As Center on Halsted prepares for the 31st annual Human First Gala June 13, Men’s Book Committee member Franco La Marca talks to CEO Modesto “Tico” Valle about the organization’s mission and the continued importance of its work on behalf of LGBTQ Chicagoans.
Franco La Marca: Hi Tico!
Tico Valle: Hi Franco.
FL: Thank you for joining us today. I’m thrilled to be sitting here with the CEO of the Center on Halsted, which is located here in Chicago in the Lakeview community, also known as Boystown. In full disclosure, I’m also a proud board member at the Center on Halsted, so I’m looking forward to sharing the important work you do with our audience. For those unfamiliar with the Center, what is it and can you tell us about its programs?
TV: We’re the most comprehensive community center of our kind in the Midwest. Our mission is about serving the health and well-being of LGBTQ people through health and wellness programs and public programs. Our social service programs include case management, HIV testing, therapy, and anti-violence and hate crimes work. And the public programs I always say are the fun things: music, dance, lectures, seminars and the sports we offer in our gymnasium, which are volleyball, hockey, soccer, dodgeball, table tennis and kickball. And I often get invited for dodgeball. I have no idea why.
FL: Hopefully not to be the target! So the Center has now been open for over 13 years. What was that time like organizing to create something that really hadn’t been done before?
TV: The Center on Halsted was born from Horizons Community Services, which was the go-to organization in Chicago. Horizons had lots of goodwill—not a lot of money in the bank, but it was where the community went to find resources and help launch new programming, so it was often considered a community center even though it was never labeled that. In about 2000, Mayor Daley approached Horizons and said, ‘Are you interested in creating a community center?’ The board of Horizons established a committee to create a plan that would engage the community and have a voice, be transparent and create a model for the country. I strongly believe that the work of that board and steering committee is the reason we’re here today. They did over 2,000 interviews and surveys from all over the city of Chicago. And the questions were: Should we have a community center? What does that look like? What should the programs be? What would bring you to the Center on Halsted? A lot of the response was, I don’t need the services of a community center, but if it had arts, sports, music and dance, I would go there. And it began to break the mold of a traditional social service community center and began to look at our community holistically. It was a long process. It took five years. But it paid off. Originally, Whole Foods wasn’t planned to be part of the Center, but later in the process, Whole Foods [saw what we were doing] and said, ‘We want to be part of this.’
FL: For those readers who’ve never seen the building, can you describe how Whole Foods is a partner to the Center?
TV: The footprint of the Center is 175,000 square feet. Whole Foods is on the first floor of the building. There’s an entrance from our lobby into Whole Foods—I consider that an intersection of diversity for our city because there you see young and old, families, straight and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, all walks of life respecting one another and building community naturally.
FL: I love that. How has the Center evolved since its opening?
TV: We still have those core programs of behavioral health and anti-violence and HIV, but we’re also evolving to respond to community needs every year. This past year, we launched a new strategic direction of doing more racial equity and inclusion work and also work on gender equity and inclusion, and that really is about the times we’re living in. We’re seeing more hate crimes. We’re seeing more racial tensions across our country. We’re seeing women being left behind. And it’s important that we as staff know that we do this work, but also how to make sure all our materials and hiring and practices are reflective of this diverse community we’re serving so that when we do go out into the community we can truly say we’re walking the walk. So those are the proud moments of ensuring that the Center is never complacent, but always listening and responding to the needs of the community.
FL: Looking at your tenure so far at the Center, what are you most proud of?
TV: I brag often about our board. It's a powerful board that’s mission-focused in partnership with the staff. But I believe the moment we opened Town Hall— our senior housing project next to the Center in partnership with Heartland Housing, along with the Center on Addison senior services in the old police station—that day was a proud moment for me. My eyes filled with tears as I looked at this beauty we had opened, and we had a block—the only community center in the country that owns an entire city block of community services for LGBTQ people.
FL: You mentioned the police station. Can you tell us about that?
