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13 min

Time for a new gay community centre under new leadership

If Tulsa can build an 18,000 sq ft gay centre, why can't we?

TIME FOR A CONSORTIUM. 'I think we need to be considering different models for developing this community centre that we keep speaking of,' says Phillip Banks. That might mean a consortium that wants to try to make that happen, he adds. Credit: Tallulah photo

When Oklahomans for Equality bought an 18,000 sq ft building to house their new gay community centre in October 2005, some members of the community thought they’d gone insane.

But no one’s doubting now.

“We’re here, we’re queer and now we own a city block,” says Toby Jenkins, president of Tulsa’s Dennis R Neill Equality Center, which opened its doors in February 2007 after an eight-year fundraising campaign.

Prior to securing and renovating the new space, the group hopped from one leased space to another for some 13 years — spaces that never exceeded 3,500 sq ft. 

These days, Jenkins says, the centre could “probably add on because we are using up so much of the facility.”

“We have to utilize it because it’s an insult to the people who gave and worked so hard to get us to this place,” he asserts.

The Tulsa team looked at 22 properties before choosing this one.

“The one that we last saw just had everything we needed” and in an area that seemed to fit all the needs identified in the community survey, recalls Sue Welch, who spearheaded the capital campaign and is now a centre trustee.

“There was actually at least two offers right behind us and we were very fortunate to get it,” she adds.

The property was in a part of downtown that “really was just on the edge,” with no traffic and lots of warehouse-type buildings, Jenkins notes.

“We do not have a gay ghetto. We never had,” he explains, but there is “a sizeable  gay population.”

Now that population gathers in its own centre.

The purchased building is a 1921 structure — a real fixer-upper that saw 300 community volunteers put in, by Welchs calculations, 7,000 hours of labour to renovate the old building over nine months. Electricians and plumbers were brought in to handle the tasks required to meet building code requirements, but that was about it —  it was very much a DIY project, Welch says.

It’s because of that long-term, long haul community effort that Jenkins wants to ensure that every iota of space is fully used. He’d like to see 15-hour days where from 6 am to midnight there’s programming in every single room.

“I personally feel like we should, to justify our investment,” emphasizes Jenkins, who wants to avoid what he describes as an empty church syndrome with facilities sitting vacant most weekdays.

“We’ve got to do more,” he insists. “People gave their hard-earned money and they trusted us to build a centre that could service the community. We can’t have it sitting open at all.”

***

Named after Dennis R Neill, an attorney who made his money in the oil and gas sector that drives Oklahoma’s economy, Tulsa’s gay community centre houses a library, a cyber centre, an archival history project, conference rooms, a 200-seat event centre and a large living room where gay-themed television plays all day.

There’s also a well-patronized gift shop, an art gallery and children’s areas, as well as programs for a large trans population, the queer Spanish-speaking population, and the African-American and Native American segments of the community — not to mention space for the twinks, the bears, seniors and more.

It wasn’t always like this. Before they bought their own 18,000 sq ft space, Oklahomans for Equality had to make do with much less.

“We weren’t allowed to put up a sign indicating who we were or who we served,” Welch says of previous spaces. “We weren’t allowed to even put up a placard that said free HIV testing. We had some vandalism [in] various places.

“We decided that we needed our own place where we could do the things we needed to do for our community and not be jostled around every year and a half,” she says.

Tulsan homophobia meant Oklahomans for Equality went about their capital campaign “in the reverse that most places do,” Welch says.

Usually, most places secure a large donor then, when most of financing is raised, the community is approached, she says.  “You announce, ‘Hey, we just need a little bit now from you to help us finish.’

“We could not do that here. We didn’t have any state money, we didn’t have any city money, we didn’t have any local foundation support because they were concerned about associating with us for the longest time,” Welch explains.

The homophobia wasn’t the in-your-face kind, notes Marcy Smith, Welch’s partner.

“You’re talking about people in the South. We’re technically in the Midwest but we’re southern here. It’s very genteel,” she explains.

Needless to say, most people weren’t very forthcoming with funds for a gay centre.

“Well, that’s not the type of funding that we’ve got set aside,” was a common response, Smith says.

