Phillip Rush, the namesake of The Phillip Rush Center (The Rush Center) we know today on Dekalb Avenue near the Candler Park MARTA station, was a gay man active in the LGBTQ community who was instrumental in establishing organizations such as Youth Pride while serving as a Program Officer for the Community Foundation of Atlanta. He was known, among other things, for hosting people from different backgrounds in Atlanta at small parties to talk about issues in the LGBTQ community and network. In his later years, he also encouraged organizations serving primarily LGBTQ individuals to engage with agencies outside the community to insure their services are safe and respectful of the LGBTQ individuals they serve, a strategy that Phillip called “The Purple Door”.
Linda Ellis, the current Executive Director of The Rush Center, recounts that Phillip was present at the opening in 1998 of offices of The Atlanta Lesbian Cancer Initiative (ALCI) to present them a check as they became the first LGBTQ-centered non-profit organization to occupy the space that later became the Rush Center. At the time, ALCI occupied several rooms in the front part of the space that they sublet from a retail outfit called Throb, which had an adult novelty store in Little 5 Points. In 2008, Linda recounts that Throb abandoned the lease and space behind ALCI “in the middle of the night.” They quickly negotiated a new lease with the building’s owner to include the entire space that Throb used as their warehouse, growing ALCI’s footprint from 1200 square feet to 3700 sq. ft.
Around that time, discussions began between ALCI and Georgia Equality (GA Eq.) to share the newly rented space. Jeff Graham, hired as the Executive Director of GA Equality the same year, was tasked with locating better offices for the organization. He learned of the demise of Throb and the vacant space in the building leased by ALCI and that the organization was looking for a partner to help pay the rent. They quickly negotiated an agreement to share the space, along with several other small, LGBTQ-led organizations, including MEGA Family Project, Atlanta Pride Committee, and In the Life Atlanta.
Linda and Jeff approached Pam Burdette of the Lloyd Russell Foundation to invest in their respective organizations so they could re-invest in the community, which was starved at the time for safe space to have their board meetings and other functions following the demise of several earlier efforts at a local LGBTQ community center. The Russell Foundation came through with a gift that enabled the collaboration to happen. Phillip Rush encouraged the parties not to declare it a “community center,” even as they intentionally set aside space for anyone in the community to use. As Linda puts it, he told them to “announce to the world that you are joining your office spaces, and then ‘get the f**k out of the way.’” Indeed, by the end of the first year, over 50 organizations in the community had events in the space. Sadly, Phillip Rush did not live to appreciate what she space would become, as he passed away suddenly in 2009. “We didn’t name it because there was some great endowment, we named it because he had helped us figure out how to get it started. And he had supported … every queer and HIV organization that had existed at that point.”
Since then, The Rush Center expanded several times, first into an adjacent space that now holds offices and lounge space, and later into a second building behind the main building called The Annex, containing a large Event Room, Training Room, and Conference Room. It is now the location of choice for hundreds of events throughout the year and houses the offices of over 16 organizations with staff, including LGBTQ organizations and progressive political advocacy groups, as well as another 25 organizations without regular staff that have the Rush Center as their address and use the facilities on a regular, ongoing basis.
Over a hundred more organizations utilize the facilities for meetings and events. ALCI changed its name to The Health Initiative, which later was subsumed into one of several programs of the Rush Center. Georgia Equality, now with a staff of six, eventually stepped back from participating in day-to-day management as their work focused more on affecting legislation and advocating for non-discrimination protections across the state.
Now with a half dozen or so organizations on a waiting list to locate their offices at The Rush Center, it’s acknowledged as a permanent community center. As they begin their second decade, they’re also focusing on finding the funding to make their physical operations sustainable in the long term. Floors get worn, furniture gets used, the air conditioning system quits on a hot day in August. Says Jeff, “The community deserves not just a safe space, but a nice space.”
Being the hub of so many organizations doing advocacy, as well as providing direct services like HIV testing, mental health counseling, and housing assistance, The Rush Center is uniquely positioned to consider collaborations among the organizations that strategically utilize the space. According to Linda, “The hope is that, as we look at the Rush Center going forward, we can begin to look at how do we help the queer community look at job issues, and how do we help the queer community look at housing issues. Is there a role for us in that? And I think that there is.”