Milk Makeup x The Center: Meet Exec Director Glennda Testone
A celebration of 2K17 Pride and all we’ve accomplished on the road to equality is not complete without also considering how far we’ve got left to go. The battle wages on, the fight continues, and we won’t settle for less than 100 percent acceptance and empowerment—from both our politicians on Capitol Hill, and our neighbors next door. In the case of New York City, there’s one guardian angel that watches over this fight with equal vigor and compassion: The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. Since 1983, The Center has sought out its community’s needs, and met them, one individual at a time. And at its helm? Executive Director Glennda Testone, who, for the past seven years, has been its fearless leader in the mission of LGBTQ empowerment.
This year, The Center’s celebration of Pride is delectably fun, and sparkly AF: the glitter stick. Created in partnership with Milk Makeup (and with 50 percent of proceeds going straight to The Center), this limited edition glitter highlighter check all the boxes re: Pride prep. Watch the video for full application inspo, then keep reading for our chat with Glennda Testone below.
I know that The Center was founded in 1983, and I would love to hear about what was the catalyst for its founding. What need were you guys looking to fill at that point?
Well, in 1983, the AIDS crisis was really raging, and people got together—there was sort of an abandoned building that used to be a school of maritime trade that was up for sale. So, the community sort of came together in the building and raised money, a thousand dollars at a time, to put down the down payment of $150,000 to buy the building. And the idea was that we would do work around HIV and AIDS, and that we would be a community center for the LGBT community. So, that is essentially what we have done ever since.
So, as the times change and different issues come up, have you guys morphed to whatever needs are happening in the community now versus in the ’80s or ’90s?
That’s a good question. I’m so grateful everyday for the people that came together and had the foresight that we needed a center, that we needed a hub and a place to organize and come together and be able to hear directly from the community about what they needed. And we’ve served that function for 34 years now, and the way that it sort of happens is—you know, we’re open from 9 am to 10 pm, 365 days a year, so people literally come in our doors, 6,000 of them a week, and tell us what they need. And we’ve developed programs over the years based on what people have said to us and the fact that we might not have a good place to refer them. So, recently we’ve been hearing from a lot of LGBT immigrants who are really scared about what’s going on in this political climate, we hear from a lot of trans folks who are really scared. A lot of young people who are activated—I would say that’s true for everyone. Everyone is just scared about what’s happening, and really wanting to get engaged, and that’s why we’re creating an advocacy center to really engage people who want to make a difference in the world.
So, because of all the politics and everything going on, do these past two years feel especially different? Or is it just, like, just another battle that you guys are fighting?
That’s a really good question. I think in some ways the same, and some ways new. The folks that really struggle to be seen and to be treated equally and to achieve justice in our community were fighting, before the election, to have that- and that’s the trans folks and the LGBT immigrants and the people of color, in our community. And I think that that’s happening even more so, after the election, on top of the broader community, the entire LGBT community being concerned about healthcare, being concerned about some of the federal anti-poverty measures that really help our community. And them some of the protections that the past administration put into place that are already being repealed and rolled back. So, it’s the time to get engaged and to get fired up and to really not let up on creating the world that we want to live in and that’s part of why we’re so excited to partner with companies like Milk, that really want that too, that really value creativity and expression and allowing people to be who they are and live their lives.
Do you guys have any direct involvement in politics or do you do more creative projects and partnering with other people?
That’s a good question. So we’re a 501(c)(3), so we never endorse candidates or different parties, but we do educate the community about different issues that affect us and where different politicians stand on those issues. So we’re sort of involved in that way, and because we’re a physical presence, we have a lot of advocacy groups—some who are very directly interacting around candidates and parties and things like that, who use The Center, and we have about 35 different groups per month that are meeting and organizing here. So there’s a lot of activity that happens within these walls.
Cool. So I know that you guys have a broad vision of empowerment, but how do you feel like you individualize that for each person that walks through the doors and their specific needs or ambitions?
