaving. Rather, he’s stepping aside to take on other roles. The torch will be passed to deputy executive director Cheryl Czach, a familiar face to the “Aff” family since she began as a front desk volunteer at the center nine years ago and later joined the board of directors. There she would serve as president before ultimately joining the staff full time.

“I remember walking through the doors for the first time, feeling very nervous, which is something that I hear from people a lot,” Czach said. “I could never have imagined that eventually I would be leading the organization.”

When Garcia agreed to return to Affirmations in 2019 (he served as ED from 2012 to 2014), the center was on life support. After Garcia left for the Los Angeles LGBT Center to serve as director of policy and community building, the Affirmations board of directors conducted a national search that yielded two executive directors whose departures left a bad taste in the mouths of many community members.

The situation became dire.  “Affirmations was in a state of turmoil,” recalled current board co-chair Anthony Sherman, who joined the board in 2018. “We had three full-time associates and the board of directors turned into a ‘working’ board to help keep the doors open.” By the time Garcia arrived, Affirmations had no budget and around $30,000 in the bank.

Upon his return, Garcia discovered that grants were few and donations had dwindled. He would need to regain the trust of Affirmations’ past supporters.

“I called major donors and I said, ‘I'm not coming back if you don't come back,’” Garcia said. It was more challenging to convince the foundations. To get the ball rolling, Garcia went “on tour” to meet with GM, Ford and Chrysler as well as other former partners. The response was positive. Government grants for things like vaccination clinics were also secured.

Now in its 35th year, Affirmations is thriving. Today the budget stands at $2.1 million. “It's hard to look around the center and not see growth wherever you look — in all departments,” Garcia said, “whether that's marketing and communications or, obviously, development. But from a programmatic standpoint, health and human services has been our biggest growth.”

Expanding Affirmations’ mental health service offerings has long been a high priority for Garcia. Now the center has three licensed mental health therapists who can bill insurance.

New to the center is a food program, and the center can now provide community members with housing assistance and legal aid. There has been growth in the way the space is being utilized, too. Today, the Ringwald Theatre and Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit are housed at Affirmations.

Affirmations even thrived despite the pandemic, which hit just under a year after Garcia returned. Already in the throes of his greatest challenge as ED, securing a reliable budget to right the ship, Covid shut Affirmations' doors. In addition to in-person programming, big-ticket fundraisers were no longer feasible.

“We were like, ‘What are we going to do?’” Garcia said. “How do you run a community center when you can't open the front doors? So that's when we just tried to be creative.” Programming was made possible via Zoom. Two telethons were organized. Donors stepped up. And the center actually made money during a very dark time.

Without a dedicated team of board and staff members, the transformation that Affirmations experienced under Garcia’s leadership would not have been possible. Garcia said he’s especially proud of the diversity of his staff and the board of directors, both of which include 40 percent persons of color. “So from a DEI perspective, we're getting better,” Garcia said. “But we have a long way to go.”

Not surprisingly, Czach and others give Garcia’s performance as ED high marks. “I don't know that I could praise him enough,” Czach said. “Dave often says, ‘It's not me. It's the staff.’ And of course, there's an element to that. But Dave is the person who put the staff together, who leads the staff, who offers them guidance and mentorship, who gives them the space to grow and to perform.”

Board co-chair Brianna Yuille agreed. “I think Dave has done an incredible job as our executive director. Since coming back, he’s grown Affirmations in every area: programs, services, staff and board of directors. I’m very proud of him and the positive changes he’s made for our community. I don’t think I’ve known a better person in my life who’s done so much good for others.”

Yuille is equally confident Czach can take the reins and move the organization forward. When Yuille joined the board in 2019, Czach was board president. Yuille said she was impressed with Czach and that she looks up to her.

“[Czach] is an extremely rare individual, and we’re very lucky to have her. She has successful experiences of running large organizations and coaching others who do the same. Most importantly, Cheryl cares deeply about Affirmations and the community it serves.”

Sherman pointed out that Czach knows the staff and the community and will transition smoothly into the ED role. “The entire [board] believes that she is the right person for this position and that there was no need to do a national search which would cost tens of thousands of donor dollars,” he said.

Garcia, who brought Czach in earlier on a contract basis, said he was pleased with the HR work she did for Affirmations when they were having staff issues. “And then we just became closer and developed a friendship. I trust her, and I think she's going to do a really good job,” he said.

Czach not only brings extensive HR experience, she has also held roles responsible for finance, operations, IT and facilities management. “My executive leadership experience has touched a lot of the areas that are important for an ED,” she said.

Despite Czach’s solid record and a chorus of support, Garcia has a single but persistent concern. Czach is white and he feels the community expects the next ED of Affirmations to be a person of color. Yet he said Affirmations learned from experience that just because someone is a person of color does not guarantee they are going to understand the community or the organization or be the right person for the job.

It's something Garcia, a light-skinned Latino, feels acutely. “I've struggled with that my whole life because I am a person of color,” Garcia said. “I was raised in a Mexican American Latino family. That is my culture. My grandparents are people of color. My father is a person of color. My siblings, my brother is very dark skinned. And I am a Garcia.”

Czach addressed the issue head on, too. “It's been important for Affirmations for a long time, certainly when I was on the board, that our leadership, our staff, reflects our community. And stepping into this position as a white, cisgender, queer woman, I'm well aware that I'm not necessarily reflecting the diversity of our community, and it's top of mind for me.” She stressed the organization’s emphasis on DEI.

Garcia is excited to turn his attention to areas of interest at Affirmations like arts and culture. “Our partnerships with Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the opera and other theaters across the region, art openings — all of that excites me,” he said. “New plays, comedy, open mic nights. We need to be doing more.”

Theatergoers can expect to see Garcia star in “Candy Corn, Christ and the Convoluted Creation of Golf,” a play he wrote in 2000, at the Ringwald Theatre in October. He has plans for another play, and is at work on a book based on 30 years of personal journals. To preserve the histories of LGTQ+ leaders, Garcia wants to secure a grant to conduct interviews over the course of several years.

Garcia is also passionate about public policy and advocacy work, which he’d like to take on either locally or nationally as the 2024 election approaches. That could include contract work with other LGBTQ+ community centers.

Since returning to Michigan, where he has extended family and where he plans to keep as his home base for now, Garcia has undergone personal inflection points as well. For one, his 26-year-old daughter, whom he raised, came out as transgender two years ago.

“Not only did Navy transition while I was here,” Garcia said of his daughter, “not only did we have Covid while I was here, but there was domestic violence in my life and my heart was broken in a way that I've never experienced before. And so, the personal toll of being an executive director, trying to navigate [your] own personal life — it's not easy. These jobs are not easy.”