By Gil Diaz
There’s one Center staff person who can claim a longer relationship with the organization than CEO Lorri L. Jean and Chief of Staff Darrel Cummings: Alan Acosta.
He joined the Center’s Board of Directors in 1991. Already experienced as a board member for other organizations, such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, and the University of California–Santa Cruz Alumni Council, Acosta felt it was a natural progression to add the Center—a social services organization—to his career portfolio.
“I was a journalist by profession working as an editor at the Los Angeles Times so I wasn’t overtly involved with the LGBT movement,” he revealed. “Except for a few programs, I didn’t know much about the Center other than being the place where I got tested for HIV and STIs.”
One of the first actions he took as a new Center Board member was voting to sign the purchase contract of the McDonald/Wright Building on Schrader Boulevard. Another pivotal moment: he served on the search committee that hired Jean as its new Executive Director.
“She was so charming and stood above everybody else we interviewed,” he recalled. “She was smart and very engaged. At one point during our discussion at dinner, Lorri reached over and placed her hand over my arm—and that affectionate gesture won me over.”
Their budding friendship would last even after Acosta resigned from the Center’s Board to become an associate vice president at Stanford University and Jean left the Center to become executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. After reconnecting at a Task Force fundraiser in San Francisco, Jean coaxed Acosta to become a Board member of the Task Force, of which he served dutifully for six years—the last two years as its Board Co-Chair.
After Jean returned to the Center in 2003 as its Executive Director for the second time—along with Cummings as Chief of Staff—they approached Acosta with a job opportunity. The Board felt that Jean and Cummings had too much on their plates. They needed to expand the Center’s executive leadership, and they wanted Acosta to be part of it as the newly-created Director of Strategic Initiatives.
“Alan is someone I can trust,” said Cummings. “He and I share an old hippie politic. He’s the only person I know anymore who knows who Phil Ochs is and all these revolutionary folk singers. Whenever I meet somebody who knows that part of our nation’s cultural history, I know there’s a kindred spirit—someone who’s out for something good that has zero to do with themselves.”
Political Shift—And Schiff
Assuming a role that never existed before at the Center, Acosta was afforded the flexibility to delve into various projects beginning in June 2008. The Long Term Strategic Plan had been approved by the Board in February of that year. It included several critical goals, among them: the designation of Health Services as a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), the crystallization of the ambitious plans to build an intergenerational setting for youth and seniors (which evolved into the Anita May Rosenstein Campus), and the bolstering of the recently formed Senior Services. Acosta worked on several of the plan’s key elements.
“When the Obama administration took office and established grant opportunities for ‘Aging in Place’ initiatives benefiting the older adult communities, then-Director of Senior Services Ariel Rosen and I applied for one of those grants,” recalled Acosta. “It paid off! Our Senior Services eventually was awarded a nearly $1 million grant to be distributed over three years—the nation’s first-ever federal grant given to benefit LGBT seniors.”
The Obama administration was a time of great progress not only for the LGBT movement but for the Center’s visibility. One of Acosta’s earliest special projects involved flying to Washington, D.C., to visit with elected officials’ teams. At the time, the Center’s Policy team was still tiny, and Acosta, working with the Center’s lobbyist, helped give the Center presence in our nation’s capital.
“After years of having the doors closed on our faces during the Bush administration, we saw a shift in how D.C. treated us as an LGBT organization once Obama arrived,” said Acosta. “The offices of elected officials were so happy to meet us—literally, they wanted to give us hugs—and were eager to learn more about the Center. They could not believe that an LGBT organization like the Center—with hundreds of employees—even existed.”
Acosta had the opportunity to introduce himself and the Center to the senior staff members of U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff whose 28th congressional district now included the Center after redistricting. Typically, they would meet with the congressional staff members and then be ushered back into the hallway.
“It was perfect timing to visit him,” said Acosta. “There were two or three senior deputies in the front office, and they asked us to wait a minute as they entered Schiff ’s inner sanctum. The Congressman just said ‘show them in!’—it was the beginning of his growing support of the Center.”
The congressman was so enthusiastic about the Center that he soon participated in AIDS/LifeCycle—the first and only congressional incumbent to bike it. He also gave remarks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Anita May Rosenstein Campus and at the Center’s 50th Anniversary.
Going For A Spin
In 2010, a gay student at Rutgers University killed himself by jumping from the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River. Tyler Clementi had discovered that his dorm roommate secretly filmed him having sex with another male classmate. More distressingly, the roommate showed the video to other students. Clementi was devastated—and so were the Center’s leaders.
