PGN Persons of the Year: The staff of William Way Community Center

The staff of William Way LGBT Community Center

The William Way LGBT Community Center has been providing services for the queer community for the last 48 years, but their efforts shined particularly in 2022. At William Way, community members can access peer counseling, programs for specifically seniors and women, services through the Arcila-Adams Trans Resource Center, recovery meetings, support groups, LGBTQ archives and art, a library and much more. 

According to William Way Executive Director Chris Bartlett, one of the ways the center has had the biggest impact this year is through its Trans Resource Center, specifically the grants distributed through the Trans Resilience Fund. 

“Though $500 grants is not very much, it was what we could do and it helped alleviate some things for our community members,” said Darius McLean, director of the Trans Resource Center and acting chief operating officer of William Way. “Also making it available in a way where they didn’t have to write to us telling us how it was impactful in their life. It was something that they can have when they need it.”

McLean also cited the video interview project for Trans Day of Visibility as a meaningful project of the Trans Resource Center this year, and one of the resource center’s highest attended events.  

“It was able to do exactly what we said the purpose of visibility is – providing visibility to our community, while also allowing a larger community to understand what comes with visibility, both the good and the bad,” McLean said. 

The event that McLean helped organize for Trans Day of Remembrance also had a good turnout. Community members came together for speakers, poetry, music, food and art depicting trans people who lost their lives to violence. 

“We’re always trying to honor those that are here and those that we lost,” McLean said. “But I think the main thing is that throughout this year, we’ve been able to come back from isolation in a way that’s been really impactful and beneficial for our community, and something that we really needed.”

The health and wellness aspects of the center also had a big impact this year and in the recent past, Bartlett said, particularly vaccination clinics in partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. 

“I think many people who already knew William Way came in, and then we became known by many others who came in to get their vaccinations and education from us and our partners,” Bartlett said. 

Erin Busbee, William Way’s chief development officer, highlighted the center’s Elder Initiative as one of its strong suits this year. The Elder Initiative consists of a variety of senior programs centering health and wellness, social and educational groups focused on reducing isolation, a discussion group for people living with HIV, and more. Elder Initiative leadership has continued to hold outings, speaker presentations and other programs for older LGBTQ adults. They recently held a big holiday buffet for the members of Tuesday Mornings Out, a social and education group for gay, bisexual and trans men aged 50 and up.  

“It’s been really nice to see people coming back and really missing the in-person connections,” said Ed Miller, senior programs coordinator at William Way. 

Miller singled out an event that he organized through the Elder Initiative earlier in 2022, where they invited members of Philadelphia’s Gay Officers Action League (GOAL) to the center for an intergenerational breakfast. LGBTQ elders and center staff prepared questions to ask the police officers to communicate their experiences with discrimination and prejudice when interacting with the police. 

“The police really want to know more, because they don’t think they would be out officers if it wasn’t for our seniors,” Miller said. “So they’re really focused on learning more about the history of our community. It was just a rewarding, fun and relaxing event that was a big success. They’re going to continue to work with the seniors.”

Despite the abundance of in-person programming for seniors, it’s still hard for the senior team to reach people sometimes. Miller has been working with David Griffith, director of programs and outreach for the Elder Initiative, to build up membership and sound the call to get elders engaged in programming, and get them coming back.  

“We struggle to get in touch with people that are isolated and don’t get to come into the city or don’t get our weekly emails,” Miller said. “The experiences of loneliness and isolation that LGBT seniors encounter, it has just made it all the more difficult to try to get people to be a part of the programming that we have. One of the best ways to get in touch is through word of mouth and talking to other seniors.”

In addition to William Way’s leadership, there is a whole team of people that keep the center running every day, from the front desk staff; the team that runs the John J. Wilcox, Jr. archives, directed by John Anderies; a communications and community engagement staff; the peer counseling team; and the facilities team, led by Avis Abaladejo. 

“[Avis] should definitely get a big shout-out because he keeps this building running for us,” McLean said. 

Holiday snapshots of WWCC staff

Of late, the William Way board developed a new charter for its governance committee that communicates how to create and engage a board that mirrors the community that the center serves. 

“It’s giving us some very strong guidelines as to how to be consistent about incorporating our values to our dynamic as an organization,” said board co-chair Kira Kinsman. “I think that’s really important and exciting work that’s happening in William Way right now because the LGBTQ community is diverse and complex in wonderful ways. We want to have maximum engagement from our communities.”

In order to better serve that diverse, complex community in Philadelphia, the staff of William Way, along with Metcalfe Architecture & Design, is planning a reimagined building to be constructed over the next couple of years. The plan is known as the Build the Way project.

“When we thought about building a new building, and providing the programs for whole new generations we can’t even imagine yet, we wanted to make sure that Black, Brown and trans people were centered,” said Bartlett. “That doesn’t mean that all those other communities aren’t welcome and won’t continue to be a very important part of the center. We wanted to center those voices and those experiences so that the center becomes more of a welcoming place.”   

The new building will include a rental space, a new catering kitchen, a new event space, and plenty of room for the center’s wealth of programming. The redeveloped building will include a ten story tower for office and meeting space, a modernized look and much more accessibility.

Over the course of Bartlett’s 12 years as executive director of William Way, he has worked hard to shift the center away from a place that has historically served older, able-bodied white gay men, he said. 

“There’s always more work to be done to make sure that LGBT folks who don’t feel welcome, that we’ve done the work to show that we’re making our rents affordable or free to Black and Brown and trans organizers,” Bartlett said. “These are all the sort of strategic efforts we’re thinking about.” 

Busbee too acknowledged that rebuilding the community center is a chance to expand the team’s reach to and input from queer and trans people of color, people with disabilities and others who haven’t felt welcomed in William Way’s space.  

“We know that historically, a lot of spaces that we’ve created around LGBTQ community have not really gone deep to look at the intersections within that community,” Busbee said. “We’ve been homogenized both by ourselves and by outside entities as one thing. We know that within our community all of our identities continue to exist, that we deal with racism and classism, ableism, sexism, transphobia, even within the LGBTQIA communities. That is why we’ve chosen in this process to pluralize community, to bring light to the fact that there are communities within this larger community. There’s still work that needs to be done within it.”

Not only does the William Way team plan to consider inclusivity from a cultural perspective, but architecturally as well. 

“What does it mean to create space that feels particularly comfortable, elevating, and representative of the LGBTQ+ community?” said Kinsman, who is also a professional architect. “It’s important that it feels accessible to our entire constituencies, and that’s the kind of fine grain understanding of what it means to build a building for the queer community. We’re asking ourselves a lot of questions about what is LGBTQ space? What does that feel like? What does it look like? How do you make space accessible and inclusive?”

In the interim, while Renee Gilinger executes the center’s Capital Campaign to bring the building project to fruition, Busbee is working to keep William Way’s programs and services robust and operational.

“We need to operate, we need to maintain staff, we want to bring our best new organization, as we look to transform and grow with both the size of the new building and the vision of having a new and improved community center for Philadelphia,” Busbee said.  

To learn more about William Way LGBT Community Center’s programs, visit https://www.waygay.org/.

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Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for Philadelphia Gay News, where she reports on issues including LGBTQ youth issues, housing insecurity, healthcare, city government and advocacy organizations, and events. Her work has been recognized by the Keystone Media Awards, Society of Professional Journalists, National Newspaper Association, and more. She received her BA from Goucher College and her MA in journalism from Temple University. She has been on staff with PGN since January 2020 and previously worked as a freelancer.