(Citation: Photographer: Mel Hofamann )
The Pacific Center kicked off the new millennium with massive growth in its budget and service offerings, deeper engagement with the LGBTQIA+ community, and a determination to build a more diverse staff that better reflected the breadth of its constituents, amid ongoing concerns about the dominance of a white male culture.
Following a rough stretch in the late 1990s in which the Center lost a major grant from the United Way and plunged $70,000 into debt, forcing deep cuts and threatening its very survival, the organization’s budget soared from $124,000 in 1998 to $458,000 by 2002.
The increased funding allowed the Center to launch new afterschool and Saturday programs, which served more than 300 Bay Area youth, and boost its hiring of a more diverse staff.
“The center had really gotten lazy with all of its relationships, not just with funding folk,” Executive Director Frank Gurucharri told the Bay Area Reporter in 2002. “We started cleaning up our act, and even though we’re a community center, started running ourselves as a lean business.”
Gurucharri pointed to improved ties to the cities of Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda County, along with new funding relationships with the Horizons Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation, the East Bay Community Foundation, the California Endowment, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.
“I just keep going to different funders and asking them to match what we have, and people then feel a part of a whole project,” said Gurucharri.
Regarding Pacific Center staff, Gurucharri said, “We’re trying to change the culture at the Center, and we’re working to create an LGBTQ community that is inclusive of many cultures, so that people can see their own faces reﬂected in the staff.”
Later that year, the Center welcomed a new executive director, Juan Barajas, a Latino man who vowed to make the organization more visible and relevant and said that building the diversity of the Pacific Center community was a big reason he took the job.
“This is a great center with a really long history that just hasn't been utilized all that well yet," Barajas said in 2005. "We have to work a lot more to get the word out about our services and to be as accessible as we can.”
But Barajas faced an immediate firestorm, unrelated to his hiring.
Despite efforts to diversify the Center’s staff, the only three women of color unexpectedly quit the board, saying they were unable to make themselves heard on a white male-dominated panel.
"For me, it was totally from left field," Barajas said of the sudden resignations. “It really threw me.”
But the women who resigned said the problem had been percolating for years.
"What we'd decided to do was be persistent about bringing things up,” said Tina Cansler, one of the women who left the board. “What we were finding, at least for me, was that I didn't have a chance to say anything."
Following the fracas, newly elected board president Katherine Gale promised to take action. "These are clearly real concerns, or they wouldn't be doing this," she said. “We've got to move forward from this. And if there is a feeling of 'old boy network' on the board, we need to change that."
During his tenure, Barajas said he solidified systems, built partnerships and brought more structure, stability and fundraising capacity to the organization, which allowed the Center to start offering services in Spanish, expand its clinical work and outreach to schools, and open satellite locations in the East Bay.
“There was a bit of a freeness about everything when I arrived,” Barajas recalled in a recent interview. “There wasn't a lot of support for the volunteers. We had a lot of peer groups running, but not much oversight. We had to work with the community to figure out a better way to run the Center, so we could meet the needs of more people.”
Barajas also addressed long-standing issues related to the Center’s physical location. “The Center itself was pretty shabby at the time,” he said. “Broken down furniture, peeling paint. It just wasn't nice. And so I was able to get an in-kind donation from Deloitte consulting [for new furniture, carpet and paint]. And we had a donor who donated money to buy new computers, because the ones we had were barely functional…You walk in and it sort of expresses the value that we had for ourselves and for clients.”
In 2008, Barajas left to become a senior director in the Bay Area for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and the Center hired Leslie Ewing as executive director.
Ewing, who told the Bay Area Reporter in 2008 that she identified as “queer as hell,” came in pledging to do more to address isolation in the LGBTQIA+ community and create more opportunities for building intergenerational relationships.
"There are many of us living in the flats of Berkeley and the hills of Montclair with the same set of problems and sense of being all alone," Ewing said. "It doesn't have to be that way, and that is the message I hope to take to my immediate community...There is a place for you here."