Rush Center expands LGBT center, looks to future

ALHI and Georgia Equality, headed up by executive director Jeff Graham, are the two main organizations that seek to find out how the Rush Center will fit into meeting the needs of the LGBT community.

The Rush Center, named for Phillip Rush, a longtime LGBT activist who died April 28, 2009, currently has offices for ALHI, Georgia Equality, MEGA Family Project and Atlanta Pride as well as space for In the Life Atlanta, the Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and Senior Action in a Gay Environment, or SAGE.

The Rush Center has also become the home for numerous support groups, from weight loss groups to cancer recovery groups to a support group for African American gay men with HIV. Other groups, such as the Atlanta Executive Network and LGBT activists organizing to fight against immigration bills in the state Capitol, have utilized the Rush Center’s event space.

“We are deliberate about calling this a shared office space and not a community center. We know there are conversations about a larger community center. This funding we have will be used in the next couple of months to develop a steering committee for over the next year that will be looking at what defines us now and how to be accessible and meet the needs of existing groups out there,” Graham says.

“There will also be a needs assessment — launching what are the comprehensive needs of the LGBT community in Atlanta and Georgia to help tailor what the future might be and how we go from a shared space to a comprehensive community center if in fact that is where we need to go,” Graham says.

Assessment could help win government funds

In the past nine months, the Rush Center expanded its space from 2,400 square feet to 4,100 square feet. It includes an event space, a conference room, a room for support groups to meet and an outdoor patio.

The cost for the total renovation was $25,000. Funds came from donors and the Lloyd E. Russell Foundation, which will make donations over several years to assist the Rush Center.

Ellis pointed out that large corporations also support the Rush Center as a resource. For example, IKEA, Best Buy and Home Depot donated items and services as part of the recent renovation.

The Rush Center has a lease for its current space on DeKalb Avenue through July 2012 at which time it has the option to enter into another five-year lease. The lease is currently signed by Georgia Equality and ALHI.  Before the current lease expires, the needs assessment and a long-term sustainable strategic plan are expected to be completed using the funding from the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta.

The grant money will be used to contract with consultants to conduct the community assessment. After the assessment is completed, a strategic plan on how the Rush Center will move forward will come into play.

“One thing we’ve learned about successful community centers is that they have some source of government money — state or local or federal funding. That will have to play in the long-term planning for the Rush Center,” Ellis adds. “We have to make the case to state and federal funders that this is a priority.”

‘May or may not be a community center’

By compiling this broad LGBT needs assessment for Atlanta and Georgia, Ellis believes the Rush Center can then take that information to government entities to show where money is needed for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people living in Georgia. The needs assessment would also be able to be used by other LGBT organizations seeking funding.

Graham and Ellis have also been in talks with Florida-based CenterLink, an organization that supports the development of LGBT community centers.

Ellis says she hopes that whatever entity the Rush Center evolves into will become the new lease signer for the space in 2012.

“It may or may not be a community center. It may be strong support for organizations that reach statewide rather than fixation on a single location,” she says.

Seeking a ‘more unified voice’

Graham and Ellis say they are being slow and deliberate with their planning to ensure the Rush Center lives a long life serving the community.

“Part of what we are trying to do here is offer the promise of something large and comprehensive but do it in an approach that makes sense,” says Graham.

“All of our organizations are small and constantly struggle for funding. I think the experience has been too many efforts in the past [for an Atlanta LGBT community center] benefited from initial enthusiasm but could not figure out a way to sustain enthusiasm,” he adds. “What we are trying to do here is be very slow and intentional.”

The plan is also to serve as many people as possible, as Phillip Rush would have wanted.

“Phillip often spoke how the LGBT community was not monolithic — he used the plural, saying the LGBT communities,” says Graham.

“I really think that is one of biggest ways we are honoring his spirit. We are not saying the two of us know everything — we are creating a space to let others do their own thing. We’re not trying to create one monolithic organization,” he says.

“We want to create a place where various communities can gather. And from that a stronger more unified voice will come over time.”


Top photo: Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative Executive Director Linda Ellis and Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham stand in the board room of the renovated Rush Center. (by Dyana Bagby)