When I first learned that a group in Champaign-Urbana was going to open an LGBT resource center here, I was skeptical. I’ve lived in Champaign since 2001, and I’d heard the horror stories of the first center here. I’d also — a few years ago — watched as a new small, caring, and dedicated group tried, and failed, to get another one off the ground. So, yes, when I heard about yet another LGBT community center, I was skeptical.
However, I’m happy to say that my skepticism has changed to excitement. The UP Center of Champaign County is thriving. They’ve only been around since January, and in this short time, they’ve formed numerous groups, programs, and resources, and they’ve already achieved 501(c)(3) status.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the president of the UP Center, Kevin Johnson. Kevin grew up in Urbana and attended school here. Except for a brief five years in San Francisco, Urbana has been his home, and he lives here with his husband and child.
Smile Politely: What is the UP Center’s mission?
Johnson: The mission of the organization — in a nutshell — is to provide quality programs and services to the LGBT community, in the form of education, support, and social, in a manner that enriches their individual lives, as well as the community as a whole.
We try to build an infrastructure that allows for individuality and fluidity, but also community. One of the first things we made sure we did is host a leadership summit at the Urbana Free Library. Over 40 people attended and approximately 23 organizations were represented. And from that summit we decided we’d try to answer three questions: (1) Who’s in the area that’s serving the LGBT community; (2) Where are the gaps in our services; and (3) What can we do to bridge those gaps. And we talked strategy and a lot of it had to do with communication. Instead of fighting for resources, we support each other and make sure that everyone’s events go really well and are successful. Everybody helps everybody.
Smile Politely: And you’re here for the entire Champaign County, not just Champaign-Urbana.
Johnson: Right. Our name, our formal name is the UP Center of Champaign County. We do want to provide services for outside of the city as well.
Smile Politely: Was the forming of the UP Center your idea?
Johnson: Obviously, there’ve been two failed attempts at organizing a community center in this area prior to the UP Center, and so there’s no way I can take sole credit for the need or the justification for the UP Center, and there are several individual initiatives going on in this area that came together because of a specific need. We have the East-Central Illinois Safe Schools Alliance (eCISSA); we have the Greater Community AIDS Project (GCAP); and we had some other small initiatives there.
I came back from living in San Francisco for five years, where I participated in the community center whose role in the community was to serve as the central hub to all of that, not necessarily to provide every one of those services, but to link the community through one hub. And I got to serve on the board of directors and to chair five committees, including the youth committee, movie night, and I ran the men’s support group, and when I came back, the reentry shock here was really difficult for me. To be so out in California, holding hands with my partner, having so many options to do as a gay male, that it was really important to me that we do this.
Then in November of last year, I attended the eCISSA Safe Schools Forum at Parkland College, and it was standing room only at the Parkland Theater, which holds 500–600 people. And so to me, it was time to try again. So out of respect for the initiatives that were currently going on, I called them and invited them to a program to meet at my house.
Smile Politely: The eCISSA group?
Johnson: eCISSA, the LGBT Resource Center at the university, Parkland, GCAP. I didn’t want to start something that would be seen as a threat; I simply wanted to bring it to the table and say, “Here we have this, and that’s specific to you; we have the LGBT Resource Center, and that’s specific to students. But what do we have for adult residents, families, coming out adults, all of these other things? How about a central hub?” And luckily, we got a commitment from four people and within two weeks, we had a commitment by seven people, and on January 2nd we held our first retreat and the seven of us developed policies, procedures, guidelines, and started the website. And within a month’s time we had a full board of 11 and we’ve been moving up since then.
Smile Politely: The fact that you got all of these people in a room and got the work done right then and there . . . how often does that happen? Never. It’s usually meeting after meeting after meeting and nothing is ever actually done. And egos are involved and yet you managed to keep all of that out.
Johnson: It has nothing to do with egos; it has to do with: what do we want. Let’s do what’s in the best interest of the population that we want to serve. In regards to the outside organizations, it’s really important to have their buy-in, because it’s not a competition.
Smile Politely: Most of my gay rights activist work has been in education and librarianship, but I’ve always been aware with what’s going on in the city, and I’ve watched our local activists from the sidelines for years, and it’s always seemed fractured: them/us; they do their thing and we do our thing. But in actuality, it isn’t fractured. I was wrong. You showed up to the Day of Silence event that eCISSA organized; the LGBT Resource Center attended it; I was there, and none of us — on the face of it — were connected, but in actuality we were.
Johnson: Right. And one of the things I approached them with was why I felt this was needed. I had been a part of multiple groups when I was a student here at university. And what I learned is there are three basic needs: time, people, and money. And those three resources are needed across the board, and if someone from eCISSA wants to do their own Day of Silence event and someone from the resource center wants to do their own Day of Silence event you’ve already divided the resources, so why not come together and we now have the central hub to do that.
