Remarks: Building Qmunity Community Dialogue

On 27 May 2015, Maura Lawless, Executive Director of The 519, addressed the Building QMUNITY Consultation Dialogue, bringing a range of experience in the effective management of LGBTQ positive space. The Building Qmunity Consultation Dialogue was a day-long community forum for discussing, planning and envisioning the future of Vancouver's Qmunity Centre.


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Good morning – Thank you so much for inviting me here today.

This is my first time in Vancouver and it is absolutely beautiful – I’m thrilled to be here.

Dara and I met a couple of years ago when she and her partner Nata came to Toronto during our Pride festivities. They had a tour of The 519 and came to our Green Space Festival and we had a blast.

Since then we have kept in touch via Facebook mainly and I have been really impressed with what Qmunity has been doing – And when Dara invited me to come today it was because you have collectively secured city support and capital funding to build your own LGBTQ community / resource centre in Vancouver – which is an incredible step and I congratulate all of you for making this happen.

As the Executive Director of The 519 in Toronto, I have some experience in developing and operating an LGBTQ centre, and we are actually in the process of developing a second facility dedicated to sport and recreation, so I know what you’re dealing with.

This is an exciting time for Qmunity, and it’s so important that you’ve come together today to talk about the plans for your new facility and how you’ll work together to make it a reality.

What you folks are setting out to do is really important – and historic – not just for the LGBTQ community in Vancouver and BC, but for your city and your province as a whole.

It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy! You have set ambitious community objectives.

Dara asked me to come today to chat a little about my thoughts, with the hope that The 519’s experiences as an organization can provide you with some helpful insights as your project proceeds.

I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned over the years, and in particular:

  • What I see as the role of a queer resource centre;
  • The "Best practices" in building an LGBTQ facility (or at least the ones I’ve found useful…)
  • How to deal with the challenges of competing priorities, especially when there are limited budgets
  • And the importance of community fundraising and community investment in ensuring your ongoing success. 

I hope that what I contribute today will be helpful for you as you move forward together – these are certainly issues that I’ve been through, albeit in a different city.

So I’m going to talk for about 15 minutes and then I’d be happy to answer any questions, so I can try and address some of your issues and concerns through the lens of what The 519 has dealt with over the 40 years of our organization’s history.

So to begin I wanted to take some time today to talk to you about The 519, and how our organization has evolved.

The 519 is a City of Toronto agency, we create space for change, contributing to the advancement of LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Toronto and beyond.

We operate a community centre on Church Street, which if you know Toronto, Church St is the heart of the city’s historic Gay Village.

The Centre has about 2,600 regular members, we receive more than 265,000 visits each year.  There about 230 individual community groups that use our space on an on-going basis, in addition to the services and programs run by our staff team.

It is the hub of a very vibrant and involved community, with very diverse needs.

And there are several factors I want to talk about today that I believe have helped us serve our communities effectively over the long term.

The first is flexible space – and the way our centre was designed and is used every day.

We know that one of the key components of a productive socially progressive responsible city is the provision of accessible public space, where communities can meet and advocate about issues that are important to them.

The 519 Community Centre was created in the early 1970s when a local neighbourhood association blocked the demolition of a building at 519 Church Street and asked that it be transformed for civic use.

The building was bought by The City of Toronto in 1975 and became the first city run community centre where programming was controlled by the community through a volunteer board of directors – a framework that is still in place today, and which we’re very proud of.

The centre did not start out having an explicitly LGBT mandate, but in 1976, the board received an application to have a group of gay youth use space at the centre. The request was controversial, and there was a split between straight and gay members.

The deciding vote was cast by a closeted bisexual man, and the group’s application was accepted.

From that time, our focus on providing support to the LGBT community sharpened and developed because of the role the building played in the heart of the Village.

After Toronto’s infamous bathhouse raids in 1982, more and more LGBT advocacy groups began to gather at The 519.