Oh, that’s such a great question. One of the best, most special things about The Center is that we really treat people like individual human beings, and we don’t judge and we don’t shame and we really just support people where they are on their journey and try to help them get to the next step. So even in our youth program, there’s a lot of power in the young people coming together collectively, and they get a lot of strength from each other. When they come in, we do an individual conversation with each young person about what they’re experiencing, what they’ve worried about, what they want to be when they grow up, how they’re taking care of their basic needs. And then we come up with individual plans for each person that we work with about what they’re trying to accomplish and what they want to achieve in their life—and for some people it is life and death goals. You know, we see a lot of people who are coming to us and need to get clean and sober or they may not exist. And then we see some people who say, “You know, I’m a gay, young person—my parents support me. I just want some community. I just want to hang out with other people like me.” And The Center is a flexible enough space, and we have such well-trained people to be able to foster either of those goals and everything in between.
That’s great. I’m also curious about what drew you personally to The Center. Have you been there since ’83, or how did you get involved?
Oh, goodness. No, so I started out as Executive Director seven years ago. I sort of went to college thinking that I would be a journalist, and I got a degree in broadcast journalism and philosophy, and then I discovered social justice and all of the wrongs in the world, and then I went and got a master’s degree in women’s studies and really wanted to somehow support myself being an activist. So my first job was at GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and I was there for six years and I was their director of media programs and then I went on to an organization called the Women’s Media Center, and their goal was to really get more breadth of women’s voices and more women’s voices in general into the media, and to really balance out some of the discrepancies there. And then, 2008-2009 happened, and the economy in the US took a dive and I saw a lot of people in my life who were struggling to make end’s meet and I wanted to do something less media-focused and more direct service-focused, and the job at The Center opened up and it’s just really two of my greatest passions and loves—New York City and the LGBT community, and so it was sort of a dream job for me. I was the first female executive director of The Center, and it was my first time being an Executive Director, so the board took a leap of faith in my and I worked my butt off to try and do the best job I could to just make the centre as great and supportive as it could be for the entire community.
Do you feel like working there has changed you or affected you as a person, working with all these people that are doing such noble work?
Absolutely. I feel really lucky that on the good days, when we get to celebrate something amazing that happened, like marriage equality when Edie Windsor herself comes to The Center to celebrate with us, I feel so fortunate to work here. And then on the really tough days, you know? It’s almost a year ago that the Orlando Pulse murders happened and to be able to come to work and know that there are people who are feeling this—like I’m feeling it, and we can lean on each other so we can all be there for the community, it’s just incredibly inspiring and humbling and I think the thing I like the most is that I just never stop learning. Our community is constantly evolving and growing and changing, and so to really get to continue to learn with out community and try and make the world a better place for everyone is just—I can’t think of anything I would rather spend my time doing.
Yeah, and that kind of leads into my last question—just as far as the rest of this year and then beyond that, what’s y’all’s vision moving forward? [Laughs] I know that’s really broad.
[Laughs] Yeah. Well, I’ll keep it to three things. I think the first—man, they’re all important so I don’t even want to put them in order—but what I’ll say is, we’re really invested in making sure that the people who were vulnerable before get the most support they can going forward. So, specifically I think about the trans community. You know, we were not at a place of equality and justice for trans people, especially trans women of color, who are being murdered at alarming rates. So we’re really focused on making sure we do everything we can for those population that are really vulnerable. The second thing is, there are people, young and old, who are sort of fired up and awoken—some for the first time—in a way that I think is really exciting. So I want to make sure that we are giving people the tools to actually turn that passion into change, and into making the world a better place for everyone. So, developing our advocacy program is really a huge focus so we can just get our community together and band together with other communities to really fight for the kind of world that we want to live in—which is one that’s inclusive and diverse and one that offers everybody an equal opportunity at justice.
Featured video & image courtesy of Milk Makeup
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