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Creating a Community of Tradition: A Q&A with Chris Bartlett, Executive Director of the William Way LGBT Community Center

By Kate McGovern |

Chris Bartlett, a Philadelphia native, has served as Executive Director of the William Way LGBT Community Center for the last three years. With 12 employees and more than 200 active volunteers, the place is always buzzing — which Bartlett says is one of its best features.

We asked Bartlett to tell us about himself, his plans for the community center and how he addresses challenges associated with running a nonprofit. His answers have been edited for length.

How did you first get involved with LBGT activism?

I went to school to become a classics professor and then the AIDS epidemic hit. I had a few friends get sick and die — this was in the late 80’s — and as a result, I got involved in AIDS activism and particularly ACT UP Philadelphia, which was one of the major nonviolent civil disobedience groups.

How did you end up at William Way three years ago?

I was the interim co-director of the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, which is the LGBT community foundation in town. When the Executive Director position opened up at William Way, they did a national search. It wasn’t on my radar screen at all, but the recruiter convinced me that I should at least put in my resume. Through the interview process, I really feel in love with the place; I felt that I could make a difference here.

What projects are you involved with outside the center?

One of the things I really focus on is celebrating ancestors. I created a project to remember all the gay men who died of AIDS in Philadelphia since 1981. It’s called the Gay History Wiki, and it’s a wiki that allows people to tell the stories of their friends, lovers, family members who died of AIDS.

One of the powerful things about the project is that most of these guys died before there was such a thing as internet presence, so we’re actually creating an internet presence for them.

I also do a lot of work with other nonprofits. Currently, I’m on the board of CenterLink, the umbrella group of LGBT community centers around the country. So I get to see what’s going on in LGBT community centers in other cities.

What’s available at the center?

I think one of the great resources we provide is just a place to meet. A big chunk of our budget comes from renting out spaces to community groups of all sorts so that this place is always buzzing. There are games nights and bridge club. We have a library of over ten thousand books — one of the largest archives in LGBT history in the country.

We have two cyber centers [and] we’ve really been focusing on the importance of technology. We’ve been doing training with seniors so that they’re workforce ready if they want to go back into the workforce.

We’re really imaging the center being accessible at the hours that people really need it. We’re open 365 days a year so that’s probably our biggest resource — that we’re able to make our services available to people every day of the year.

What kind programming does the center offer?

We do a lot of work with young adults and bridging our programs with those of The Attic, which serves youth. We have a new program called the Bridge to The Attic [which] provides services for ages 23-29, so that young adults have a place to come and get support.

We have a peer counseling program which provides free peer counseling to men and women who have questions about their lives. [It] has been a really important resource for people who are struggling in various areas of their life or just need some information to take the next step. I’m very proud of that program.

We have opportunities for seniors to come together in mutual support, to socialize and feel like they’re not isolated and alone. We do a lot of work with seniors. I’m a believer that LGBT seniors really created gay liberation and as such, we owe them support services [such as] housing.

How is the center involved in senior housing?

A number of people were thinking we need affordable housing for LGBT seniors. We know some of our seniors worked service jobs their whole lives without pensions, little in the way of support for their retirement, and a lot of housing is expensive.

Mark Segal, publisher of The Philadelphia Gay News, went to bat for that, found some funding and found a lot down on 13th street. It’s going to be 56 units of new housing that’s going to be available in February 2014, and it’s for low-to-moderate income people.

The non-profit that’s spearheading the housing is called The Doctor Magnus Hirschfeld Fund; that’s Mark Segal’s non-profit. We’re going to be providing the social services there. We’ve already begun conversations about what that’s going to look like.

Where do you find funding for these programs?

Foundations have ins and outs, depending on how the economy is doing. Government is a challenging place to get any money right now. Corporations similarly, are often challenging. But what we have learned in community fundraising is that [if] people believe in the services you’re providing, they want to give something — whether that’s a dollar or a thousand dollars.

