I was fortunate enough to be a founding member of a group of like minded people who wanted to start a gay black pride committee in Minnesota. At the time there was already a collective of people who had started a pride organization called the Minnesota Gay Black Pride. This organization was responsible for organizing black pride events for the Twin Cities area. As a person not part of the organization I was one of the initial groups of people who felt that the organization could be doing more. There were others in the community who shared the same feeling and felt that there were things that should have been done differently.
In other words we were the back seat passengers who yelled out directions but didn’t want to help steer. Opinions differed on what the focused of Pride should be especially when it came to gay black issues. Some felt that there should be a focal point on the rising rates of HIV/AIDS and other health disparities plaguing our community. While others felt that we simply needed to celebrate as we were becoming sore from getting hit over the head with messages of how we should wear a condom.
Pressure was placed on the Minnesota Gay Black Pride to address these issues and provide something that everyone could enjoy. Yet doubt existed if the organization could make something successful happen as not only were their expertise questioned but also there were rumblings that monies granted to the group to stage Pride events were being misappropriated. With the building mistrust, I along with a similar thinking group of individuals started Soul Essence, a gay black Pride planning committee that would focus on health issues combine with showcasing the arts in an African Diaspora way.
The Minnesota Gay Black Pride wanted to collaborate for the benefit of the community as they felt it would only makes us stronger but because we were set in our ways we didn’t see the bigger picture. Maybe if we had we would have seen all the signs and learned the lessons that the Minnesota Gay Black Pride had experienced but as my mother used to say, “You make your bed, you lay in it”. Despite our initial first and second year success, we soon followed the same road map that lead to the same demise of the Minnesota Gay Black Pride. From that experience these were the lessons I learned and hopefully it can help other grassroots pride committees, no matter what race, as they plan for next year. Lessons learned were the following:
It’s Always About the Personalities
At Soul Essence we had a good group but like any other there were some disagreements over something that was usually petty. It eventually got to a point where we couldn’t work with certain people as we focused on personalities and not performance. Organizations can be easily divided by very simple but deeply divisive things. Sometimes it’s as simple as personalities clashing, someone feeling disrespected, such as being called a name or some other word that makes you puff out your chest or bare your claws. Or maybe during a night at the club some member talked ‘shade’ about another and it got back to him/her. Rather than respond like responsible adults and work out the situation, most times people are so offended that they decide to create their own Pride organization, usually pulling members from the other group. The loser in these situations is usually the community because they have to decide which group to align themselves with. And instead of something being stronger, we are overall weaker because of this division. Ironically, pride gets in the way of Pride.
We Don’t Need No Stinking Business Plan
What’s great about grassroots efforts is that they literally start out of nothing. They usually have very little (if any) money but plenty of passion to fuel them. This is how successful organizations start. The passion and mission is clear and the dedication to make it successful is so strong that you can get a great group of people with various skills willing to make it happen for free. That’s great but in the end you are still operating a business. And like any other business you need people who have some knowledge of how to make a business successful and the tools to make it succeed. You have to also find the strengths and weaknesses of each person and place them in roles that will benefit the group. So, if a person is great at grant writing, it makes no sense to have them as the secretary taking notes at each meeting. Playing to strengths will not only benefit the organization but it will make people who are volunteering feel like they are meaningfully contributing to the mission.
Get Those Volunteers
For me this is one of the greatest things I wished we would have done ourselves. Along with the consistent members of the group, for small events you need outside folks who can help out. Even if it’s just for that one event it lessens the burden and frustrations of an already stretched thin committee. It also helps to alleviate some of the frustration felt by some members when it comes to the actual event. Oftentimes people can feel like they are always doing way more than others in the group. This is especially frustrating when you have a full-time job outside of your volunteer time at a Pride group. From the beginning, start reaching out to people to get them to volunteer. A big key to having a successful volunteer program is always making sure they feel happy and heard. When someone offers to volunteer, respond right away! Not when you feel like getting back to them which could be a couple of weeks. By then that person may no longer be interested or feel you don’t need their services.
Don’t Sleep Where You Work
In our organization we had partners or lovers who served on the same group. Several times there were cases when the partners would be having problems in their personal relationship. This would result in the tension being transferred to the group and putting everyone in the middle of a lovers’ quarrel. Instead of planning events you’re putting out fires or handing out Kleenex. Not to say there shouldn’t be partners sitting across from each other to help plan Pride but recognize that conflicts may arise and that couples should agree to keep the home issues at home. And if you really want to see sparks fly, have board chair directly supervise their loved one. I guarantee there will be fireworks or feelings of favoritism from others.
And the number one thing that will destroy your efforts-
There’s a saying that if you really want to wipe out a grassroots effort. Give them money. Don’t get me wrong as money will help move forward your mission but just know that with the rewards also comes some disadvantages. It’s amazing how the dynamics will change as people who were volunteering their time will now put a worth on their contribution and expect to be paid that amount. And it will never be the same amount of other people giving their time. Also, don’t put someone in charge of the money who can’t manage their own personal finances. In other words, if they can’t pay their own bills, how do you expect them to pay someone else? Complete transparency is needed to lessen any accusations of mismanaging funds
Sadly the one thing we accused the Minnesota Black Gay Pride of doing, abusing donations, was also the same thing that Soul Essence was accused of which lead to its demise.
Finally, with all of this I’m not trying to say don’t put together a pride committee. In fact, we need Pride celebrations more than ever. Especially in cities that are underrepresented and have never had a Pride event. My true objective is to help others not make the same mistakes we did. And while my experience in this was with an organization focused on the LGBT black population, this can happen to any new start-up. Nothing comes easy but if I had known what I knew before we started Soul Essence, maybe things would have been different and we would have celebrated pride in 2012 and now be planning for 2013.
If you’ve helped start a Pride event/committee, please let me know if you think there are things I’ve missed or (even missed the mark on). Your comments will help not only me but someone looking ahead for Pride in 2013!