United Way’s Casey Renn recently hopped on a virtual chat to catch up with Gerry Coon, Executive Director of Diverse & Resilient, a local organization building a future where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people in Wisconsin thrive, living healthy, satisfying lives in safe, supportive communities.
Casey Renn (CR): Thanks for joining us today, Gerry - United Way really appreciates your partnership. I’m guessing Pride month at Diverse & Resilient looks a little different than it did last year?
Gerry Coon (GC): It’s such a sad thing - people wait for Pride all year long. One of the hardest parts of COVID-19 is that we can no longer invite the general public into our building. We used to be a gathering spot and safe space, especially for LGBTQ+ folks of color. We are doing Zoom and video meetings but it’s just not the same.
We are so lucky to have funds set aside to provide urgent assistance at this time, especially for Black trans people and Black same-gender-loving men living with HIV. The queer community already experiences health disparities at higher rates than the straight community, and those gaps are even wider for LGBTQ+ people in the Black community.
Our staff, many of whom are part of the LGBTQ+ communities themselves, are coming up with creative ways to stay connected. In many ways, we remain a lifeline and critical support for the people we serve.
CR: As the leader of Wisconsin's largest LGBTQ+ serving nonprofit, what issues are top of mind for you at this moment?
GC: LGBTQ+ - serving and all other nonprofits need to be focused on ending structural racism and our white supremacist culture. We cannot be a thriving community when we accept systems and policies that disadvantage any group of people.
At D&R this is a huge issue for us. It’s not possible to look at LGBTQ+ discrimination without looking at racial discrimination.
CR: How does partnership with United Way help D&R serve the community and do the work that you do?
GC: United Way has been amazing. When COVID-19 hit, United Way came out with such great flexibility. When we needed face masks and cleaning supplies, the doorbell would ring the next day with a delivery from United Way.
When our nonprofit peers ask: “how are things going?” I say “because of funders like United Way we are able to continue doing our work right now.”
CR: What does the future look like for your organization? What are you excited about? What challenges do you anticipate?
GC: I’m feeling incredibly positive. I think the rest of this year will be really challenging but I think ultimately the future is really bright.
There is a new recognition of inequality that I haven’t seen in my lifetime and I’ve been around for a while. People are understanding that policies and laws are critical to perpetuating an unjust system. This is the time for change, and we are in this place where a whole bunch of people who are more empowered are not going to go back.
One of the biggest challenges is going to be for organizations that have been traditionally fearful of rocking the boat. I think about this analogy: if you don’t rock the boat, it will sink on it’s own from rot from within.
We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. For a lot of people “the good ol days” were not the good old days - we need to move forward to a space where we can all reach our fullest potential. I think a lot of people fear a future like that, and in my opinion there is nothing to fear.
CR: When one person is raised up everyone is raised up. I recently watched the “Disclosure” documentary with Laverne Cox and am hopeful about the the ways trans people of color are being portrayed. We have a long way to go but representation is headed in the right direction.
GC: Two D&R staff were in the office yesterday - both Black - and on the way they had stopped at Coffee Makes you Black. One was wearing an LGBTQ t-shirt and rainbow face mask and someone said “hey, nice t-shirt! Nice mask!” and this staff member told me “5 years ago I wouldn’t have been comfortable being open (about my sexuality) in a public Black space. Things are changing for the better.”
CR: Gerry, as a past client of D&R and a proud donor, I support all that you are doing. Thank you!
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