Seldom has a transition been greeted with as much fanfare ( at least in the LGBT press ) as when the Center on Halsted opened its doors last spring. Since then, the Center has done everything from host forums to house various organizations—while raising funds that seem to dwarf what most groups accomplish. ( April's Human First Gala, for example, raised $1.1 million. ) However, the Center has also had to deal with controversy throughout its first year, including charges that the organization lacks diversity and has turned a blind eye regarding issues affecting minority youth. Windy City Times recently talked with the Center's executive director, Modesto 'Tico' Valle ( pictured ) , as he explained the organization's triumphs and challenges.
Windy City Times: You're coming upon one year as executive director …
Modesto 'Tico' Valle: … And it's passed by so fast.
WCT: How would you describe this past year [ for the Center ] —mostly highs in a year of highs and lows?
MV: It's think it's been mostly highs. Thinking back, I'm so proud of the diversity of people who have come here and the growth of our programs, across the board. That involves our seniors, youth and our computer technology center, which amazes me every single day. There's a waiting list for it; we could use two labs, and that's exciting. We didn't start off a membership program, but what we're hearing from the youth is that they want a membership program for things like the computer lab, or if they came to cultural programs they would get a discount for a poetry jam or art exhibit. What we're seeing is that people are coming back over and over for programming, so we're looking into a membership program.
WCT: And it would be all-inclusive?
MV: Yes. Yes.
WCT: Now what would you say is the biggest obstacle the Center has faced during your time there?
MV: I think it was going from a $2.5 million budget to a $4.7 million budget, finishing a capital campaign and immediately educating our donors that we needed to double our program budget. It wasn't an obstacle; it was a matter of just getting the word and education out about what we're doing now, because there were a lot of people who gave a lot of money to build the building, and they thought they were done. Now, we're [ telling ] people, 'No, now the work is beginning.' So that was the initial movement to educate people, and we've done well. We've funded all the programs, and have expanded some, and we will end the year well.
WCT: So you haven't dropped any programs?
MV: No, we have not. We've added.
WCT: You mentioned the operating budget. How much of that comes from taxpayers?
MV: Well, we have a $4.7 million budget. I would say a $1.2 million comes from government funds. It's actually spread out 35-35-35—government; corporate and foundation; and individual donations.
WCT: So something like the Human First Gala …
MV: Individual—and it raised $1.1 million. We raised $100,000 in individual donations that evening—people who just took out their checkbooks and said, 'We want to support your program.'
WCT: Now how are you able to do this? The economy has been hitting individuals hard, and they say things like, 'I have donor fatigue … '
MV: It really is about reaching out and touching people. It's about telling stories about the quality programs here at the Center, and how their dollars transform lives. When I asked [ for donations ] at the gala, I showed a video of the people they were touching and the diversity. It was probably the easiest $100,000 I've ever raised. People were so generous—and money is still coming in. It's great because we're able to expand our senior program, we're able to offer more hours in the computer technology lab, we're able to have a full-time person in the gymnasium, we've moved our after-school program to 9 [ p.m. ] —so all of those dollars went right into our programs.
WCT: How would you assess your performance thus far?
MV: For me, it's always a learning opportunity. I surround myself with a competent staff who all bring something unique to the table and who I can learn from. I never want to stop learning.
WCT: How closely do you work with your staff?
MV: I have a senior team that I work with, which is about four or five individuals, and they run the house. My door is always open if people have questions, but the senior team runs the house.
WCT: Has turnover been significant?
MV: No. A couple have left. In development, people leave after two or three years because that's the culture, and it's hard to get people in the first place. But the program house has been solid, growing and stable.
WCT: I want to now talk about the whole youth [ issue ] , which has, for a while, been tied in with race. There was a forum at the Center last August that involved youths and business leaders, and some issues were definitely raised. Have you heard any feedback from the business leaders since that forum?
MV: I can give you some feedback about what's come out of that. We created a task force of individuals from the youth program, our staff and community-based organizations like Night Ministry and Howard Brown. They make sure that we're responding to the needs of the young people in the community. Out of that, we've been refining our youth program. Now, we have expanded hours and we were awarded a Regional Career Center grant; we're doing a lot more career development. And the youth have been involved in that.
Now I think what you're alluding to is the business and how the youths congregate on Halsted Street—and I think that continues to be a challenge for our community as a whole. There have been additional meetings; there was a meeting with Tom Tunney and Helen Shiller had recently to discuss how we respond as a community.
WCT: How far do you think things will go? Could a confrontation occur [ if things go unchecked ] ?
MV: I don't know. We work very hard here to create a safe environment for all people. This is a community center; it's for all people. So when youth come together to discuss consequences for breaking rules, they're more strict than we are. And when I see youth congregating on Halsted Street—whether they're our youth participants or whether they're just a young person on the street—I expect them to treat me with respect and I treat them with respect. I do hope our community can live and be respectful of each other.
WCT: Now, there have been fights at the Center, correct?
MV: Well, several months ago there were outbreaks of a couple fights in the building. That's when we gathered the youth and asked them to help us create rules they can live with. Since then, there's been a voluntary leadership council that really helps to patrol and enforce the rules they've put forward. They created a membership and orientation program for the youth program. So they have held themselves accountable. The individuals from a couple months ago turned out to not be from the program—so the question came up about how to know the boundaries when someone comes into the Center and is exploiting our youths or adults. So the youths came up with a membership program. If a youth is being disrespectful in the hallway, they can show their youth badge if they're one of ours.
WCT: What's the biggest misconception about the Center?
MV: I'm still amazed when people say the Center is a place for white people only. I say to myself, 'They obviously have not walked the halls and witnessed the programs.' I think there's the perception that it's on Halsted and Waveland, and that it's in Boystown. But [ we ] know that it's at the intersection of diversity; it's all people, rich and poor, Black and white; and men, women and transgenders. It's the Center—and it's beautiful.
WCT: Some people acknowledge the diversity that's present throughout the Center, but they also claim that the organization caters to so-called 'A-list' gays—mostly gay white males who are lauded—while minorities are present but in the background. How do you respond to that charge?
MV: Andrew, Center on Halsted is a safe and nurturing place for all people. Our staff, interns, volunteers and board of directors model and foster the core values of our organization: excellence, respect, inclusion, diversity, integrity and accountability. Every day we all strive to break down the barriers that divide us. We're working with our allies to create a society where all people are equal and respected in the Center and in our society.
WCT: Is there anything you wanted to add?
MV: It's an honor to be here to serve, and I look forward to growing more on the job—and I look forward to the Center offering more programs. It's ironic that, in a year, we've outgrown this space. We've run out of offices; we could double the space for our senior and youth programs. We can't expand up, because there's a height limitation, and we can't go in the other direction. Maybe we'll do what L.A. does and have satellite facilities.
To find out more about the Center on Halsted, see www.centeronhalsted.org .