Oakland LGBTQ center sees growth with hiring of COO

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday June 26, 2024
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Dawn Edwards is the new chief operating officer of the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center. Photo: Cynthia Laird
Dawn Edwards is the new chief operating officer of the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center. Photo: Cynthia Laird

It's been seven years since the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center was founded and held its grand opening at its offices near Lake Merritt. Over the years the center has endured challenges as it's grown, and that includes the need for additional staff.

Earlier this year, the center's board of directors determined that the nonprofit needed a chief operating officer to assume day-to-day duties. It did not have to look far to find a qualified person. Dawn Edwards, a Black lesbian who is a founding board member of the center and served as vice president, was appointed to the position. She resigned from the board and started in her new role in March.

"It's exciting to step out of that role and step in in this way," Edwards, 50, said of her recent switch. "I can utilize more of my management experience."

Edwards had long known the center's co-founders, Joe Hawkins and Jeff Myers, both gay Black men. After the center's opening, Hawkins became chief executive officer while Myers became board president. In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter she recalled the center's beginnings.

"In 2017, I walked in for volunteer orientation. I came here in this room and met Jeff and Joe. It was an amazing turnout — almost a wonderment," she said, sitting in the center's second floor conference room. "We created some 30 focus groups back then, from elders to youth."

Edwards said that in taking over the day-to-day management, Hawkins' time is freed up to focus on development and other work. And Edwards brings much experience. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Cal State East Bay; a master's of public administration from the University of Phoenix; completed three years of law school at New College of Law; and earned a master's of educational leadership with an emphasis in early childhood education from Mills College in Oakland.

Edwards said that she has over 19 years of nonprofit work experience. Her professional focus has been centered on nonprofit management, policy advocacy, early childhood education, restorative justice practices, legal research, project/program management, curriculum development, and direct services and facilitation of a variety of workshops to the community.

Edwards said that the vision for a COO first came about during the COVID pandemic in 2020.

"Once COVID hit, and the clinic opened during the pandemic, we saw an influx of community members," she said, referring to the Glenn Burke Clinic, named in honor of the gay former major league baseball star who played for the Oakland A's, among other teams.

Burke was the first Major League Baseball player to publicly come out as gay after he retired from the game, though over his playing career rumors swirled around his sexual orientation, as has been recounted. Burke and Dusty Baker, his former teammate on the Los Angeles Dodgers, are widely credited with inventing the high five.

Burke died of AIDS-related complications in 1995. The center's clinic provides HIV/AIDS services such as PrEP, as well as mpox vaccinations, gender-affirming care, and more.

Edwards said that the pandemic showed the center's board that executive leadership needed to be expanded.

"Joe was stretched pretty thin," she said, recalling the board told Hawkins that he needed some help.

"The COO takes on some of that and allows Joe to do outward-facing things," Edwards said. "I feel that we came up with a good structure."

Hawkins did not respond to a message seeking comment. In a phone interview, Myers praised Edwards' experience and said she was a great fit for the COO position.

"Dawn is super. She has a great spirit and was a great vice president for the last seven years," he said. "She knows how to connect on a personal level and she knows how to manage."

The center took over Lavender Seniors of the East Bay and provides services to LGBTQ older adults. These include a weekly therapeutic support group, a lunch bunch gathering at the North Oakland Senior Center, and a monthly social drop-in. Those 55 years of age and older can also avail themselves of the various health services at the clinic, the center's website noted.

Youth are served through the center's Town Youth Club, which is off-site and located near the center's main office. It serves two age groups, those aged 13-17 and those aged 18-25. It offers programming and support services, the website stated.

Cultural district

Last November, the center helped launch Oakland's first queer cultural district. The Lakeshore LGBTQ Cultural District is anchored by the community center on Lakeshore Avenue, and encompasses parts of the Lakeshore and Grand neighborhoods. The Oakland City Council approved creation of the district, and several councilmembers and other officials attended a news conference announcing it, as the B.A.R. reported.

Edwards and Myers said the cultural district works with the Lakeshore Business Improvement District and the Grand Avenue Business Association. Representatives from those entities expressed support for the cultural district and the center.

The Grand Avenue Business Association represents 200 businesses along the corridor between MacArthur Boulevard and the city of Piedmont border, Anthony Bennett, the current GABA president, wrote in an email. "Most of the stores on Grand are independently owned and owner-operated, so shoppers can be assured of top-quality service as well as excellent merchandise," he added.

Bennett stated that today, Grand Avenue is a microcosm of Oakland, with a diverse mix of residents and an exciting array of stores and services that cater to nearly every interest. GABA's mission statement now includes the LGBTQ center, its youth center, and the cultural district.

"We support these centers and district because we want to promote and provide a safe place where people feel accepted, non-judgmental and a welcomed addition to our community," Bennett stated. "We include these centers and district in everything we do."

Bennett added that he has enjoyed collaborating with Myers.

"GABA supported these efforts by walking the entire business corridor, between MacArthur Boulevard to the Piedmont city border, by introducing the [LGBTQ] district," he stated. "We handed out decals, which not only did businesses learn about them but were happy to show their pride as well.

"We look forward to working hand-in-hand on obtaining an ambassador program, which benefits everyone, and upcoming events in 2025," Bennett stated.

Racheal Scott is co-director of the Lakeshore Avenue BID. She also offered support for the LGBTQ cultural district and the community center.

"The LGBTQ center plays a vital role in the Lakeshore Avenue neighborhood, serving as a cornerstone of support and empowerment for the LGBTQ community," Scott wrote in an email. "Its presence has fostered a deep connection with the local community, reflecting a mutual commitment to inclusivity and growth.

"The center's passionate team works tirelessly to provide resources, advocacy, and a safe space for individuals to express their authentic selves," she added. "This collaborative relationship has not only enriched the lives of many but also strengthened the fabric of the neighborhood, making it a more vibrant and accepting place for all."

Bringing community together

The center is about more than offering services, however. Earlier this month, it held an inaugural Rainbow Fair at Splash Pad Park, near the center. The June 9 event sought to highlight the cultural district as well as bring a dash of LGBTQ Pride to Oakland ahead of the city's own parade and festival September 8.

The center also holds a special Thanksgiving event where people can gather. Heaven Walker, who is Edwards' wife, recalled that she attended one.

"It was really wonderful," said Walker, 43. "The center has a lot of different interest groups, and I'm really glad that they're there."

Edwards and Walker have been married almost a year and have been together for five years. They have a blended family of five children, ranging in age from 5 to 26. Walker is soon starting online classes at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Already a chaplain, she wants to pursue a career as a college chaplain, she said in a phone interview.

She said that Edwards is a great fit as the LGBTQ center's COO.

"This is her heart's work, and she's really good at it," Walker said. "She's a founding member and now she gets to help direct it in a whole new way on the ground."

Walker added that Edwards "is like an HR genius."

"She has the soft skills you can't teach people and can deal with people on a personal level," Walker said.

Challenges ahead

Like most LGBTQ nonprofits, the Oakland center's biggest challenge is funding, both Edwards and Myers said.

"It is so important that we survive," Myers said, adding that Hawkins is an expert at grant-writing and will have more time to do that now that Edwards is in place as COO.

Edwards said that the center needs to grow its development department and diversify its funding streams. The center's budget is currently $4.5 million, said Myers. Edwards declined to share her salary, other than to say she feels "fairly compensated."

"I'm really excited to be here," Edwards said. "It's literally a dream to work here, and I've already been honored to serve on the board."

For more information on the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, go to oaklandlgbtqcenter.org.

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