As the death of longtime LGBT activist Phillip Rush nears its second anniversary, the gay center named in his honor is hitting its stride and – thanks to a $35,000 grant – looking to map out its next few years of growth.
Less than seven months after Rush (second photo) died in April 2009, leaders of the three LGBT non-profits housed in a one-story brick building on DeKalb Avenue named the venue the Phillip Rush Center and celebrated the activist during an event that attracted scores of LGBT activists, Rush’s friends, politicos and elected officials. It also marked a turning point for the facility, which had housed the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative since 1998 and later was joined by Georgia Equality and MEGA Family Project.
The three groups worked on a renovation before the naming ceremony in November 2009 and later embarked on a deliberate process to grow the center both in square footage and in groups that call it home. Fast-forward nearly 18 months and they’ve succeeded. Seven groups now have office space in the center – many more now meet inside — and it recently put the finishing touches on a 1,700-square-foot renovation that brings its total space to 4,100 square feet.
“Part of what we’re trying to do here is offer the promise of something large and comprehensive, but to do it in the approach that makes sense considering the limited capacity of the LGBT organizations here in Atlanta,” says Jeff Graham (top photo right), executive director of Georgia Equality.
The recent renovation and expansion, which took nearly nine months to complete, cost about $25,000, an amount funded largely through a donation from the Lloyd E. Russell Foundation. But the project was also helped by sweat equity from volunteers and donations from local corporations and non-profits, including Home Depot, Best Buy, IKEA and the United Way.
“For the first time there is actually a physical space for organizations to look to, but also businesses and corporations to get involved and support,” says Linda Ellis (top photo left), executive director of ALHI. “It’s been fun and that’s in part why we’ve been able to do the renovation as cheaply as we can.”
The expansion allowed for the creation of a private board room, smaller meeting spaces, a community room with computer work stations, as well as an event space that attracted the Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce’s Fourth Friday event in February and the Atlanta Executive Network earlier in March. The added space also included an outdoor patio and additional offices that allowed the Atlanta Pride Committee to shift its operations there.
“The thing I appreciate about what we’ve been able to do is to slow us down and slow others around us down to take this one step at a time and plan wisely. That’s what I’m focused on,” Ellis says.
Complement or competition with Charis?
The expansion and renewed attention on the Rush Center’s quiet growth come as the owners and supporters of Charis Books & More unveiled plans in early March to sell their longtime home in Little Five Points and transform the bookstore into a feminist center with the help of a capital campaign that could reach $1 million.
Organizers of the Charis effort took pains to say a new feminist center wouldn’t compete with the burgeoning Rush Center. They say their plans complement the work at the DeKalb Avenue facility, a sentiment that Graham and Ellis echo. Ellis is serving on a site-selection committee for Charis.
“Charis’ effort is not specifically lesbian, so they have a different pool of organizations and partners to pull from. Whatever they do, we have always and hope to continue to collaborate,” Ellis says.
With the expansion complete, Graham and Ellis say the Rush Center is now turning to charting its future. A recent $35,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta will fund a strategic planning process that will help define whether the Rush Center should grow into a full-service LGBT community center or if the needs of metro Atlanta’s gay and lesbian population demand something else. The current lease on the Rush Center ends in July 2013 and its leaders say they want to know well before then in what direction to move the facility.
“We know that there is ongoing conversation about how to really develop a comprehensive community center that can serve the needs of the LGBT community in the greater metropolitan area,” Graham says.
Charting the needs of LGBT residents
The grant will not only help further define the future of the Rush Center, but also help chart the needs and expectations of Atlanta’s LGBT residents, Graham says. The strategic planning process, which will kick off in the coming months with the creation of a steering committee, will also look statewide and include consultants to run help the process, Graham says.
“We want this to be as comprehensive as possible in looking at the needs of the LGBT community,” Graham says.
Ellis says the planning process will provide a state of the LGBT community in Georgia and insights not just for the Rush Center, but for the organizations it houses and other groups interested in reaching out to gay and lesbian residents.
“It’s looking at health-related needs, lifestyle needs, aging issues. It’s an opportunity for us to get a broader snapshot of life in LGBT Atlanta and throughout the state,” Ellis says. “Part of it is getting a better sense of what we as a community need and what Atlanta and Georgia can sustain. It may or may not be a community center.”
The grant from the community foundation, where Rush worked, helps push forward a planning process that Rush was working on with Graham and Ellis when he died.
“When Philip died, he was in the middle of working with both of us to figure out what this could look like. He consistently talked about the need to strengthen the capacity of the organizations in the community. He also talked about our response to get gay and lesbian individuals to take full advantage of their rights,” Ellis says.
“We are fulfilling much of his dream,” she adds.