“Or we were just ignored quite a bit,” adds Welch.

“So we conducted a community-wide town hall meeting, because our community was definitely involved,” Welch says. A total of three town halls, all in different locations, were organized, each attracting about 100 people.

“We provided surveys at Pride and at the bars,” Welch continues. “We established quarterly newsletters where we kept the community involved and informed. A lot of it was just establishing a strong group of people that others would feel comfortable and safe with.”

Oklahomans for Equality also staged two community-wide, low-cost events each year to involve a wide range of people —  “those who could afford to give us $1,000 or more and those who could afford to give us five dollars,” Welch adds. The organization even got volunteers to help people who “frankly could not write a check at all.”

Then there were the house parties, what Welch calls the six-degrees-of-separation idea.

“If someone has a party of people they know intimately, they’re gonna get a donation from them much easier than if I ask for a donation,” she reasons. There weren’t many parties but they each raised $5,000.

“It was an initial kick-off of private donation money and beyond that it was heavy on private ask, private ask, private ask because we didn’t have a lot of other avenues here,” Welch points out.

“Here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the middle of the heartland, this was grassroots 101,” Jenkins says — not a huge corporate event that attracted millions of dollars. The largest single monetary contribution was $150,000.

In the end, $1.3 million was raised.

***

As impressive as Tulsa’s gay community centre is, we don’t have to look so far afield to find an example of a vibrant, well-run community centre.

Phillip Banks points to Vancouver’s Jewish Community Centre on 41st Ave as a model community space.

“You can’t walk in there without seeing on the walls all the Jewish community members that have supported this space, the families, the other community organizations,” says Banks, who helped develop and now runs the Health Initiative for Men.

“The Jewish community built this centre as a way of saying, ‘We will always be here for Jewish folks in this city, and we will dedicate resources to making this community strong and protecting this community but celebrating this community,” he adds, “and that’s important.

“They’ve got a library, they’ve got child care, they’ve got social services, and then they’ve got administrative space, they’ve got space for community groups to meet in. I mean that’s the kind of stuff we should be looking at,” he stresses.

It’s the kind of model Vancouver’s gay community centre could do well to adopt, he says. Especially now.

Vancouver’s gay community centre made headlines in April when news surfaced that its board of directors was quietly considering relocating outside the gay village.

On Apr 16, lawyer barbara findlay told a Centre board meeting that such a move would kill the organization.

Former city councillor Alan Herbert who also attended that meeting told Xtra West afterwards that a community consultation about the future of The Centre was necessary — a call he continues to reiterate, so far to no avail.

Since the initial uproar, The Centre’s executive director, Jennifer Breakspear has been hosting coffee-and-conversation sessions with community members, first in the West End then on the East Side, to “brainstorm and imagine the community’s wishes for, and needs of, our LGTB community centre.”

The first held at Melriches Coffeehouse on Davie St drew about 16 people. The Drive chat drew four.

Banks says Breakspear’s coffee talks are important, at least to strengthen the community’s connection to the Pacific Foundation for the Advancement of Minority Equality (PFAME), the society that runs The Centre.

The coffee talks could help PFAME strengthen its public and community relationships, its public image and enhance accountability, Banks suggests.

“But I think that’s PFAME’s work for PFAME. I can’t stress enough that it’s not PFAME’s job solely to develop this community, or this community centre,” he contends. 

Banks doesn’t believe that the community should put all of its dreams for a new gay community centre on the shoulders of one organization.

“I think that that’s a community project,” he explains. “I think we need to be considering different models for developing this community centre that we keep speaking of — and that might mean a consortium or an umbrella group of individuals and organizations that want to try to make that happen.”

The Jewish community centre is run by a federation of local Jewish groups and interests that come together to raise money to support the centre and its projects, he points out.

The model for that centre, one of 200 throughout North America, was set up years ago in the United States, says its executive director Rick Nelson.

It started as a place for new immigrants to acculturate and then took a different turn based on social, educational and recreational goals, he explains, adding there’s been continual evolution as different community needs surface.