TV: Town Hall is on the corner of Addison and Halsted, and it was an old police station. But it was a place where many of our community members were arrested, retained, bullied and harassed for being LGBTQ, especially during the ’80s when the AIDS epidemic started. It was a place where many community members who protested back then were arrested and held during the bar raids of the early ’70s and ’80s. So when you think that now there are 79 units of affordable housing above the police station... we’ve reclaimed the station and given it back to the community, and it’s a place to celebrate.
FL: You keep using the word community. What does community mean to you?
TV: I grew up during the AIDS epidemic, and at that time in the ’80s and ’90s, the community came together to take care of its own because no one else would. Most were strangers who may have not known each other, but they were driven with compassion to take care of one another. And I believe that here at the Center on Halsted, we do that every single day. We do it in natural ways of having the lobby where community comes together, and when you see a family sitting at a table with homeless youth engaging in conversation and learning from each other. We do it when we bring our seniors and our youth together with intergenerational programming. We do it in our sports and in our theater. It’s community coming together to support each other in a movement that demands equality, to be recognized in our diversity, and that movement continues to evolve and change. We create a safe place for those conversations, moments and opportunities to build community. Sometimes community is family, because oftentimes in our LGBTQ movement, especially in our seniors, people have lost their blood family, and this is their family.
FL: Looking ahead to the next 10 years, what are the issues the Center is preparing to tackle?
TV: We don’t want to get complacent. You see that this country is divided. You see young people coming out and fighting to be heard. You see women coming out by the thousands, defending their rights as citizens and to protect their bodies. We’re fortunate that we live in a state that believes in equality, but unfortunately on a federal level a lot of our rights have been taken back, and we must continue to fight to regain those rights. And it will take many, many years to regain the rights of LGBTQ people on a federal level, and there are still more rights, like marriage, that could be overturned. On a local level, we need to continue to fight for trans rights and make sure trans individuals are safe in employment, have housing and do not get discriminated against in public spaces. We need to continue to have a voice for homeless youth—we have an epidemic in our city and in our country where LGBTQ youth are living on the streets, and 40% of them identify as LGBTQ. We can do better.
FL: Fundraising must be critical to your mission. I understand in June you have an important gala.
TV: Every year, we pause to celebrate with our Human First gala. We’re entering our 31st year of the gala, which started with Horizons and continued as a tradition with Center on Halsted. It’s a moment for us to reflect on our accomplishments and honor trailblazers who have advanced our movement, but also look at who has picked up the baton and is helping move it into the future. What’s interesting is we’re now honoring couples and families—20 years ago, 30 years ago, that was unheard of, right? So that has continued to evolve. The gala is filled with 800 to 900 civic leaders, community members, activists and diversity of every level and intersection. It’s filled with music and dance and spectacular food. The libations are outstanding, and there’s always a surprise headliner, followed by a DJ for dancing into the early morning. If you attend the gala, you’ll want to take the next day off to rest.
FL: I love it. So how can people get involved with Human First?
TV: I encourage individuals to get involved in the Center and in Human First through volunteering, participating and donating. Supporting Human First and supporting the Center helps to advance our movement. We have lots of work still to do. And if you've never been here, I encourage you to visit because you will be inspired and transformed.
FL: How do you do it all? What’s your superpower?
TV: I have a fabulous volunteer board, but I also have a stellar team of employees and staff that work around the clock to really do their best. I’m always very serious, and people are often saying to me, ‘Smile, smile.’ And so when I give them that smile, I think I bring them in. So I would say my smile is my superpower.
FL: That's amazing—I agree with you on that. As we wrap up here, Tico, share with us something you want our readers to walk away with.
TV: If I may share a story?
TV: I come to work at 7am. One day, a young man was at the front door of the Center. I let that young man in; it was the middle of winter, and I asked him how I could help him. He said his mother’s new boyfriend threw him out once he learned he was gay. This young man was African American, living on the South Side of Chicago, a senior in high school, excelling at his grades, and now his life was shattered. We were able to get him into housing, back into school, graduate him, find him scholarships and send him away to continue his education. And four years later, he came back and said, ‘Thank you.’ That’s what we do here every day. That’s one person. We see 1,400 people come through the doors every day. We serve 45,000 through direct service. Come be part of that. Human First Gala, June 13, tickets $350, centeronhalsted.org