EDUCATION & ACTION DURING COVID-19 SERIES

LGBTQ Community Centers

MAP recently spoke with Denise Spivak, CenterLink CEO, to learn more about community centers in this time of need.

The public health threat of COVID-19 has shown us now, more than ever, the importance of mutual aid and community care. As part of our commitment to speed equality and opportunity for all, MAP will be publishing a series of posts that advance the conversation around vulnerable communities who may be particularly at risk to the effects of the virus and the economic downturn. In the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic that affects us all, this series will shed light on the particular challenges facing all of our communities, as well as resources from partners and allied organizations to support you through the pandemic.

CenterLink is a member-based coalition to support the development of strong, sustainable LGBTQ community centers. The organization plays an important role in supporting the growth of LGBTQ centers across the country and addressing the challenges they face, by helping them to improve their organizational and service delivery capacity and increase access to public resources.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, CenterLink conducted a survey of its members to understand the significant challenges facing community centers. MAP recently spoke with Denise Spivak, CenterLink CEO, to learn more about their work in this extraordinary time.

Can you give us a brief overview of CenterLink’s work?

When I first started at CenterLink nine years ago, there were about 140 member centers. Now we have over 250 member centers serving over two million people annually. One of our core roles is assisting newly formed and existing LGBTQ centers through networking opportunities, peer-based technical assistance and training, and a variety of capacity building services. Our efforts are based on the belief that LGBTQ community centers are primary change agents in the national LGBTQ movement. It’s important to point out, too, that people build LGBTQ centers in different ways. It’s not always a physical space: centers can start as an online resource, or a meet-up group, or in a church basement. People see a need to be filled in their local communities and they’re filling it.

CenterLink is also active in helping community centers to understand how they can advocate in their communities (through their ActionLink program) and informing policymakers and politicians about the work of community centers. For instance, each year we send our biennial community survey report to every member of the House of Representatives and Senate. We want to make sure they know about the vital role that centers play in the lives of LGBTQ people and in supporting communities around the country.

What challenges have LGBTQ centers faced during the pandemic?

Four months ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that the pandemic would upend life as we know it. LGBTQ centers have reported an increased demand in services and support; disruption of services and supplies; higher operational costs; and decreased revenue. Over half of centers are experiencing cancellation of fundraising, reduced fee-for service, and reduced individual contributions.

Source: CenterLink, CenterLink Member Financial Impact Survey, 2020

Despite the hardships, it’s been phenomenal to see how community centers have turned on a dime to continue serving their local communities. So many of our centers were quick to learn new ways of connecting through the digital space. In order to help community centers that provide mental health counseling services online, CenterLink partnered with the LGBT Technology Partnership to get Zoom licenses that were HIPAA compliant at reasonable costs.

What services and supports have you seen an increase in?

We’ve long talked about isolation in the LGBTQ community, especially in how we talk about challenges facing LGBTQ older people. But COVID-19 has forced a new isolation at the same time that community centers have had to reduce or suspend their in-person services to practice social distancing. As a result, centers are being creative when connecting with their clients, as described in the previous question.

It’s important to note that some community centers remained open to provide critical services — like HIV testing and medical services — during the pandemic, including the Los Angeles Community Center and LGBT Life Center in Norfolk, Virginia. The bottom line is that LGBTQ community centers stepped up for their local communities and continued to be a resource for support, online and in-person.

How have CenterLink and community centers responded to systemic racism and the movement for Black lives?

While CenterLink has made significant progress in committing to being more equitable, diverse, and inclusive, we recognize that to fully support the Black Lives Matter movement, we an organization must do more, and our network must do more. A good number of CenterLink’s member centers were already involved in equity and racial justice work, and we are working with some of them to advance resources for our network. A few weeks ago, CenterLink, along with over 100 other LGBTQ+ organizations, signed on to a statement condemning racial violence. And CenterLink has made a commitment to include racial equity into our work.

We will continue to make our platform available for the people who need to be heard. We will provide resources for our community centers to encourage them to educate, mobilize, and engage in racial justice matters. We will engage in active listening and amplify the messages of Black-led community center leaders. And we will continue to hold ourselves accountable to these promises. We know these actions are a small piece of what is needed to bring lasting change — there is much work to be done.

What are ways we can support LGBTQ community centers?

If you’re able, donate to your local community center! Also check to see if your local community center has volunteer opportunities. Just because community centers aren’t physically open, it doesn’t mean they don’t have opportunities to volunteer.

Individuals can also create awareness of the work of community centers, whether it’s posting on social media or telling their friends and family. Even if you don’t have the funds to donate to a community center, the person you connect with might. Everyday people can be de-facto ambassadors.

Lastly, participate in online meetings or webinars with your local community center. The number of people attending these digital events speaks volumes, especially when talking to funders in showing the depth and reach of their work.