When Dave Garcia started as the new executive director at Affirmations in 2011, he heard complaints about the floor every day — or so it seemed. The off-white carpets were stained, ripped, and had become an eyesore.
The beautiful building that opened in 2007 as a showcase of the LGBTQ community four years later was languishing because of a bad interior design decision. The floors were affecting how the community felt about the building. Dave heard feedback from members that the space was great but the floors made the building seem shabby. Every day, it was “the floors, the floors, the floors.”
And that’s the nature of running an organization: Oftentimes, you don’t get to choose the priorities. Instead, they choose you.
Recovering from this bad decision was more than a cosmetic change. It was having profound effects on Affirmations. In 2011, the building didn’t even open until 4:00 P.M. and Dave said about his priorities when he joined Affirmations, “the first thing was to fight the public perception that we were dying.”
So rather than raise money for the new flooring from donors — donors who less than ten years ago had raised over five million dollars for the Open the Doors capital campaign — Dave looked to Building for the Future, a financial service that helps nonprofits plan for capital improvements. Though flooring was not initially on the list of big ticket items that Building for the Future would help fund, Dave negotiated an agreement to get the flooring replaced.
Making sure the floor was fixed was a reality but also a metaphor.
Dave worked with staff and the board of directors to build expertise. He went about meeting the financial challenges by increasing donations, grants, and corporate sponsorships. He raised the profile of Affirmations by adding a premiere fund-raising event called Spring Bash. This black-tie affair provides a venue to court more affluent donors and corporate sponsors. The Shore 2 Shore Equality Ride’s inaugural voyage was held last summer. Based loosely on the AIDS/LifeCycle Ride, it benefited all Michigan LGBT Community Centers and was a big success even in its first year.
Now on solid financial ground, Affirmations has started adding programs to serve the community. Last year, it expanded the David Bohnett Cyber Center. A bank of 15 computers is available for member use, and provides the technology resources which allowed Affirmations to collaborate with the Michigan Educational Partnership in hosting an alternative high school program. Besides expanding programs, Dave’s love of public policy and political activism also led him to spearhead the Hungry 4 Equality campaign last fall. Corresponding with the Fall election, hunger strikers gathered in a “living room” staged in Affirmations’ front window along Nine Mile. The strike raised awareness about existing anti-gay legislation in Michigan, especially anti-adoption, anti-marriage, and laws that allow discrimination in the workplace. Dave was one of the first wave of hunger strikers, and the event was covered by local, national, and international media.
Affirmations also posted an Equality Rights Hall of Shame that was visible from Nine Mile Road. Members of the Hall of Shame included Michigan legislators, politicians, and the Supreme Court. Dave saw the Hall of Shame as an opportunity “to educate the community, especially our straight allies, about who is behind the anti-gay movement here.” While both of those campaigns were very successful, they also brought criticism. Some felt the campaign was too in-your-face or that it was not the role of a community center to push a political agenda. But one thing is sure: Nobody thinks that Affirmations is dying. With a strong board and staff and the finances on the rise, Affirmations’ future looks bright. But Dave feels sad and a little guilty for leaving. “We still have work to do here,” he said. The fights for marriage and adoption and against workplace discrimination still need to be won. But he feels confident that “it’s just a matter of time.”
When the lifelong Michigander goes to Los Angeles to work as the Director of Public Policy and Community Building at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, it will be big challenge. But serving as Executive Director of Affirmations and before that of the Gay and Lesbian Center in Kalamazoo has prepared him. It has “toughened my skin,” he said. “There will always be criticism. I’ve come to expect it and that’s going to help me moving forward.” Dave turns 40 this year and his son is graduating from high school, so it is an ideal time to try something different. In his new position he will travel and advocate for changes to public policy internationally. But while he is saying goodbye, Affirmations will continue.
It celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, anchoring West Nine Mile with all the stuff that makes Ferndale fun and fabulous.
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