“It’s a model that works, but it’s complex business,” Nelson notes. “There’s a general board of directors that sets the tone for the agency and community commitment by leadership is why it works,” he adds.

The gay community needs its own consortium of gay groups to create a new community centre, Banks says.

As a community, we need to identify “10, 20, 30 or 40 organizations and the key people from those organizations and start to have discussions — open no-holds-barred discussions about the dream,” Banks suggests.

“Let’s have a whole bunch of these discussions and then out of that — and I’m not talking about years, I’m talking like a month or two months — the ones that come forward are the ones who at least get to decide how we’re going to move from there until others come and join into that,” he suggests.

“It’s extending the invitation to talk about this outside of the confines of, ‘Well, there’s not enough money to do that. Well, this organization doesn’t have that mandate.’

“Forget that. Let’s talk about what the dream is and then let’s make it happen,” he urges.

Don’t leave it up to PFAME, he stresses.

Nelson says the Jewish Community Centre could be a possible model for the gay community to emulate but for it to be successful, it has to be has to be a bottom-up process.

“There has to be a groundswell of support, and if there’s just a group of leadership that thinks it’s a good idea, that’s not enough,” Nelson warns.

“You have to do a lot of demographic research to know what kind of financial support you’d have from the community. That’s critical,” he stresses.

“You really need buy-in from a lot of different constituencies because you have to create a business model that can sustain itself so you get the money to get started,” he explains, but also funding for years three, four and five.

Then there’re the activities that people would pay for down the road. “Just having a building has no life to it,” Nelson says.

Banks thinks Vancouver’s gay community needs a multi-purpose gay community centre run by a gay federation to meet a variety of needs, offer a broad range of resources and recreational facilities.

We just need some kind of action plan to get there, he says.

“My hope,” he offers, “is there will always be queers, and my hope is we’ll always like each other enough to want to hang out with each other in our community spaces.”

The Centre’s executive director, Jennifer Breakspear, says she’s open to the idea of bringing a number of gay groups under one roof to save on resources and avoid duplication.

She says she has already approached a number of groups to discuss the idea “very casually.”

But all the groups would remain autonomous, she stresses. They would only be sharing building space in PFAME’s building.

Asked what she thinks of the idea of a consortium, Breakspear says she won’t speak to that word.

Instead, she reiterates the possibility of “organizations remaining autonomous and sharing space within a building. And if that building is The Centre or whatever it is, that’s all still to be seen, but this is all conversations of exploration,” she says.

***

The former executive director of The Centre echoes Banks’ call for a consortium.

Michael Harding, an experienced fundraiser and community centre developer, ran The Centre from July 2007 to January 2008, when the board fired him.

“It was determined by the board that Michael was not the best fit for The Centre and the delivery of our programs and services,” Breakspear told Xtra West at the time.

Harding won’t discuss his termination or his relationship with The Centre.

But he will say that if he had his way he’d build a gayopolis:  a combination of all the gay organizations in the city — like the Vancouver Pride Society and Out On Screen, to name a few — sharing one common space.

A kind of centre of gay energy, he suggests.

“I think we should not only have the ability to have a building where we can all be together but have an opportunity to have real meetings once a year where everybody sits down and says, ‘This is what my organization’s up to.’”

We need to “start to look at bridging together, doing joint programming,” he says.

“If you have us all together in a place, first of all, we start trusting each other, because we’re all working in separate little silos right now,” Harding points out. “It’s always a feeling of competition as opposed to going, ‘We’re all together, let’s work together and come up with some new cross-pollinating ideas between our organizations.

“It gives us more strength, too; when we’re all working together, we’re seen as a cohesive community of people,” he adds.

Harding envisions a facility that would offer expanded social services and “fun stuff.”

Like Banks, he points to the Jewish Community Centre as an example of a great, all-encompassing facility.

“I go to stuff there and I’m not Jewish,” Harding says. “They’ve got awesome theatre, they’ve got music, an art gallery, a museum. It becomes something that people just do, and that’s important,” he says.

“What does the gay brand look like when you look at the reality of this city?” he asks.  “We don’t really have anything that’s compellingly attractive.”

A centre can be a masthead for us, he says.

