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26 May 2014

The New Boss: Meet Mike Thompson, the LGBT Community Center of the Desert's New Executive Director

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The LGBT Center of the Desert’s new executive director, Mike Thompson, speaks at the organization’s annual donor-appreciation party on Thursday, May 15. The LGBT Center of the Desert’s new executive director, Mike Thompson, speaks at the organization’s annual donor-appreciation party on Thursday, May 15. Jimmy Boegle

The LGBT Community Center of the Desert held its annual donor-appreciation party on Thursday, May 15—and the event’s star attraction was the organization’s brand-new executive director, Mike Thompson.

He hadn’t even started his job yet—in fact, his first day on the job is slated to be Monday, June 2—but Center supporters were excited to meet the man who they hope will fill a staff-leadership void that’s existed since the previous executive director, Gary Costa, stepped down some time ago.

Thompson’s qualifications are impressive. He spent about a year and a half with GLAAD, as the chief operating officer and the acting president. He was the executive director of Equality Utah for almost four years, and he spent a short stint as the director of development for the AIDS Project Los Angeles. The University of Oklahoma graduate and member of the Cherokee Nation also served as the executive director of a school in Tulsa, Okla., for five years.

On the day after the Center’s party, Thompson spoke to the Independent for about a half-hour. Here’s an edited version of that interview.

What are your thoughts on where the Center is now, and where do you want to take things?

I couldn’t be more proud of the work that is happening here. To listen to Dr. Jill (Gover, the Center’s director of counseling, at the donor-appreciation party) and her comments about our mental-health program, and the opportunities for expansion with the school system—that’s impressive. (So is) the (pending) certification that would allow us to be the only place in the state serving this population with that certification. I think that is a hallmark in our work, as is our (NestEggg) Food Bank program. There are a lot of great things happening here.

As far as what I want to do, that’s yet to be determined. I can say broadly that the creation of community at the very core is what I am most interested in. The “how” and the “why” are yet to be determined, and I think that yet to be determined piece is going to be informed by the community. I am meeting with the board of directors tomorrow. … I want to understand from them: What is your vision? What is in your heart for this organization? And then I want to ask the community the same thing. While we offer some amazing programs, I want to know: What are the needs out there that might not be being met? I don’t want to assume that, and say, “Here’s what we do.” I want to say, “What is it that we can do?” … If we are to create a Center that is truly the community’s center, the community needs to feel engaged and (like) a part of that. … That’s generally how I do things. I’m much more collaborative, in partnership. I am not afraid to be a leader; I’m not afraid to be the decider, but the way I make decisions is based on collaborative input, and I think it’s important to decide that out of the gate.

It was fairly apparent last night that men far outnumber women when it comes to the Center. (This is a problem shared by many other Palm Springs-area LGBT organizations, too.) One person my partner I talked to last night was, frankly, upset that the new executive director was not a woman. Another criticism is that the Center does not seem to be successfully attracting a younger crowd; there’s definitely an older skew. You talk about building community; what, if anything, do you want to do to try to bring in more women, and bring in more young people?

I am aware of exactly those two things; (the male skew) was something I actually brought up to the board (during the interview process), and it’s top of mind for them. I am not sorry that I am a man, but I understand that perception. That (issue of men outnumbering women) has been ongoing in “the movement”; that is a very common concern, and I am aware of that. So rather than me saying, “These are the things we are going to do to attract more women and more young people,” I am going to go back to these community conversations and assessments—this survey I want to do in the community—and say, “Women, what is meaningful to you? How is it that we better engage you?” … Those who want to remain critics will be critics; those who are interested in facilitating change will be part of creating that change. … I want to find a way to engage every member of our community, including women, including younger people. We say that we celebrate diversity, so we need to make sure that our programming and every door that we open welcomes everyone to participate.

There’s been a lot of turmoil at the Center in terms of staffing changes. Developing a staff and creating some stability is going to be a direct job of yours as the executive director. Tell me your plans.

I think my track record as a manager is that (I) create an environment for people to feel valued and significant in their work and in their workplace. That’s really an extension of what I want to do, or a category of what I want to do, within the community: Within the staff, (I want to make) sure people are valued and that they feel significant, and that they understand what their expectations are, and that they’re held to those. One of the things I’ve had to learn as a manager is that not everyone works the way I do: I want a lot of freedom. I want to move about; you just tell me what’s expected, and let me go do it. But I understand some people work the way I do, and some people need a lot more clarity and tighter parameters.

One of the things that was talked about a lot last night: Everyone wants to create a Center that truly is a community center. At this event last year, plans for a new building were announced, and that seems to have been premature. Tell me what you have in mind to make it so the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, as a physical location, becomes that welcoming space that everyone wants it to be.

I am not quite sure that I’m understanding your question. Is it about the physical space, or is it about being welcoming within whatever space we’re in?

Both. Obviously, you can’t separate those two …

(Are you asking) if a new space is a priority?

Well, let’s make that a question: Is a new physical space a priority?

You know, I don’t know. (Laughs.) I haven’t walked down and even set up my desk yet. … I am not prepared to have a conversation about that.

Maybe I should let you actually start the job first. (Laughs.)

I do understand the value of the space that we create for people. Whether that is in this space or in a different space, it’s like: Are we being good stewards of the space that we have today, and are we creating the type of space that has that community feel to it? That’s why, even though the staff has been reduced to what it is, thank God we’ve got great volunteers who are at that front desk every hour that we are open, so (people) are being welcomed from the moment they walk in the door. THAT is a way that we can do our jobs (of making people feel welcomed). … (I want to make sure) that every person who walks through that door has a personal experience with someone who represents the Center. … I think that’s more important than whatever space we do that in. At some point, we will have a space that might not be this one, because to grow into the program that I think we can be in the desert community, it will require a space beyond these walls. But I don’t know when that may be.

Tell me about the pluses or minuses of running an LGBT-centered organization in the Coachella Valley, compared to some place like, say, Salt Lake City, or Los Angeles. What unique challenges do you think you’ll face while dealing with this strange valley?

Well, I don’t know that I have any preconceived ideas. How I enter into an organization and I enter into a community is (with) a blank space, and I take the experiences that I have and let them inform my perceptions. … I think I have a general idea of saying, “We are the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, that happens to be in Palm Springs.” I understand that while the (Palm Springs) City Council and mayor proclaimed yesterday to be LGBT Community Center of the Desert Day, those same attitudes might not exist in every other community in the valley. We’ve got to be careful that we don’t project onto these other communities the values of Palm Springs, and that we don’t let our work in the other parts of the valley … be seen through the lens of what happens in Palm Springs.

Is there anything else you want to share?

I don’t think so, other than saying how incredibly excited I am not only about the job, but integrating myself into this community, and calling it home—even more so after last night. I’ve been busy wrapping up my consultant practice; I’ve been busy packing … but last night, when I stepped down those stairs after I spoke … people were so welcoming. I thought, “Wow. I feel like I’m already a part of this.”

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