by Jessica Carreras
They haven’t decided on a name yet, or a new mission statement. Both Web sites are still up, and some of the details still need to be hashed out. But there’s no speculation about it anymore: Triangle Foundation and Michigan Equality have merged.
What began as talks between board and staff members of each organization just over a year ago turned into a full-on introspective look into what was best for Michigan’s LGBT community, how to make the merger work and what a new organization would mean for the future of gay rights in the state.
What the two groups found was that although their focuses differed slightly, their ultimate goal was the same: full equality for LGBT people in the state of Michigan.
“We have very similar objectives in terms of achieving equality for LGBT citizens in the state of Michigan and freedom from violence and from fear,” explained former Triangle Board Chair Denise Brogan-Kator. “But we thought this was an opportunity to step back, look at how we’ve done things in the past and what we can do to engage … activists around the state in helping us to define what it is we want to accomplish and how we want to go about it and how we can become a truly statewide organization.”
What it means to be statewide
The notion of a “statewide” organization is a nebulous one, and one that both Michigan Equality and Triangle had boasted as their image.
Triangle’s headquarters did – and still do – reside in northwest Detroit. Michigan Equality called Lansing home. But reactions from activists as to whether they thought of either as “statewide” varied. “One of the things that Michigan Equality did in the year before the merger is that they conducted meetings all around the state,” Brogan-Kator explained. “And they learned first-hand that people around the state didn’t necessarily view us – either Michigan Equality or Triangle Foundation – as legitimately statewide organizations.”
But the new organization aims to change that.
Triangle Foundation Executive Director Alicia, Skillman, who will also head up the new organization, explained that they have already put in place a Catalyst Committee, which brings voices from all across Michigan into the discussion of how the new group can best serve the entire community. “There’s folks from Kalamazoo, someone from Saugatuck, someone from Bay City, Midland/Saginaw area, folks from up north – they’re all participating in our strategic planning so that in the end result, when it’s time to implement, it will address these various statewide issues,” Skillman elaborated. “So it’s already in the making for us to continuously think statewide and provide services statewide and advocate statewide.”
Players from both groups agreed that serving the best interests of Michigan’s LGBT community was their top priority, even if it meant putting their own opinions aside in order to merge. “The core question was, ‘Does this serve the LGBT community in the state of Michigan?'” Brogan-Kator said. “As long as we could answer that affirmatively, then whatever other questions may have existed were moved. That was the most important thing we focused on.”
Luckily, added Michigan Equality Board President Douglas Meeks, the move made sense for the goals of each organization, too. “Triangle Foundation has been more of a service-based organization, where as MIchigan Equality has looked more at the political, legislative portion of all of it,” he explained. “But when we looked at it on paper, (the merger) made incredible sense.”
But public opinion – derived both from members of the Catalyst Committee and the general community – has played a large part in both the decision to merge, and what the new organization will look like.
“We talked about the fact that we wanted to make sure that we didn’t drown anybody’s voice out, that everybody had an opportunity to be heard, that we … weren’t losing anything,” Brogan-Kator said. “We didn’t want to lose the input, the voice of people that support either organization. … It really was a serious consideration of public opinion and how we were going to manage it and what message we wanted to make sure was carried forward.”
That message, they all agreed, is that full equality can’t be achieved by the acts of employees and board members alone – it needs the support and passion of every LGBT person in the state.
Engaging the activists
Both organizations possess volunteer databases, and the hope is that the merger will reengage the grassroots activists across the state, utilizing each person’s strengths. “With both databases, we’re making sure we have everyone tagged as a volunteer who wants to be one,” Skillman said, “and we’re engaging them to find out their skill set and where they want to participate so that we can talk to them more often about participating and volunteering within the new organization.”
But getting volunteers to work together toward a common goal is not always the easiest task, and Michigan Equality and Triangle supporters have a history of disagreements, big and small. Michigan Equality began as a split from Triangle in 1999 when some activists believed the latter organization was headed in the wrong direction to achieve LGBT rights in the state. The names and faces of each group have changed several times since then, but some disagreements still persisted. And as recently as last year, a division over which anti-bullying legislation to support – enumerated or non-enumerated – caused a rift in coherence.
But it’s the belief of Meeks, Brogan-Kator and Skillman that the common goals between grassroots volunteers will bring them together under this merged effort, and that in the decade since the split, the notion of working together has come a long way.
“We’ve had some phenomenal volunteers who are excited and continue to be excited,” Meeks said. “The goal is getting LGBT rights recognized here in the state of Michigan, and they’re dedicated to that cause. They’re not going to be dedicated directly to one organization or another, and it’s our job as the new organization to bring them along and make them a part of the group.”
“I don’t think we are so naive as to think that there will be universal acceptance of this merger, but we do believe that the support will be broad and will encompass the majority of our community and grassroots organizers,” Brogan-Kator added. “People around this state are very excited about the opportunity to make a difference.”
It’s the new organization’s hope that they can harness that energy and passion so that support for each city or county or part of the state’s efforts will be there – no matter where the activism is happening or whether the issue is political, social or religious.
“Our goal will be to continue reaching out and being active in those smaller communities in any helpful way that we can,” Meeks said, adding that the new organization is not looking for to monopolize on equality efforts, but to help smaller groups in their efforts and “be supportive within their communities.”
In the end, it’s all about local activism. The merged organization simply hopes to be there to help whenever and wherever it’s needed – but its not doing all the work. “We don’t want you to sit back and just look at this new organization and what we’re going to do,” summarized Skillman. “We want you to engage us and participate.
“Everyone can have a role if you want equal rights.”
Michigan’s new LGBT equality organization, which expects to release its official name within the next few weeks, plans to hold several community forums within upcoming months, which will be open to the public. Watch for updates in Between The Lines on this and other details pertaining to the merger.