One of the things we learned from African-American churches is that they’re not afraid to pass the basket once, twice, even three times in one church service and I think that for nonprofits to survive, we have to have the confidence and courage to ask over and over again. If you have a thousand people giving five, that’s five thousand dollars.

I often say that my greatest goal in my job is to transform the LGBT community’s attitude towards fundraising and money. If LGBT people are unafraid to explore the value of money for their community groups, we can have the strongest community organizations in the world here in Philadelphia, [but] it’s challenging for us, frankly, to figure out how to do that, how to have that conversation. Do we have the equivalent of passing the basket at every event? We’ve talked about that. What are our conversations with our major donors look like? How do we stay constantly connected with them so that they feel invested in what we’re doing? I think we’re doing a good job; we just have to keep doing more.

What have you changed since you started at William Way?

We really have a much closer relationship with The Attic. The art on the [center’s] wall right now is from The Attic, for example. Carrie Jacobs is the Executive Director and I have a very long relationship and friendship [with her]. When I got here it was real easy for us to figure out how we could do more together.

The arts and culture piece has been a real focus for me. I really felt like that was a [way] we could get folks coming here who had never come before. We had Jennifer Higdon, who’s probably the most played living composer in the United States. She’s a lesbian [who] happens to be from Philadelphia. We performed a night of her music and she came here and did a Q&A — a sold out event. We did an event with Zoe Strauss, world class photographer, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She happens to be an old friend of mine through Act Up so she did an evening for our donors at the Art Museum, took us on a personal tour, showed us her art, had a conversation with our donors.

What’s next?

We’ve been funded to do the first LGBT jazz festival in the United States, which is going to take place in about a year. [The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage] is funding it and it’s going to be an incredible opportunity to have conversations about the impact of LGBT people in jazz, interactions between LGBT people and the African-American jazz communities and the intersections of LGBT African-American artists.

We’re also focusing on LGBT history because we’re coming up on a landmark in 2015 — the 50th anniversary of the Reminder Day [demonstrations], which took place outside of Independence Hall. So we’re in the process of working in partnership with community organizations [and] museums to feature LGBT History in 2015. The Library Company in February 2014 is going to [host] an exhibit on LGBT books in the library. The first exhibit’s going to be there, but we’re doing things at the Philadelphia History Museum, the African American Museum and the American Museum of Jewish History so that in 2015, William Way is spearheading a citywide effort to talk about LGBT history.

What is your long-term goal for the community center?

John Chin, the Executive Director of the Chinatown Redevelopment Corporation, advocates for Chinatown and he imagines Chinatown expanding north into the loft district. [He envisions] anchor institutions in Chinatown, whether that’s Chinatown Redevelopment Corporation [or] a senior housing building. They have a lot of cultural organizations, as well as restaurants and stores. They advocate for it from the point of view that Chinese culture is worth having a vibrant center in Philadelphia.

That’s sort of my vision for what the community center does. We have something that’s called the Gayborhood. We have the William Way Community Center, Giovanni’s Room, Mazzoni Center, The Attic, bars, restaurants — all of this representation of gay culture in the city. LGBT people live throughout the entire region in every single neighborhood but the Gayborhood is the cultural center of the LGBT community. I view the community center and our work in the next five to ten years to continue to strengthen ourselves as an anchor in the Gayborhood.

What are your goals for programming?

LGBT people are some of the people who don’t leave cities so we’re looking at [how to ensure] those people who have stayed in Philadelphia have great arts and culture and great support throughout the entire generational spectrum — youth, adults, elders and even ancestors — so that people see themselves on an exciting trajectory in their life. I believe that communities thrive when you can see a track from being a youth to an adult to an elder and to an ancestor.

Arts and culture is really key. I think that culture really gives you a sense that you’re part of a great tradition. I think for any human being, whatever communities you’re a part of, that’s very exciting to feel like you’re part of a history. That’s part of what we’re trying to create here.


(Photos by Kate McGovern)

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