Whatever issues have emerged within the community over the last forty years, The 519 has often found itself responding to those needs directly, or providing the space where the needs can be met.

In 1984, The 519 hosted the first ever meeting of the Hassle Free Clinic, offering free medical and counselling services in sexual health. That same year, we also launched a support group specifically for blacks and West Indians in the gay community.

In 1990, we successfully requested that same-sex spousal benefits be extended to City of Toronto employees, including those who worked at the Centre.

Over the years that followed, The 519 Community Centre continued to evolve with the community. It’s fascinating to read back through our annual reports and see the programming that we’ve offered.

There were times, sadly, when we provided a lot of self-defence classes. We were actively involved in HIV awareness. We provided among the first queer parenting resources in Toronto.

I joined The 519 as Executive Director in late 2007. My professional background was in housing and homeless services, and I had spent 12 years at Fred Victor Centre – a charitable organization dedicated to homelessness and low income housing – before working with the City, where I was the hostel and shelter manager.

When I came to The 519, the organization was in the midst of a major capital campaign to revitalize the Community Centre, a process that added a new wing to the original building along with about 45% more space to the facility.

When I started at The 519, they were about three quarters through the capital campaign and the drawings were already complete, but there were a few things that I did right away, which I think are important for you to think about now, in relation to your own facility.

When I arrived, the designs for the new space were very specific, and very limiting. The front area of our building was going to be a computer lab, another part was going to be a soup kitchen.

The design was meant to address the centre’s immediate needs, but didn’t take into account what would be needed or helpful over time.

There was nothing that connected the building to the street, or made it useful or appealing to the wider community.

And so we changed the design.

Today, the main floor of the Community Centre features a welcoming common area, a social enterprise restaurant and a family resource centre.

The spaces are inviting, and connected to the street.

They are also, in my opinion, beautiful.

This is an important point to me, and one I think social service organizations often don’t think about early enough.

Spaces need to be beautiful and inviting, and communities – especially marginalized communities – have the right to be proud of the environments in which they spend their time.

When space is beautiful, people take better care of it. It imparts a sense of respect and self-worth.

But our community requires other considerations too, when it comes to designing space.

Right now, our organization is reflecting on how can better respond to trauma in our work – as many of the individuals we work with have experienced trauma in their lives.

This includes thinking about creating spaces that build on the principles of safety, inclusiveness and participation for the many members of our community who are living with the consequences of trauma – we want them to feel comfortable, protected and safe.

For the queer community in particular, I think it’s important that we’re proud of the spaces we create and mindful of what they communicate.

I think we should consider these spaces as legacy that we are leaving for future generations who will carry forward the struggle and commitment to equality.

The other thing we did when designing The 519 was to ensure that these beautiful spaces offered a range of uses.

The 519 Community Centre now has big rooms and small ones, places for intimate interactions and major celebrations.

The building is designed to be flexible, to be appropriate for a lot of different uses because our members and the community as a whole has many different needs and interests.

That said, we definitely made some mistakes. We didn’t think enough about where technology was going, and so we spent a ton of money hardwiring the building for phones.

Nowadays it seems that no one really uses their phones– it’s all email and texts and Wi-Fi!.

And so, when you are designing a building, you have to think about these things, you have to plan for the future because it will save you money and headaches down the line.

You have to think about where technology is going but also about demographics and the aging of our communities and what issues will emerge from those changes, too.

When you award contracts, I also recommend that you hire and empower a project manager who is specifically tasked to consider these details – who is asked to help create a building that works as a long term investment and a sustainable design.

Just because you have $7 million to build a new facility does not mean you’ll get any capital to fix it in the future – so it’s important to get it as close to right as possible the first time around.

Your physical space will be your biggest asset, and the way it is designed will play a major role in how it is activated.

So as your process proceeds, make sure you are structuring your RFPs with these things in mind.

It’s not sexy, but it’s true. You have to think about the costs you face now, but also the costs that will mount in the future if things aren’t done right.

