Person of the Year: Utah Pride Center’s Carol Gnade

Each year, QSaltLake names as its person of the year an individual or group who has had a substantial effect on Utah’s LGBT community over the year — for good or for ill. This year’s recipient is a familiar face in Utah’s nonprofit sector who has elevated every organization she has touched — Carol Gnade, Utah Pride Center’s executive director for the past two years.

The job, according to Gnade, was supposed to be temporary. In October 2015, the former social worker was retired from a life of activism and public-sector work and living in Torrey, Utah, when the Center was shaken by the abrupt departure of its executive director. Marian Edmonds-Allen resigned after just 11 months on the job, citing the Center’s ongoing financial problems and struggles with its board of directors.

When she read about the Center’s predicament, Gnade called up then-board president Kent Frogley, with whom she had served on the Center’s board in the 1990s, and offered her help.

Frogley, board member Michael Aguilar, and Gnade met for a candid conversation about the Center’s challenges. After a two-hour discussion in which they addressed such things as the Center’s status in the community, its funds and issues “with the building, staff and media,” Aguilar said Gnade agreed to step in for a few months “to become the ‘steady hand’ that the Center needs.”

“Well, here we are two years later,” Gnade, now 72, said, laughing.

Her decision wasn’t the only time Gnade stepped in to offer help and a steadying presence to a Utah organization. In the early ’90s, she offered her support to the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union after learning the state legislature had passed an abortion ban, despite the Supreme Court ruling the procedure constitutional. By then, Gnade, who has a background in social work, had a keen interest in public relations, advertising and nonprofit work. At that time, the chapter had only an executive director and a part-time secretary.

When that director, Michelle Parish left, Gnade took on the role and held it from 1993 to 2007. During that time, the ACLU of Utah took on several watershed cases, including East High Gay-Straight Alliance v. Board of Education of Salt Lake City School District and Weaver v. Nebo School District. The East High claim, filed in 1998, sought to prevent the board of education from banning gay-straight alliances at the school. The next, from 1997, addressed the firing of lesbian teacher and high school coach Wendy Weaver because of her sexual orientation.

Working side-by-side with the board and Aguilar — who in an uncanny twist of fate became the new president of the board the day Gnade joined the staff — Gnade sought to get the Center back on track. In Aguilar, with his master’s degree in nonprofit management, she said she found a team member who worked well with her.

First, the two had to get the Center’s finances back in the black.

“I don’t think people realize how challenging it was to eliminate all of our debt,” Aguilar told QSaltLake. “We didn’t just have money readily available to pay it off — we had to fundraise for it. And we had to convince people that the [Utah] Pride Center would be good stewards of their generous contributions … we developed a fundraising plan that would engage donors in this ‘new’ Utah Pride Center.”

Their plans included the creation of a new event, the Pride Spectacular. Launched in 2016 as an upgrade to the Grand Marshall Reception, the gala held before the Utah Pride Festival. According to Aguilar, it brings in nearly as much revenue for the Center as the annual festival does.

He said that he and Gnade also developed a new mission statement for the Center to “tell an accurate story” about it. As part of this new mission, Gnade had to reexamine the programs and offerings in a Center that had become “kind of like an octopus.”

Gnade said it was a matter of finding out what the Center and its staff did best and “doing what we do well rather than trying to do all the things people in the community ask us to do.” Then Gnade realized they didn’t have the resources for it and “can’t do it well.”

However, the Center did find, she said, that it could do well at providing “great mental health” services to the LGBT community, which now employs four social workers for counseling. Youth programming, she said, is also something at which the Center excels. Under her leadership, youth events such as Queer Prom in April and its December counterpart, Masqueerade Ball, have flourished. The Center is also home to support groups for LGBT men and women and parents of transgender people.

Part of figuring out what the Center did well, said Gnade, also meant partnering with organizations that could do the things they couldn’t do as well, such as outreach to LGBT refugees and homeless LGBT youth.

And then, of course, she also had to reevaluate how the Center’s staff and the board should function.

“My skills are mainly working with people,” she said. “I love looking at an organization as a group of people who are trying to discover [things] about themselves and grow.”

The “people” issues Gnade had to tackle, included “bringing back some peace and cohesiveness” to the Center’s staff, who had reported to four executive directors in a short period.

Sue Robbins, the Center’s current board chair, said she was particularly impressed by the calm Gnade brought to employees and board members alike.

“When a work environment is calm, you are more productive and it isn’t a draining experience,” she said. “Carol created that environment. She is always thinking of others and it makes her a better leader as she attracts the best in those around her.”

Aguilar said he thinks Gnade stayed so long in her “temporary” position because she was having fun. Gnade agrees and admits that she was “probably too young to retire” when she did so the first time. She said now though is a good time to leave, mainly as the Center has bought a new space and will be moving from its 255 E. 400 South address, for a fresh start.

“I don’t believe people should stay in these jobs [for too long]. I think it’s good to have turnover,” she said, noting that she thinks she may not have the skills, particularly in social media, that a younger director may have.

“I’m going to have a gathering for my retirement and call it the Last Retirement, instead of the Last Supper,” she joked.

Both Aguilar and Robbins said they are thankful for the time they shared with Gnade during her two-year “interim” job.

“Carol is very humble about all she does and will push others to the forefront before stepping up there herself,” said Robbins. “There is no better recognition for her, as a Person of the Year should be someone that makes all people better that are around them. Carol has done that for the Utah Pride Center and the greater Salt Lake Community.”

“There is certainly a new energy about the Center,” Aguilar said. “This is evident by the number of people who applied for Carol’s job! When it seemed like the world was falling apart at the Center — and Carol stepped in and helped save it — nobody wanted to be the executive director. But now everybody does. She did that. She created a place that is welcoming to everyone. A place where everyone wants to be.”

So, for coming out of retirement, grabbing the Center’s rudder and steering it into the right direction, and being willing to stay on until it is settled in its new home and has a new director to replace her, QSaltLake Magazine names Carol Gnade its Person of the Year.

Photo credit: Cat Palmer

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