(Citation: Leslie Ewing holding one of her cartoons, Photographer: Mel Hofamann )
Stability in the senior ranks of the Pacific Center throughout the 2010s led to substantial growth in youth and elder programs and so much demand for core mental health care services that the organization struggled to meet it, all while the Center's constituent base evolved to include greater awareness of and attention to sexual and gender diversity.
For most of this period, Leslie Ewing served as executive director (2008-2019), the longest tenure in Pacific Center history.
"Part of my motivation [for coming to the Pacific Center] was to work in my own community," said Ewing, who grew up in Berkeley and previously worked with several HIV organizations in the Bay Area.
Ewing initially wandered into the Pacific Center by chance.
"The first time I ever went to the Center was in 1987 because I thought there was a meeting going on about housing," Ewing recalled. "Turns out it was a civil disobedience training about the upcoming March on Washington [for LGBGTQIA+ rights]."
By the end of the meeting, Ewing, her partner and six others had decided to form Queer and Present Danger, an affinity group of the AIDS-related political advocacy organization ACT UP. They traveled to Washington, D.C., got arrested, and returned home with activism baked into their futures. The next time Ewing visited the Pacific Center was 2008.
One immediate challenge Ewing faced running the Center was soaring demand for services at the same time as a funding shortfall related to the Great Recession of 2008-2009.
"We should have been generating enough income to pay at least half our expenses. Because we weren't, we were gonna be in a deficit very quickly," Ewing said. "And that meant we had to really increase the number of interns [therapists] to meet demand. People were being turned away because we didn't have a therapist for them."
Ewing cited the hiring of Louise Monsour as clinical director in 2009 as a watershed moment: "Louise had taught at JFK University and knew how to work with interns and students, and that made a big difference in retention and the quality of services. As the quality of our therapy services improved, word got out that it was better, and that really helped give the Center a boost."
Ewing said the number of clinical interns at the Pacific Center rocketed from eight to 24, and at one point exceeded 30. Meanwhile, the number of peer groups climbed from six to more than 20. "We really pushed the facility as far as it could go at that point. It was a strain," Ewing said.
Citation: Clinicians, staff, and volunteers modeling Pacific Center merch, 2019)
Katie Tims, a senior clinical administrative support specialist who has been with the Center since 2013, recalled the frenzied atmosphere at the Center. "I remember there was a fierce competition for the therapy rooms," she said. "There were so many clients and so many clinicians. But that was also kind of a fun thing. The peer groups would shuffle in and shuffle out and hang out outside. And It was really lovely to meet all the volunteers."
During this period, the Center also offered robust youth services, including after school programs and a "Speakers' Bureau" that dispatched trained youth to address their peers about LGBTQIA+ issues.
"The after school programs provide a safe space for youth to find relationship with each other and create new family, particularly for those who don't get a chance to have a safe space in their own families," former Youth Program Manager Mark Wilson told KPIX-TV in 2014.
"With the Speakers' Bureau, we have two annual workshops where about 17 young people are trained to go into the schools, and we have annually over 400 youngsters attend these workshops in the Berkeley and Oakland area. They share their coming out stories and anti-bullying"
Around that same time, the Pacific Center began stepping up its support for individuals at the other end of the age spectrum, culminating in the formation of a popular Older and Out program to provide mental health support for seniors and counteract ageism, isolation and loneliness.
"In 2012 or 2013, we got an offer to help Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services start an LGBTQ advisory committee," Ewing recalled. "I served on that committee for a long time, and as a result of that work, the Pacific Center received a contract to provide services for older LGBTQ folks. At one point we had groups going not just in Berkeley and Oakland, but as far as Livermore and Hayward. The Pacific Center benefited from the fact that no one had ever done this kind of work there before."
Ewing continued, "For the first time [LGBTQ individuals were] being recognized as an at-risk population that resources need to be directed towards, and that is a very big change; it's not going to get the kind of headlines that marriage equality would, but it really is going to have a trickle down effect and affect people who are very much in need."
Having served at the Pacific Center through a transformational period of expansion for LGBTQIA+ rights, Ewing expressed pride in the organization's cultural shift. "What I like about small community-based organizations is how adaptable they can be," Ewing said. "If there's a real shift in need, they can make that shift. While I was there, the biggest shift was around not just providing services for trans folks, but welcoming them, making big space for a variety of expressions. At one point, in 2016 or 2017, there were six different groups addressing the specific needs of identities under the trans banner."
Tims echoed this assessment, while also noting the substantial increase in staff diversity. "When I first started, the staff was mainly white, older folks. So that's a big difference now," Tims said. "And there has been a big change in the number of folks we serve who identify as trans. In 2013, four to six percent of our clients identified as trans or gender nonconforming or gender fluid. Now it's more than half. I hope that means we are providing services that are responsive to the trans community and supportive of them, and that in general, it's a sign of society feeling like a more accepting place."
If you stop by the Pacific Center today, in its new offices in downtown Berkeley, you'll find a staff that is more representative of the community, and you might see mementos here and there that reflect the organization's aspirational history as a welcoming place for all members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Items like an old pair of leather boots, donated to a Pacific Center garage sale, that Ewing rescued from the garbage heap. "I said, 'Oh no, you're not throwing those away!" Ewing said. "Someone had framed an old newsletter, and I just put one boot here and one boot there [as a display], and the reason I did that was I thought it was important for someone who is identified with the leather community to feel just as comfortable going in there as someone who didn't. It just sent a message; it was an identifier that you're welcome here."