Once-thriving Mpls. LGBT center faces identity crisis

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When District 202, a small nonprofit for gay teens, was founded nearly two decades ago, it was hailed as a unique partnership between young people and adults, a safe community center where teens could hang out and form meaningful relationships without fears of harassment or bullying.

The center, a few blocks south of downtown Minneapolis, quickly became a vibrant place where gay teens held dances, drank coffee from the center's espresso bar, read books in the center's library, formed friendships and met their first boyfriend or girlfriend. The dances were often packed. Two thousand kids made 12,000 visits in 1997.

But in the past year, District 202 appears to have all but disintegrated, and is struggling to meet the changing needs of gay youth. The 7,000 square foot community center closed last spring. Curt Prins, the executive director, resigned in November, a few weeks after an anonymous letter called for his ouster. The letter accused District 202 of violating its mission statement by refusing to partner with young people to create safe spaces for LGBT youth.

Phillip Jares, the outgoing president of District 202's board, said the letter "felt like a terrorist attack to me."

DEBATE OVER MISSION

The turmoil has sparked a fierce debate in the gay and lesbian community about the direction of the organization - and has been fueled by anonymous attacks and a lack of open discussion. Many key participants in the debate declined to talk on the record and said they felt uncomfortable airing the LGBT community's problems in public.

"It's gotten to a point that it feels like someone has to lose," said the group's first executive director, Michael Kaplan, who left the organization in 1998. "It's now about war."

Some LGBT community members said programs should focus more on gay youth in the suburbs and rural areas, where recent reports of suicide and bullying have raised alarm.

Others, including Kaplan and those who spent their teenage years at the center, said that it's still important to have a physical space, but acknowledged that they have an emotional attachment to the way things used to be.

"District 202 was a powerful place for youth to come together and really decide and form their own community," Kaplan said. "And when you take away that physical space, it's hard for community-building."

Some, including former board member Kay Adam, said that District 202 should acknowledge that it has failed to effectively serve gay youth and should consider closing. Adam said the organization has been in decline for years.

"It was just a mess to run the place, to be honest," said Adam, who started visiting District 202 when he was 16. At the time the center closed, he said, "We were like, 'We're running out of money, and we literally cannot be in the space for very long. We cannot survive as an organization if we run out of money.'"

CHANGING LANDSCAPE

When District 202 was founded in 1991, most youth didn't come out until their late teens or early '20s. Most schools in the Twin Cities did not have gay-straight alliances or other support networks for gay youth. Internet use was not nearly as widespread, and many youth had never talked to someone they knew was gay.

That picture is rapidly changing. The average age that youth now come out is 13, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. Many public and private schools in the Twin Cities metro area have gay-straight alliances or other programs in place to support gay youth. The internet, notwithstanding concerns about privacy and exploitation, allows gay teenagers the opportunity to discuss their struggles with others, find resources, and form relationships.

Jares, the outgoing president of District 202's board, said the nonprofit should respond to those changes. A drop-in center, he said, is no longer the best or most efficient way to support gay teens. In the months before the center closed, few teenagers came to the space, Jares said. On some days, no one came. The nonprofit was also struggling to pay the rent.

"It was becoming a dilemma that was really huge and disheartening for me," Jares said.

Instead, the organization has started to provide individual programs at other community centers, libraries, churches, and schools in the suburbs and in the Twin Cities. Plans are in the works for hip hop classes, monthly dances, cooking classes and craft nights.

District 202 is also experimenting with ways to connect with youth online. Curt Prins, the executive director who resigned in November, had worked with Google on search engine optimization, making it easier for gay teens to find LGBT resources when they search online.

"Let's expand our reach while we're still doing our best to make sure that youth, whether they live in Minneapolis, Richfield or Orono, can get engaged," Prins said.

FINANCIAL STRUGGLES

Incoming board president Creg Schumann said closing the community center freed up money for other projects. But it's unclear whether District 202 can survive.

The nonprofit did not respond to requests for current financial information. Publicly available tax filings from previous years show an organization in financial decline. District 202 received more than $500,000 dollars in gifts, grants, and contributions in the 2001 fiscal year. By 2008, that number had shrunk to $214,177. The most recent publicly available tax filing, from 2008, shows the nonprofit had run a $253,747 deficit that year.

Current board members said District 202 continues to receive some funding from foundations, but declined to provide details. The nonprofit's only paid staff person is business manager Betsy Petersen, who works out of her home.

Petersen did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking information about the group's finances. District 202 has not hired a new executive director, but board members said they hope to start the search in a few months, once funding and programming is more secure.

Prins, the former executive director, said he allowed many grants to expire, including those for HIV testing and street outreach workers. He said the nonprofit was doing too many things, and was doing most of them poorly.

"District 202 was basically a Swiss Army knife for all youth. And if you've ever pulled out a Swiss Army knife to cut down a tree, you know how effective Swiss Army knives are," he said.

But a vocal group of LGBT community members disagree.

Coya White Hat-Artichoker started visiting District 202 when she was a teenager.

"It was like a queer YMCA or something," she said.

Artichoker became the center's first paid youth worker. She said District 202 changed her life by allowing her to meet other gay teenagers and shape her own identity. She said she worries that today's gay teens looking for support or relationships might turn to bars and other places that might not be safe.

"And that's the part that is so frustrating and makes me feel distraught right now is that there is no physical space in the Twin Cities for queer youth right now," she said. "And I put the blame for that at the feet of Curt Prins and the current board. I think it's completely unacceptable."

"IT WAS NOT A SAFE SPACE"

Prins, however, said that even if the board had been able to raise funds to save the space, it might not have been worth it. Ironically, he said, the space had become a place where LGBT youth bullied other LGBT youth.

"It was not a safe space," he said. "It's pretty damn odd that you create a safe space for youth, and when you go through it towards the end, it was very toxic."

Many youth who once spent time at the space acknowledged that some teenagers felt left out or excluded. Cliques formed, and infighting was relatively common.

Some of the Twin Cities' leading providers of youth programming said that District 202 should have anticipated these relatively common problems - and that it was the responsibility of the staff to intervene and create more structure.

Other providers said District 202 wasn't adhering to the latest research about how to best serve teenagers, gay or straight.

John Till, vice president of family and community programs at the Minneapolis-based Family Partnership, said it's important to have structured, consistent ways for youth to participate in activities and to give youth a voice in deciding the kinds of programs being offered.

"Those are two really key items," Till said. "So there shouldn't be random acts of youth development, but there should be really intentional efforts to create high-quality experiences for youth over time."

Money for LGBT youth programming is limited. A study of 2007 data found that Minnesota foundations gave nearly $1.3 million to organizations focused on LGBT issues. Only 22 percent went to programs serving youth.

"There's a lot of competition for dollars," Jares said, citing civil rights battles over gay marriage and gays in the military. "Adults are very focused on issues that concern adults."

Given the limited resources, some said that funds should go to organizations with fewer problems.

But District 202 remains confident that it can regain its footing. The nonprofit is awaiting the results of a survey conducted by General Mills on its behalf to help better understand the needs of LGBT youth. The results are expected within the next six months.

"I hope resolution comes soon," said Adam, the former board member. "I hope people suck up their egos ... They have to recognize that everybody is fighting the same fight."

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