The Glue that Holds Q Center Together — Meet the Staff

“It feels like we’re really in flux,” Susan Kocen, above, said; “some of my folks have been troubled
because they’re worried that something’s going to end that’s been very good for them.”

Editor’s note: Just before we went to press, we learned about significant changes involving Q Center staff, but we chose to leave this story as-is, as folks deserve the recognition. Read about the changes starting on page 26.

By Matt Pizzuti, PQ Monthly

The last few months at Portland’s Q Center have been a turbulent era, to say the least, in the 10-year-old organization’s history.
Shortly after PQ Monthly published a letter from an unnamed former employee last December that accused the Q Center’s leadership of systemic failures, the nonprofit’s entire board of directors was dissolved, executive director Barbara McCullough Jones resigned from her post, and sibling LGBTQ organization Basic Rights Oregon stepped in with a $30,000 gift to the Q Center to cover a looming funding shortfall, enabling the troubled Q Center to meet payroll.
Since then, the Q Center has assembled an interim board and leadership, and commenced a series of town hall meetings to get community input moving forward. But while a 10,000-foot view of the Q Center’s last four months paints a picture that is, without a doubt, tumultuous, it’s easy to forget that many in the community continue to use the Q Center as a resource just as they always have, and the Center’s staff and core volunteers continue to meet those day-to-day needs just as they did before the transition began.
“The staff has changed quite a bit since August,” said Susan Kocen, senior community coordinator and manager of the Q Center’s *eRa* (Encouraging Respect for Aging) program, which provides services and activities to local LGBTQ seniors. “But I’m just trying to do my job and look out for my community.”
“It feels like we’re really in flux,” Kocen said; “some of my folks have been troubled because they’re worried that something’s going to end that’s been very good for them.”
Neola Young, whose job title is Safe Schools and Training Institute Manager, echoed that sentiment.
“People in the community are asking questions — everybody’s asking, ‘Is this place gonna stay open, and what can we do to help?’” Young said the biggest concern on the minds of community members they encounter is whether they’ll show up at the center one day to find the doors locked.
“We’re saying, ‘No, we’re not expecting that to happen!’ I think we’ve all really come together to figure out how we can be supportive of each other and our community; we’ve leaned on each other a lot, and done a lot of problem solving.”
Young, like many others on the Q Center staff, noted the challenges the staff and volunteers face but took an optimistic perspective. “Changes always have their positives and negatives, but a lot of these have been necessary,” Young said.
Youth and Young Adult Programs Manager Michael Weakley only had a matter of months to settle in before things began to dramatically change — he moved to Portland from Arizona for a job at the Q Center in June 2014 — but spoke more emphatically than anyone that the changes are to be embraced.
“The changes have been the best thing that happened to the Q Center, a light at the end of a clouded tunnel,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for real and valuable programming; people who were never part of the Q Center before have come out of the woodworks and gotten involved. The staff has taken this opportunity to connect and bond.”
Weakley contrasted the new energy with what he saw as some of the previous obstacles: “Under former leadership we really worked in silos,” he said. Meanwhile, “the community tends to be a little shy, but in the last few weeks, with the interim board, a lot of people have been coming in and getting engaged — they feel like they have a voice within the organization.”
Some of the staff members seemed reluctant to say anything on the record that could be perceived as openly critical of the Q Center’s previous workplace climate or leadership. One staff member said it was often difficult hearing community members express dissent against Q Center policies, agreeing with those dissenters, but not being able to do much about it as a Q center employee.
More than one staff member indicated that there had been missed opportunities for coordination between different departments, a situation that was rapidly changing as staff pulled together in the absence of permanent executive leadership. Also, more than one staff member noted that the outside community often hears about the Q Center mainly at a top leadership level, without seeing who works there or understanding the full range of services the Q Center provides.
“Some of my coworkers here are just badass and amazing people,” Young said, “and there are so many people out there in the community who don’t even know them. They’re here every day and have been some of the most deeply affected by these changes — we all deeply and incredibly care about this community and the work we’re doing.”
Take, for example, Nash Jones, who coordinates the Bridge 13 Community Education Project. That’s professional training the Q Center provides to outside organizations on sensitivity and awareness of LGBTQ people — for municipalities, colleges, for-profit companies, schools, medical clinics and hospitals, Jones said. It can focus on LGBTQ youth, youth and adults, trans identities or issues in health care, depending on the organization being trained does.
“I went to Lewis & Clark College and did a lot of gender studies and queer studies, and it felt really life-changing to me, but really inaccessible to most folks,” Jones said. The Bridge 13 training, which trained about 2,500 people last year, makes broader knowledge of those issues a reality.
“My hope is that it changes not only a policy in their workplace or a sign on their door, but even a conversation at their dinner table,” Jones said.
The Bridge 13 program is run by of SMYRC (for Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center), a Q Center department that was once part of Cascadia Mental Health Center but folded into the Q Center in 2012. That move brought Jones, then a SMYRC volunteer, along, eventually leading to Jones’ Q Center staff position.
In fact, many Q Center employees started out as local community members or rose into their posts through temporary or volunteering positions.
Susan Kocen first came to know about the Q Center as a local member of the community, and came aboard after graduating with a Master’s in gerontology. “It just was perfect, because it’s my community. It’s been an amazing opportunity to build something. I hope I can continue doing what I’m doing, to expand the programs and help ease the loneliness and isolation that can come with aging.”
Neola Young has a background working on the intersections between social justice movements, and was moving to Portland from Mississippi when they saw the Q Center job posting that would eventually be theirs.
“This was the perfect marriage of all the things I’ve ever cared about in my life,” Young said. “I feel incredibly passionate about it, working with youth.”
“I think one thing that’s important about the folks who work here is that it’s an incredibly passionate group of people,” Jones said. “It’s been a challenging place to work, and it’s been that passion that keeps them there. I’ll speak for myself,” Jones explained. “The Bridge 13 Project is an incredibly needed service. It would be a shame to see such an important resource go away and I couldn’t bear to see that happen.”
“I think we’re going to find out, does the community think the work we’re doing is what is needed?” Jones said. “An important part of that is to tell the story and let folks know what we’re doing in the first place.”