Don’t gloss over these details – don’t think that they don’t matter.

Trust me, you may not care about power flush toilets now, but you will care about them in 10 years when you’re sitting on them every day.

So that brings me to the second factor that’s important when creating an LGBT facility: establishing your mandate.

The 519 has a Community Centre that is built around effective, agile space. And the great thing about that, is it facilitates the operation of an effective, agile organization.

By designing a space that is adaptive, open and which has multiple uses, we have created space where things can happen on individual and group levels, where progress can be made through counselling and services, through the facilitation of advocacy and through direct learning.

It’s allowed us to change and adapt with our community’s needs, and to introduce new services and ideas over time that we believe can improve the LGBT experience.

This idea inspired our organization’s tag line: Space for Change.

We developed this concept recently when we decided to take a mindful look at what we do.

We wanted to communicate our organization’s progressive values, our focus on working toward equality, inclusion and respect, but also the fluidity of our organization, and how we ensure that change occurs.

As I’m sure all of you are well aware, it’s difficult to clarify your mandate as an LGBTQ organization.

That umbrella term represents a lot of people, a variety of perspectives, priorities, experiences and points of view.

It can be hard as a queer organization to figure out how to serve all those needs, and contend with the challenge and expectations of so many competing or differing priorities.

And so in our motto, in our approach, we’ve given ourselves room to adapt, to evolve. 

The queer experience in Toronto extends far beyond the village, and so we have created an identity and a mission for ourselves that has relevance outside of the Community Centre’s walls.

We provide Space for Change literally, in the physical environments we create and activate.

But we also interpret Space for Change on a broader level: in our outreach, in our services, in our education and leadership efforts.

We recognize that we have a role to play in how the LGBT community is perceived outside of our walls.

And so we have developed a framework that gives us the flexibility to change and respond to the emerging needs of our community, which evolve over time. 

A framework that embraces a self-reflection and an understanding that as an organization we too have room to learn and grow

I want to tell you a little bit about what that evolution has meant for us, recently, and the current focus of our efforts.

This year, our settlement department has supported thousands of LGBTQ-identified newcomers and refugees from over 170 countries around the world.

Every week, hundreds of refugees gather in our Community Centre to find support and to build relationships that help them to settle in their new neighbourhoods across Toronto.

Their stories of courage and resilience inspire us and push us to work harder for global human rights for queer and trans people everywhere. 

This work has also pushed us to think more deeply about race and racism and how allyship plays a central role in the kind of organization we are trying to build.

Our “Space for Change” motto doesn’t end with how our physical spaces are used.

It’s also about capitalizing on spaces in the public and political discourse where we can also make change happen. In these spaces we extend our reach and increase our impact on a broad, systemic level.

In April 2014 the Ontario Human Rights Commission released a new policy aimed at addressing the issue of discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

We know that trans individuals are among the most disadvantaged groups in society and routinely experience discrimination, prejudice, harassment and violence.

Trans people also face an unacceptable rate of unemployment and discrimination in the workplace. As the Human Rights Commission created space for this important public discussion about trans rights in Ontario.

Through The 519’s Education and Training Department, our Trans Access team has been busy delivering Trans Inclusion workshops to workplaces all over the city.

This included a major effort to address homophobia and transphobia in the hospitality industry in the lead up to World Pride in Toronto last year.

The 519 has also continued to push for a systemic response to the issue of LGBTQ homelessness – particularly youth homelessness in our city.

We played a pivotal role in ensuring that the City of Toronto’s street needs assessment included a question about sexual orientation and gender identity, a question which, for the first time, provided unambiguous evidence of a reality we know all too well – that LGBTQ people, and in particular our youth, are over-represented in the homeless population.

We continue to work at a policy level with the city and our community partners to ensure improved access to shelter and housing for our community – and for the first time this year we will have a Housing Support Worker on-staff dedicated to supporting LGBTQ youth and adults experiencing homelessness access housing.