“When Tyler’s suicide made it on the front page news—the fact that homophobia could cause such significant mental health challenges and compel an LGBT person to take their own life—was deeply troubling,” he said. “Lorri, Darrel, and other senior staff decided that we needed to take action to protect LGBTQ young people.”
Working with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Project SPIN (an acronym for Suicide Prevention Intervention Now) was developed in partnership with other organizations, among them The Trevor Project and ACLU. As other organizations dropped out, Project SPIN eventually became a Center program. Acosta and Project SPIN’s first full-time employee Sara Train devised the groundbreaking OUT for Safe Schools (OFSS) campaign in which school personnel would wear rainbow-colored badges signifying their support and allyship for LGBTQ students. Conversely, upon spotting these badges, LGBTQ students who were being bullied at school could depend on the school employees for assistance.
“We had to find money in the budget to fund these badges. It was a leap of faith,” said Acosta. “OUT for Safe Schools was the first program in which we worked side-by-side with the LAUSD and focused on students in schools.”
OUT for Safe Schools launched within LAUSD—the nation’s second-largest school district—on October 11, 2013 (the 25th anniversary of National Coming Out Day). More than 30,000 badges were distributed among educators and school administrators. Since then, OFSS has become a national program and has been introduced to nine other major school districts, including New York Department of Education, D.C. Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, Duval County Public Schools, San Diego Unified School District, San Francisco Unified School District, and Oakland Unified School District.
Another important component of the Center’s Long Term Strategic Plan was expanding its geographical diversity beyond its Hollywood epicenter. Center leaders were eyeing Los Angeles’s Eastside as a potential location.
“As a Queer Latinx person, it was my dream project to help expand services to where Latinx people live, where Queer Latinx people live, and address their needs,” said Acosta, who grew up in Whittier and Van Nuys.
After partnering with Latino Equality Alliance (LEA) to form this new Center facility, Acosta and LEA Executive Director Ari Gutierrez began scouring possible location sites from East L.A. to Lincoln Heights. They eventually would settle in Boyle Heights in a shared-space office hub called City Labs, located across the street from the Pico Gardens public housing project. City Labs was owned by Alfred Fraijo, Jr., who now serves on the Center’s Board of Directors.
In 2015 Mi Centro was founded.
“I am extraordinarily proud of Mi Centro,” Acosta beamed. “The last two years have been difficult. We had to curtail services because of COVID, but we laid such a great foundation. In order to get Mi Centro off the ground and running without a tremendous budget, I recruited Center departments to provide services there a couple of times a week.”
Today, Legal Services provides immigration services; Senior Services offers assistance to housing and food resources; Youth Services hosts a Spanish-language support group for parents of Latinx LGBTQ youth; and the Center’s Pride Pantry distributes food items weekly to local families. Center Executive Director Joe Hollendoner, who will assume the role of CEO following Lorri L. Jean’s retirement in June, says Mi Centro—a center embedded in a local community providing a myriad of vital services—can be a model for the Center’s future success. Mi Centro recently hired its first full-time staff member and will expand and deepen its programs due to a grant from Gilead Sciences.
Journey For A Lifetime
One of Acosta’s fondest Center memories is the launch of the first-ever California AIDS Ride in 1994, an unparalleled fundraising event—Acosta and two other Board members were three of the nearly 500 cyclists. The ride (now called AIDS/ LifeCycle) was—and still is—like no other fundraising event and has inspired dozens of similar events throughout the world. The ride allowed him to form a deep friendship with Jean and the other cyclists, spiritually and physically bonding as they ventured on a 500-mile-plus journey without knowing what twists and turns lie ahead during the weeklong ride.
“The California AIDS Ride felt like we were inventing something new,” recalled Acosta. “It rained on a couple of days, and we were miserable! But, we all knew the ride was benefiting an important cause—we just didn’t know if we could make it alive through the 500 miles.”
Jean, Cummings, and Acosta would continue to embark on a journey together—through the Center’s twists and turns, the highs and the lows—for decades, from the AIDS epidemic to the Center’s milestone 25th and 50th Anniversaries to the openings of more than a half-dozen buildings (McDonald/Wright Building, The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, Anita May Rosenstein Campus, Center WeHo, Center South, Mi Centro, and Trans Wellness Center) to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And, truly, the Center we know today can be credited to this partnership and Acosta’s diligence and influence.
“Alan advised the Center in really important times that have been consequential,” said Cummings. “I always appreciate when Alan has something to say because I know it comes from a deep place, and it has created a deep impact on the Center. Alan is a comrade.”