“You may live in the East End or you may live in West Point Grey or in Prince George, but if there’s a place that is ours, where discussion about pretty well anything to do with our lives can take place, I think that’s pretty valid.”

Location-wise, his preference is two main facilities, one in the West End and one in the Commercial Drive area. He also envisages satellite programs around the city, and where needed, outside the Lower Mainland.

But first things first, Harding says.

A committee of leading business and social services people should be put together, people who are very successful in their world, he suggests. “They are the committee people who interview people who would like to be on the board of directors.

“I think you’re supposed to join a board because you either have real knowledge or cash or an incredible network to offer,” he says.

A facility like that would need a director of operations to run the place, a director of community programming —“which is the fun stuff” — a director of social services and a fundraiser, he explains.

In addition to being a central energy hub and a gay gathering centre, such a facility would also become the delivery agency of choice for services such as anti-violence programs and coming out groups. Which means it would be eligible for government funding, Harding suggests.

“If you are the delivery agency of choice for the government to do stuff like that, you charge money,” he insists.

As for the fun stuff, there needs to be space for theatre, dance, music and readings, Harding says.

The gay community is ready to engage with such a facility, he says, “but they want to know that there’s a place where they can do it and it’s going to be well-run.”

Building stakeholder relationships is vital, he says.

But we need to inspire people to donate their money to a centre worth supporting. “There’s a community of professional gay people out there who have money and would be interested in living wills or legacy programs with opportunities for naming rooms and buildings after donors,” he suggests.

As for the relationships with the various levels of government, Harding says finessing the way to “the top sheet” is a must.

The way to get money out of governments, he says, is to work with whoever’s there to deliver good public policy regardless of political affiliation.

“The way I’ve always done fundraising is I make sure I get to know all the leading people in advance, so then when I go with my hand out they already know me,” Harding explains.

“[In] my experience as a fundraiser, the more money you ask for, the more attention you get. It’s easier to raise $10 million than it is to raise $10,000,” he posits, “because you’re then talking to cabinet ministers as opposed to assistant deputy ministers and it becomes a thing,” he explains.

Harding points to the last recessionary period a decade ago during which he raised millions of dollars for the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby. There’s always somebody giving money away, he maintains.

“Get your way to the top of the pile and do whatever you need to do to make what you’re doing as attractive as possible to whoever you’re asking the money from.

“Start to talk their language,” he urges.

***

“I think it’s time for a new crowd,” Harding says when asked how to make his vision of a new facility a reality.

“We need a person or a group of people to lead something like that,” he says.

“I don’t think people just naturally come and volunteer, you have to go and talk them into it,” Harding stresses. “What I know about this town is that when you call a public meeting, you get four people. You’ve got to actually go and ask certain people who you know already that might have some really great ideas.

“Get them in, let’s get some fire going,” Harding urges. “I’m really into this whole new blood idea.”

Herbert again reiterates his call for a big public meeting.

He also suggests inviting the parks board to attend. “The entire question of community centres is more in the jurisdiction of parks boards than any other body. If they can see that the community is demonstrating sincere support and interest, I would believe they would want to respond. That to me is the next step,” Herbert explains.

“This is not radical; this is not even adventurous. This to me is just the next step in a process that’s going to take a while but every step will lead to what I see eventually as a community centre,” he says.

“I would hope that The Centre would participate,” he adds. “I don’t know what their attitude would be but it’s to their advantage in my mind.”

Breakspear won’t commit to a public consultation. “Personally,” she says, “I don’t have any big consultation planned. I’ve got a lot of stuff on my plate over the next few months. I do not have a big public consultation planned over the next few months.”

Banks reiterates that the challenge is getting beyond the one-organization-must-do-it-all model. “Saying — no disrespect to The Centre, no disrespect to PFAME — let’s talk about doing this in a new way, and let’s not make this political, and let’s not make this ugly.

“I think it’s about saying, to some degree, it’s time for a new vision about how we’re going to make this happen. And that new vision needs to include a lot more folks — and not just in a consultative way. But in a we’ll be hands-on and we will contribute to making this happen as equal partners in this process,” Banks concludes.