This summer, we will also serve as trustee of PrideHouseTO during the Pan/ParaPan Am Games and will work with its partners to insure that the event is the most inclusive multi-sport games in history.

The Pride House movement, of course, began right here in Vancouver during the winter Olympics, and we are proud to continue its legacy in Toronto.

This is especially important to us because last year we also announced our intention to develop a second facility – The 519 Recreation Centre – which will be the first ever LGBTQ inclusive sport and recreation facility that will offer an even more expansive ‘space for change’.

Too many members of our communities still experience barriers to physical activity, impacting their life-long health and wellness.

We recognize the transformational power that community sport and recreation can achieve when we are come together in inclusive spaces that make us stronger and healthier.

The 519 Recreation centre will offer an inclusive space for children, youth, adults and older adults alike to learn, play, grow and get active together and at the same time exemplify inclusive space.

The expanded space will also create new opportunities for more programs and community leadership.

Even with a 45% expansion of community space in 2010, The 519 Community Centre remains filled to capacity most evenings and weekends.

And so the new Rec Centre will help us continue the tradition of offering accessible and inclusive spaces for our communities to gather, and create positive change together.

The 519 has already committed, as part of the development of The Rec Centre, to work with partners and other levels of government to establish the world’s first policy institute focusing on LGBTQ inclusion in physical and recreational activity.

With a focus on improving the health and wellbeing outcomes for LGBTQ people, the institute will create space for great thinkers, activists, athletes, and coaches from around the world to come together, to share ideas, and create a positive force for change.

To that end, we’re hosting the first Sport Inclusion Summit in Toronto this summer, during the Pan Am Games.

And, of course, our new facility will be designed with the agility, accessibility and multi-purpose space that we found so important in our first centre.

We have developed a set of design principles to guide us as we explore this project, and that will ensure that our new facility is sustainable over the long term and truly transformative for the downtown neighbourhood where it will someday be built.

So that’s how we have designed our spaces, and continue to design them.

And that’s how we approach our mandate, with a sense of purpose and flexibility that allows us to respond to the emerging needs of our community and be effective advocates within our city.

But you also have to think about how you manage your facility as well: What you allow, and what you don’t allow. The issues you wade into, and those you don’t.

These things speak volumes about you as well, and have to be mindful.

As The 519’s Executive Director, I know what my strengths as a leader, and I’ve made sure that our team includes people with different strengths and different experiences, so we as an organization have connected threads to every element of our community.

The 519 can’t be about one thing or one perspective – and it definitely isn’t about me.

To be successful, our organization has to mean something to many different groups, many of whom have different perspectives and varying priorities.

We have been successful because we spent time and developed a formal Space Use Policy that defines how decisions are made in relation to who is able to use our space and how priorities are set.

While we directly operate our own community programs and services we also provide free space for community led groups.

These groups are managed by community volunteers. In the last year, our community led groups and organizations made over 8000 room bookings in our Community Centre.

They use it to meet, create, plan, advocate, dance, support, and organize.  

Through our use of space policy, a variety of groups and individuals can book rooms, without charge or judgement.

I believe it’s important to ensure that The 519 is accessible to as many groups as possible.

From our perspective, we believe that community space must be accessible whether you are radically working to support human rights or if you’re the head of a large corporation, as long as you’re advocating for LGBT advancements you will be able to use our community space.

For many of the people who come to The 519, these programs are the face of The Centre and their first point of contact they have with our organization and the community.

Our community-led programming is a gateway to relationships, membership, volunteers and to financial support.

And, as a City Agency, we can’t take a public political position on everything, it’s not possible.

With issues like homophobic language, we do speak out – this is a banner of ours that recently went up in Toronto’s City Hall.

But on other issues, our value is often the provision of space which allows other people to activate their own advocacy.

To me, this approach is more effective and more sustainable – and ultimately, more honest.

