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What is a community center?

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What is a community center? More importantly what should be the vision for a community center for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender community of Utah? Do we even have a vision anymore? Where are the visionaries and leaders in whom we can place our confidence and trust as we prepare to go into the second half of the decade? Shouldn’t we be asking what actually is the purpose of a community center and who gets to decide what that might be?

Some advocate that the center should be a mental health and counseling resource. Others a show place for the elite to meet. While still others argue that a center’s main goal should be to promote youth activities and programs. While all these goals are worthy in of themselves, is that what a community center should look like? If so, then truly we should drop the word community from this nonprofit which often is view as only running programs and servicing clients from which grants can be obtained to pay salaries and upgrade the facility that houses its staff.

Last year, as a crisis in the confidence in the leadership of the Utah Pride Center came to a head, nearly a hundred members of the GLBT met in an open forum for nearly a month to express their disappointment in the direction the center was going. Board and staff members who attended these meetings were defensive and often patronizing to those in attendance and while great promises were made at reform and transparency, promising :a new day” at the center, in reality business went on as usual. The center has floundered with no real leadership which connected it with the community at large. Staff came and went. Promises were not kept and the entire building has even gone on lock down.

As 2015 is upon us, it appears that “the new boss is same as the old boss” with priorities placed on a building rather than the people for whom it was intended to serve. Well-heeled individuals’ voices are listened to far more than simply surveying the general population to assess our needs. We still have a top-down hierarchy, telling us what our goals should be and where we should put our resources rather than seeking our opinions. A leadership that is perpetuated from among its own board certainly does not reflect the diversity within our community and can hardly represent its concerns.

It was not always so.

In 1989, at a meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah, Garth Chamberlain, a representative of the Utah Gay and Lesbian Youth Group, stood up and proposed the formation of a committee to look into the feasibility of a Gay Community Center for Utah. The motion was sustained and passed and a committee was formed with Jim Hunsaker, a representative of the Lesbian and Gay Student Union of the University of Utah, elected chair. Elected is the operative word here.

Our first community center was planned by elected leaders who worked under the direction of a body of representatives of individuals and representatives of community organizations that existed at the time. As a member of the community center committee I have first-hand knowledge of the struggle to create an organization that would represent the vision of GLCCU. I had the distinction of suggesting the name of the proposed organization to be the Utah Stonewall Center. I felt a need to connect us historically with the struggle for civil rights for homosexuals in America.

As I understood it, the vision of a center was to be, as mandated by the GLCCU, first and foremost a welcoming home for Gay folks and their friends. It was to be a safe zone. It was to be a place of resources, information, and education. It was to be a space open to just drop in and hang out. It was to be a facility to house and provide meeting space for various community organizations. It was to be under the direction of the GLCCU and subject to its internal audits and purvey.

At each monthly general meeting of the GLCCU, which was open to all; with voting privileges extended to paid members, the USC committee chair would give an accounting of minutes and finances. Transparency was not an issue. We oldtimers who established the GLCCU and the USC cannot see why the issue of transparency is so difficult today, except for the fact that no one making decisions is accountable to anyone in the larger GLBT community. It’s easy to dismiss people’s views if one is an autocrat or is enabled by a board to be one.

The Utah Stonewall Center had its grand opening on June 1, 1991, mostly due to the efforts of Charlene Orchard who replaced Jim Hunsaker as chair of the USC committee. The first director of the center was Craig Miller, chosen by Orchard and sustained by the GLCCU. Almost immediately there was a clash of interest in what was the purpose of the USC. Orchard and Miller, who had never actually participated in the democratic process of the proceedings of GLCCU, began to ignore the stated purpose of having a center and focused on it becoming more of a social worker clinic ran by professionals rather than by volunteers from the community.

I and others were troubled that the USC was moving in a different direction, under the direction of a few people, rather than following the vision set forth and approved by the GLCCU. USC’s first year was a tumultuous one as a struggle ensued to establish the purpose of the center. Hard feelings occurred, harsh accusations were made, but in the end it was the GLCCU which made the decision in which direction the center should go after hearing all sides. Keeping the mandate for the center to be a safe zone and drop-in space for the community, Marlin Criddle was elected to replace Orchard and Melissa Sillitoe of the Youth Group was selected as director to replace Miller.

The Utah Stonewall Center had an all-volunteer staff which kept the center open seven days a week 12 hours a day. At its peak, it housed the largest lending library of GLBT books, videos and music west of the Mississippi. It housed the Utah Stonewall Archives, a collection of resources and history of Utah’s struggle for equality. A monthly newsletter called the Center of Attention was published listing various activities.

Women Community organizations led by Kathy Worthington helped paint and make curtains for the large meeting space with architects and builders putting up walls to provide more meeting space. A large binder with all the resources and numbers of bars, organizations, counseling and legal contacts was in the front station where volunteers were trained to look up information for the center’s clients. People scrubbed floors, cleaned bathrooms, swept the place because it was our community center. The youth group even had their own meeting space in the back which they decorated with spray-painted murals. Then of course the center housed a slew of groups as vastly different as Wasatch Affirmation for Gay Mormons and Power Play, a pansexual bondage group.

All the while reporting monthly to the GLCCU the programs being developed, financial reports, and just a general accounting to the public. Along the way there were some who pushed to have the Center separate from the GLCCU and form it’s own nonprofit status. They felt that being monitored by the GLCCU was cumbersome and intrusive. As it eventually worked out, interest in the GLCCU was waning as the old guard became fatigued from fighting two fronts, Utah’s bigotry and the AIDS epidemic which peaked in 1995 and had sapped much of the vitality out of the men’s community. The same year, probably not out of coincidence, GLCCU stopped formally meeting. At the conjunction, the USC took that opportunity to break away and form its own nonprofit status. The old GLCCU’s status, however, was maintained by the Gay Pride Committee even after the parent organization disappeared.

Without the GLCCU oversight, in 1997 the Utah Stonewall Center, without warning or community input, closed its doors. None of the well-heeled community members stepped in to save it. Additionally without community oversight, the chair of Gay Pride Day became involved with criminal fiduciary conduct. There’s a lesson in there for those who pay attention.

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