Executive Director Dave Garcia will be departing Feb. 1 for a position as LA Community Center Director of Policy and Community Building. BTL file photo: Andrew Potter

Affirmations Dave Garcia's Goodbye

By Crystal A. Proxmire

After two and a half years running Michigan's largest community center, Executive Director Dave Garcia is moving on to a new position as Director of Policy and Community Building for the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center in California.

There he plans to continue working locally, nationally and internationally for equality and promote safe spaces for LGBT people. The LA Center is a large institution, with over 400 employees, a budget of $75 million, six locations and programs overseas.

"I'm excited because I can do more international work," Garcia said. "There is still more work that needs to be done in Michigan, but in other places people are being killed or thrown in prison for being gay. People are dying, and I want to be able to help them."

Garcia has been a Michigander his whole life. He first made news back in 2000 when he walked nearly 60 miles from Swartz Creek to Lansing looking to bring attention to the discrimination LGBT people face. He was forced out of an administrative position with Swartz Creek Community Schools when he tried to start a gay-straight alliance, and he ultimately won a settlement in a lawsuit over his First Amendment rights.

Garcia then went to work for the YMCA camp in Holly, produced a documentary called "Fences" about finding himself as a gay man, and produced a play in Flint called "Candy Corn, Christ and the Convoluted Creation of Golf!" In 2009 he went to work as executive director of the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center.

Then in 2011 Garcia got the executive director job at Affirmations. Since then he has been a bold voice for the center and the community at large, starting new projects and joining with other organizations across the state to work more effectively for the greater good.

"Dave brought to Affirmations passion and vision to propel the organization, staff, board and volunteers forward. He was able to further build and strengthen bridges in the community and build stronger partnerships. He was able to lead, develop and attract a talented staff," said Affirmations Board President Mark Blanke. "Dave will have left his mark on each of us that he touched and influenced."

Financial Struggles

Affirmations faced financial struggles in 2009 and 2010. When Interim Director Kevin Howley took the reins in November 2010 the Great Recession was in full force. Howley had to cut the center's staff and some programs were eliminated. Hours of operation were also cut in an effort to get the center back on track. Howley's tenure was credited with stabilizing the agency financially, through significant debt reduction, working within a balanced budget and paying down the building's mortgage by well over $200,000 to approximately $225,000 when Garcia was hired.

In the fall of 2011, when Garcia arrived, the center was in a much stronger position financially and ready for an infusion of new energy.

"One of the first things I did when I came in was open the center back up with more hours. If nothing else, we have to be here for people," Garcia said. Under his administration, accounting was moved from an in-house function to an outside firm and record analysis found a $119,000 billing error for the center's electricity usage which was refunded to the center. Today, thanks to careful management and increased donor gifts, the mortgage is under $120,000 and total revenue is up.

Another early decision had two major benefits. Garcia made the Spring Bash a more formal event, with higher ticket prices and a black tie theme. This attracted more donations and gave the community a chance to show off their elegance. He also created the Fall Bash as a more down-to-earth, inclusive event that showcased the center and gave everyone a chance to get together and party at a low ticket price.

Because economic stability has been a priority, Garcia worked with the board of directors to find programs that met community needs and brought in revenue. While its first year - 2013 - was slow to attract students, a new alternative high school program has the potential to give teens and adults a safe space for learning while also bringing in money from the state. A partnership with a local printing company has brought in The Aff Store and More to sell snack items and customized shirts and printed apparel. And the greatly expanded counseling program leverages internships and volunteers to provide mental health care to clients with the ability to bill insurance companies for these services.

Another fundraising idea implemented in 2013 was the Shore 2 Shore Equality Ride, an event that took bicyclists from Ferndale to Saugatuck with stops along the way in its inaugural year. Riders got pledges and the event attracted press attention and sponsorships. Garcia's vision is to see the ride grow so it is a major fundraiser for the Community Center Network, as rides in New York and California have been.

"I was a Boy Scout, and we had this idea that when you'd go to a campsite we would always leave it in better shape than we found it. That's what I think I did in Kalamazoo. And that's what I think I did here at Affirmations, especially in terms of the financial stability of the organization," he said.

Networking

Beyond the improving financial environment, Garcia has left his mark by making the organization more political and more cooperative. He and other executive directors from community centers around the state got together to create the Community Center Network. Together they participated in Shore 2 Shore, went to Lansing to protest anti-gay-family legislation, and staged a 100-day relaying strike called Hungry 4 Equality. The strike brought people from all over the state to Affirmations where they would sit for 24-hour periods in the community center window without eating. The protest highlighted politicians who fought against LGBT rights and educated 2012 voters leading up to the November election.

Garcia also helped with a three-year strategic plan, strengthened diversity with the Multicultural Advisory Committee, and reached out to seniors, people of faith and transgender people with connection-building initiatives. New hires like Lydia Hanson in counseling and Angela Gabridge as Development Director are helping to move the organization forward, even as Garcia prepares to exit.

Like anyone else who steps into a very public role, Garcia has faced his share of criticism. Some said he tried to do too much; others disliked his vocal political stances. When asked how he kept his spirits up in the face of criticism he said, "You just have to really believe in what you're doing. For all the criticism I've had, I value what I'm doing more."

Though many are sad about his departure, Garcia is confident that progress in Michigan will continue.

"We don't have a single voice. It's all of us doing our part. We cross all boundaries, gay Republicans, gay Christians, gay neighbors, gay aunts, gay uncles. Everyone knows someone that's gay. In the same way there is no one leader, there are thousands of leaders, better leaders than me," he said.

The LA Center is excited to have Garcia on board. "As an executive director, community leader, and board member of CenterLink, Dave brings a wealth of experience and vision to the Center and the department he will oversee. We look forward to having Dave as a part of the Center's senior management team and to his leadership in enhancing our work in both the public policy arena and our efforts to strengthen local communities locally, nationally, and internationally," said Chief of Staff Darrel Cummings.

Jon Fitzgerald will step in as interim executive director during the search for a new executive director. BTL file photo: Andrew Potter

Transition

Garcia will be gone Feb. 1 and Jon Fitzgerald, current chief administrative officer, will step in as interim executive director. A search committee with over a dozen members has been formed, led by current board member Dr. Richard Gibson.

The board released the following statement regarding the executive director search, "The new executive director will be a highly driven and motivated visionary with strong leadership skills and the ability to attract a strong board and staff. This individual will continue expanding Affirmations' reach through programming and further collaborations and will also have a strength and passion for building bridges and engaging folks throughout the LGBTQA community. The new executive director will understand how the Center will need to further develop to serve the multi-generational needs of our community and have a strong skill set in fund development. Lastly, this person will embrace the vision of continuing the advocacy work the Center has begun."

"Affirmation's board and staff would like to wish Dave great success and personal fulfillment as he begins to take on the next challenges and opportunities. We will deeply miss him but know that he will continue to have significant impact on the LGBTQ community and we are happy to have been part of that journey with him," said Blanke.


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