It has allowed us to build relationships with a variety of people and groups who establish a real connection to our space and the community centre and has kept our work close to the ground.

It keeps our organization legitimate in the eyes of the city, which gives us a degree of latitude that is strategically valuable when we do want to advocate for a tangible goal.

And that brings me to my final point of the day, which is the last ingredient that I believe has helped The 519 to prosper and evolve, and which I think you should consider as you embark on your next steps.

It’s never fun for socially minded organizations to talk about revenue generation.

A lot of people think a community centre’s focus should be on Community services, but I believe that by strategically building sustainable resource streams you are in fact ensuring the freedom and ability to effectively advocate.

To me, revenue is of course about money but we also define it more broadly: it’s about how people provide us with their time, their volunteer hours, their support.

With these resources you provide your facility with the footing to provide services on your own terms and your own timelines, and save yourself from the pressures of always having to be chasing funding.

We are very fortunate at The 519 because as a City Agency we receive Core funding for the basic administration and building costs.

That keeps the building open and accessible to the community. Our job is to raise funds for the community programs and services we provide. And that means we’re highly motivated.

When I started at The 519 there was no resource development plan or any dedicated staff in charge of fundraising.

For every $1.00 in City funding at that time we matched it with about $1.20.

The first thing I did when I arrived was write a business plan for the Board to create a new unfunded Manager Fundraising in position which they approved.

Then I set about developing a 5-year strategic resource development plan and secured funding from the city to develop and implement it.

In 2015 for every $1.00 we receive in core City funding we now match that funding with $3.88.

It’s about being intentional and thinking carefully about how you raise money and why.

We don’t charge a fee for the use of our Community Centre rooms because to us, the benefits of having busy, active space far outweighs the value of any minimal revenue we can earn through a rental fee structure.

But The 519 does have a Director of Development, who runs our fundraising efforts which include direct mail, Third Party events and corporate partnerships and sponsorship. 

Each year, we run our annual GreenSpace festival, a four-day event that last year raised more than $500,000.

We operate Fabarnak, a social enterprise restaurant on the main floor of our Community Centre that also does catering in our building and beyond while providing employment for marginalized LGBT youth.

And, as I mentioned, our Education and Training Department provides workshops, training and for-profit consulting services while creating real meaningful employment opportunities for trans people.

This year alone we have seen an increase in training revenues of over 200% and have begun formal conversations with the City of Toronto to train over 35,000 public servants on workplace inclusion.

We have more than tripled our annual revenue since 2008, as our core funding from the City of Toronto has remained steady.

This to me, is the most important thing you can think about as you launch this new venture.

You need to build a strong capital campaign that you can translate effectively into an on-going fundraising focus that will mean you are able to control your own resources, set your own priorities and provide the impactful services and programs that are relevant to your community here in Vancouver and beyond.

Without control over your own finances, you will be forced to choose between competing interests, and you will see real people go unhelped and emerging needs go unaddressed.

Only because of our resource streams has The 519 been able to expand our efforts in the refugee and newcomer communities and so much more.

Only because we were able to secure diverse resource streams have we had the agility to introduce new and vital programming as soon as we saw a need – and not after our latest grant has been approved.

Building a space and programs for the LGBT community is a huge project, but such an important one.

And as you work together to make this vision a reality, I want you to try to imagine the kind of programs that will be responsive not only now but around five years down the line, and ten or twenty.

You want Qmunity to be as beautiful, as useful and as relevant then as it is on the day it opens.

And to me, this will be achieved by creating the right adaptive design for your space; carving out a mandate that is clear but not confining; and ensuring that you control your own fate through effective management and the mindful generation of revenue that can support programming goals that are relevant to your communities.

It’s so great to be here today and I really look forward to hearing your discussions as the day progresses.

Thank you.



Up Next:

Toronto LGBT leader to weigh-in on plans for Vancouver's new QMUNITY centre

Posted:
May 27th 2015
Tagged:
Speeches and Presentations, Maura Lawless