Smile Politely: One thing that I hope for this interview is for people to learn that the UP Center is a safe haven for those in need, kids especially, if they’re in trouble. Can you describe some of your services?
Johnson: People still experience difficult times coming out. Not everybody is as comfortable with their sexuality or their orientation as I am, and it’s for that group of people that the UP Center really needs to exist. Gay parents have very specific needs in regards to legalities and paperwork, and not just parents, but gay couples as well. Medical power of attorney. They need to be educated on those things, and we’re making connections in the community, which is really good.
We have our speakers bureau, so if any organization wants us to come speak we will speak on a variety of different topics. So far we have spoken for people at PFLAG, at CASA talking about crisis for youth, specifically to sexual identity or gender issues, and we’ve contacted RACES and we’ll be doing some cross-training with them. We’ve connected with CU Mental Health, and CU Public Health and cross-trained with them also.
The UP Center has a community calendar where any person or organization can list a calendar event. You can become a member as an individual, adult, or youth. You can join as a member, as an organization, or as a business. If you sign up as a support group or social group, that shows up in another section of the website for resources. Somebody that moves here and wants to know what resources are available can click on that, and any organization that’s created an account will show up. We’re creating the C-U Pink Pages for businesses and people who want to know where to spend their money.
Smile Politely: Tell us about your Board of Directors.
Johnson: We have a very dedicated group of people here. I’m very fortunate to be chosen. I did ask to be president of the group, but I also was open minded to someone else being president. From the initial four people we started the executive committee. And everybody took on roles that fit their personalities, so we got the treasurer, the secretary, the vice president, and myself all at that first meeting.
It’s a really exciting team to be a part of. They are amazing, amazing people. I work with the most dedicated hardworking group of people I could ever ask for. It’s challenging to put together something like the UP Center, especially in the short period of time this group has done it.
On the board, we have a wide range of talents: people with business connections; social work experience; state and public health; we have multiple teachers on the board. We have this amazing spectrum of talent that’s come together.
We have two deficits: we have very few non-Caucasian members and board members, across the board, and we do want our demographics to match the demographics of our area. and we now have a summer intern whose job is solely minority outreach. We also lack resources and participation from the transgender community. We just lack resources in that, and a lot of that is our own ignorance as individuals on the board and within our community, because it’s not a well-educated topic in this area.
So those are our two deficits; we recognize those deficits and we not only recognize them, but we have them as written goals to improve.
Smile Politely: What’s been the reaction from the community?
Johnson: The community’s response to the UP Center has been amazing. They’re so excited, and they share that with us. The challenge to that excitement is, until we get an actual center there’s only so much the community can do to be a part of developing the UP Center. A lot of people want to volunteer, but they want to volunteer by staffing the center, make physical changes to the center ― painting the walls, things like that ― and we love that enthusiasm, but what we currently need are people that are going to fund-raise, hold fund-raising parties. We’re limited to the number of volunteer opportunities that we have right now versus the number of people that want to volunteer, and that’s a real challenge for us because we don’t want to lose their interest.
Smile Politely: Do you not have a formal meeting place?
Johnson: We . . . meet everywhere. Wise UP meets at the library. The Youth Support Group meets at a church. The committee meetings meet at my office. We use Parkland College because they provide space for free. So we use every free space we can get. We want our own space, not only for accessibility, but we want to put up our own flyers and tag the space as our own and to have an identifying place to go, and that’s why we need a center. We need one central hub where people can go, where we can have drop-in hours.
Smile Politely: What are your upcoming events for this area?
Johnson: Big Events: CuPride Fest is August 20th, from 4:00–9:00 p.m. This event will be hosted by the UP Center, but the University of Illinois is on board and is among several organizations sponsoring the event. We’re looking at the possibility of this being a street fair. This will be our first ever Pride Fest.
I believe in August we have “It’s not personal; it’s legal,” which is when we talk about the legalities of LGBT communities: coming out at work, partnerships, financial planning. And we have a local lawyer who’s going to be speaking at that.
We have a new spirituality and sexuality group called Look UP. We would love to have a seniors program. We have several seniors in this area that would love something to do.
We started an adult group — the Rap UP group — that just hangs out and raps. That group is actually taking a trip to the Center on Halsted on Saturday. Very excited about doing that. That group may divide up into a couple of groups, including a women’s group specifically, and a bisexual/educational support group as well.
The other event that I’m really excited about is that in October we’re having a film fest. We are working with the LGBT Resource Center for that event. Right now the current venue is the Art Theatre, who is very, very supportive. They’re going to be showing a pre-approved movie during Pride Fest. And together we’re going to put together this phenomenal festival.
Smile Politely: Thank you very much for your time, Kevin!
The UP Center membership page