All nonprofits experience good years and bad. One year’s record-high fundraising could lead to a major dip the next. Events that took countless hours and effort to put together can fall apart through circumstances out of anyone’s hands, yet a stranger’s kind words can lift you back up and remind you why you keep doing it.
No one knows that better than Donna Narducci, the former executive director of Atlanta Pride from 1996 to 2008. The 56-year-old Doraville resident has traded wrangling a few hundred thousand LGBT people with wrangling pets as co-owner of Roxie and Donnie’s Pet Sitting Service, which she runs with her partner Roxanne Succi. She took some time with us to reflect on her tenure at the helm of Atlanta Pride.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Yonkers, New York but grew up in Miami. I moved there at two.
What was it like growing up there?
It was really pretty cool because I grew up in a time when it started with the hippies in the ’60s then the influx of all the Hispanics. I saw a lot of growth. It was a pretty phenomenal time to grow up in Miami and being so close to the beach too. I loved it.
And how and when did you make your way to Atlanta?
Actually I’m coming up on 30 years here. I moved here July 4th weekend of 1985 and quite honestly it was so I could be out. I was not out to my family at the time and my best friend from college was living here. I would come visit and I decided that was what I was going to do. So I landed here and never looked back.
What was that like finally being able to be out?
It was so completely freeing and then eventually when I did come out to my parents in 1991, once they knew it didn’t matter in my opinion who found out. And I started getting active in the community so I thought it would be better if they heard it from me. I was working at [Emory University] at the time and was one of the few out administrators. It was just a phenomenal experience to be in Atlanta at the time with all the growth with the gay and lesbian community.
How did you first get involved with Atlanta Pride?
I joined the board of directors in 1993 and that was the year that the organization lost $60,000-plus dollars after that year’s festival and was severely in debt. The co-chairs at the time stepped down and Richie Howard and I were asked to be co-chairs for the board to help them get back on board financially. By 1994, we had pulled the organization out of debt and had seed money to start the 1995 event.
And then you became executive director as this huge surge in attendance happened. 120,000 people attended in 1995, and the following year it shot up to 300,000.
It was difficult to keep up with the pace of attendance. We were a small organization back then. It was a board of 12 people, an operations committee which plans the festival so that’s another dozen people, then me, the only paid staff person.
We also knew the Olympics were coming and wanted to capitalize on that. We had always done well being in the Southeast with the surrounding states, but that year with the Olympics right around the corner from the festival? It helped us bump those numbers up.
The bombing of the Otherside Lounge in February 1997 cast a heavy shadow over that year’s Pride. How did that affect your planning as far as security goes?
What’s interesting about that is we were on a Pride committee retreat when we first got word of what happened the night before at the Otherside. It completely changed the way we would conduct the festival from that point on. There was a major emphasis on safety.
We worked with the Atlanta Police Department to help us formulate a plan. We held trainings for our committee members and volunteers, namely how to identify a suspicious package and how to find one. There were plain clothes security, there were bomb sweeps of the stage, an increased in uniformed police.
Were there any threats or close calls?
There were several suspicious packages and they all turned out to be nothing. Every time that happened we’d have to make people back up and bring the police and bomb-sniffing dogs. You just feel like you’re a sitting duck out there and don’t know when some wacko is going to do something.
In the years since there were some occasions, like when John Lewis spoke from the stage there was a pretty credible bomb threat. We had to clear the stage and do a bomb sweep. Congressman Lewis was amazing about that. He just said, ‘No problem, I’ll go back out there when they’re done.’ It forever changed how we did things. Unfortunately it has to be that way.
You had a visit from Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church in 2002. Did you ever meet him face-to-face that year?
No I didn’t have any interaction with him. The protestors started to become pretty…an annoyance is a polite way to say it. They would congregate at the parade route and the entrance to the festival. They were awful. They call themselves Christians but the things that came out of their mouths and what they called people was just awful.
There was one year we tried to determine a protest area with the city, and that Friday night they were out in full force. The leader of the pack got arrested because he refused to go over to the protest area. You always have to contend with them. It’s what’s free speech versus hate speech versus we rented the park. For one time of the year, could we just have the park and have our festival and the freedom to just be?
As the festival went on that decade you had another enemy who became a frequent visitor—rain. How trying was that?
Weather was always fickle. That time of the year those thunderstorms, they seemed to always happen right as the parade was kicking off. The scary thing about that is you cannot stop the parade, you have to keep going.
There was one festival one year where we were waiting at the end of the parade to get people into the park and there were lightning bolts all around us. It was really scary but you had to get the parade over and done with.
There were two or three times when we had to close down the event. One was when the stage collapsed on Friday night [in 2006]. It wasn’t even a storm, it was wind shears. We had just had the opening ceremonies on stage with AVER, and some of those gentlemen were 70 or 80 years old. They had just cleared the stage when one of my board members yelled ‘Get out! Get out! Get out!’ It looked like it had been built with pixie sticks and it just collapsed. We got on the radio and started calling all of our festival committee members and medical crew to get down there and make sure no one was crushed under there. It was a complete freak thing caused by the weather. We had to shut it down that night but were able to reopen the next day.
Another year we had the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on Friday night for the first time ever. The weather was so bad that we had to cancel it because it would have caused damage to their instruments. You plan for the event, you do everything you can and the one thing you do not have control over is the weather. So it kicked us in the pants a few times.
So following a major drought in 2008, the city kicks out all large festivals from Piedmont Park. The move to the Atlanta Civic Center for 4th of July weekend, along with another bout with the rain, led to very low attendance and severe financial losses. Do you have any regrets about how you handled that situation?
What happened with that was, how do you take a festival the magnitude of what Atlanta Pride is and relocate it? And when you’re given less than six months to make that happen, it really eliminated a lot of possibilities for us. And about the most viable option we came up with was the Civic Center.
So now we’ve identified a location and so with their schedule we check was they have available. There were no dates available in June because of graduation ceremonies. Then we latched onto the July 4th weekend because we thought that would be something unique. We were looking for something that made lemonade out of lemons. The Atlanta Track Club had to relocate their event [the Peachtree Road Race] to where the Civic Center was the ending point for the race. So we were able to share expenses with them by holding it on that date. Everything started falling into place.
Do I regret it? Honestly I don’t because I think given what we had to work with, we made the best choice possible. There was a lot of feedback from the community that we shouldn’t have had it on the July 4th weekend and in a parking lot and I get that. It’s not fun to walk around and see the low numbers of people. But we thought the indoor part would be a nice break from the heat that everyone was always talking about. And that was nice but it sort of created two different festivals. The whole thing just didn’t work and unfortunately the organization lost a ton of money. It was a hell of a year to go out on, that’s all I have to say.
So when you look back over your time with Atlanta Pride, what stands out for you the most?
It’s just such an incredible experience. I’ve had time to think back on it after being away from it for so many years and it was just one hell of a ride. To be involved in that organization as the event grew, as Atlanta’s community grew, to be a party to that was just amazing. I’m just really thankful I had the opportunity.
Were there any particular moments that stay with you to this day?
There were some really great standouts at the festival for me. We used to be located on Oak Hill, this smaller area. People would just pore over the hill for hours and hours and it would make the hair on my neck stand out. People from small towns in Alabama and elsewhere coming up and thanking us for allowing them to have a place to be out when they had to go back on Monday to work and be in the closet.
Holding onto that got me through a lot of tough times, like when the weather was crappy or you were arguing with the city. You just knew we were making a difference in people’s lives and that was what was most important to me.