By Albert H. Fulcher | Editor
On an early date in 2012, Cara Dessert answered a question about her dream job by saying she’d love to one day lead the San Diego LGBT Community Center. At the time, she thought that would be a long way off.
“Today, I just wrapped up my first year as the chief executive officer of The Center,” said San Diego LGBT Community Center CEO Caroline (Cara) Dessert, Esq., who landed that dream job on July 1, 2018.
“It is truly one of the most incredible honors of my life to have been chosen to serve as The Center’s CEO; a lot has happened over this past year, and the community’s support helped make it one of incredible opportunities and growth,” Dessert said.
“I’d say that change is hard, and our community has been extraordinary. Everywhere I go, folks often thank me for taking the position, and then ask how they can help and what they can do to support the work. If they don’t understand something, folks also ask for more information,” she continued. “Throughout our broad community here in Hillcrest, our larger LGBTQ community throughout the County, and our allies have all been extraordinarily supportive, and I am deeply grateful for that.”
Dessert said that The Center had a really exciting year. With its wide breadth of services and programs for San Diego’s broad community, this year, The Center grew services outside the city of San Diego to make more of an impact in the larger County.
“We opened the South Bay Youth Center in the heart of Chula Vista, our first facility outside the city of San Diego and that has gone even better than we hoped for,” Dessert said. “We opened up in February, had about 25 youth joined us in our first month, and in the second month we were open, those numbers doubled. We knew that Chula Vista was ready for an LGBTQ center for youth and families, but we didn’t know how welcoming the community would be. Everywhere we go people are asking how to help. ‘Yes, we know you have a Dining Out for Life event, we want a Chula Vista location, we’re going to do it, is that okay?’ Absolutely!”
South Bay PFLAG, the parent’s group for parents of LGBTQ youth, started a clothing closet within the South Bay center, which they keep filled with clothes for youth that need clothing either because they are in need of clothes because of financial need or because they need clothes that matches and affirms their gender identity because they are transgender or non-binary.
“That closet has been a powerful addition to the South Bay Youth Center’s services. All the youth are going in there and playing dress-up, playing with clothes; there is even a sewing machine so they can add flair to whatever they’d like,” Dessert said. “Watching that closet be so successful is just one example of the South Bay community, who is not just welcoming us, but really embracing the South Bay Youth Center and being there as a partner to make sure that it is successful. Folks are doing everything they can think of to support the new facility. That’s been really exciting.”
The Center has long served our LGBTQ immigrant community, said Dessert. It has the first Latino Services program at any LGBTQ center in the country, celebrating its 15th year this October.
“We’ve been serving our Latino/a/x and immigrant communities for a long time, but this year took that work across the border for the first time this past fall,” Dessert said. “We partnered with RAICES, Al Otro Lado Border Rights Project, and the Los Angeles LGBT Center, embarking in the first LGBT border campaign in history to ensure the that legal services, case management and humanitarian relief to LGBTQ and HIV-positive asylum seekers was provided to those who made it to the Mexican/U.S. border.”
“None of our agencies had ever done a cross-border campaign like this before, but we all knew the need was critical, we had the courage to try, and we were all committed to working together,” she continued. “We wanted to make this first LGBT border campaign in history truly impactful. We really made a difference in the lives of about 100 LGBTQ asylum seekers.”
Dessert said that everyone at The Center is really proud of that work and equally proud that the community was there to support that work because The Center’s done so much education about why immigration is an LGBTQ issue.
“So many LGBTQ people are immigrants themselves,” Dessert said. “In San Diego, we have so many mixed-status families that have both documented and undocumented people living together. We know that the same people who attack immigrants, attack our LGBTQ community, so we are stronger together. Watching the community supporting this new project was really exciting. It was a limited program with that last caravan- we began the work in November and ended the work in March. We are looking for some grant funding to continue working together; it is our goal that this work will continue in the long term.”
Dessert said it is not just immigrants, but also our transgender and non-binary community, “that have been absolutely and relentlessly attacked by the Trump Administration.” She said that at every turn where the transgender and non-binary community has been attacked, The Center responded in a way that supports and develops long-term leadership and capacity in the transgender and non-binary community.
“I understand that the transgender community has felt that The Center is behind the times,” Dessert said. “In my heart, I understand that The Center is a 47-year-old organization and that our transgender program is seven years old. I hear that, and we’ve been working really hard over the past seven years to change that. There have been so many attacks on the transgender community from this Administration. We’ve wanted to respond in a way that builds up and supports leadership in the transgender community. We trained new spokespeople, with the specific goal of increasing capacity and building up long-term leadership. We see our role as The Center to support the development of that kind of leadership.”
“By next month, we will have 75 staff; we had 61 when I started, and we’ve intentionally tried to hire transgender and non-binary folks,” she continued.
Dessert said the other exciting work The Center is doing is about housing. For 13 years, its 23-unit apartment building, LGBTQ Safe S.T.A.Y., provides permanent supportive housing for homeless LGBTQ and HIV+ youth. She said it is a successful program, but it was The Center’s only big tool to combat homelessness for LGBTQ youth.
“This year we have tripled our housing program,” Dessert said. “Now we have a continuum of housing services. There was no LGBTQ shelter in the whole County, and we are proud to have started one the first week of June. It’s brand new and it is called LGBTQ Safe S.T.A.Y. (shelter, for transitional aged youth). It’s a four-bed shelter that we opened inside the Sunburst Youth Housing project.”
Another tool that The Center has added for emergency housing is a hotel program where youth that are LGBTQ and un-housed are placed in a hotel room that night while The Center finds a longer-term housing solution.
“Both of those emergency housing programs are brand new tools to really combat LGBTQ youth homelessness,” Dessert said. “Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ; we really needed more tools than just Sunburst. Additionally, we also created a host home program and started to offer a cutting-edge family reunification program.”
Dessert said in looking ahead, The Center is currently engaging in a strategic planning process as the transition continues into next year.
“This isn’t just my transition as CEO; this remains a time of organizational transition,” Dessert said. “This has been a year of tremendous growth – the budget is a million more annually, the staff has grown from 61 to 75 people. We have to stabilize the growth of our new programs and make sure our work is successful and impactful.”
“Strategic planning is a great tool to plan for our future with our community,” she continued. “We’re in the middle of collecting community input with surveys, focus groups, interviews – we’re excited to give everyone the opportunity to participate in that. The Center will be strengthened by the data and feedback from the community.”
Dessert said [they] will continue building upon the incredible work The Center has done and growing towards a San Diego where LGBT people and [our] families are connected, healthy and thriving. She said none of this would have been possible without the support of the community and that she is thankful for each and every one of them.
“This is a huge job and it’s a lot of responsibility,” Dessert said. “And, folks have been really amazing. Change is hard; I know that. But honestly, folks have been so great and welcoming and supportive, and if they don’t understand something we’re doing, they will ask. I thought there might be resistance to change, but mostly it’s been, ‘How can I help?’ ‘What can I do?’”
“I’m so grateful for our board, staff, volunteers and community for giving me the opportunity to show what our vision is and to help make that real,” she continued. “On issues of immigration, of expansion of location and service provision, we’re all so thankful for the trust the community has placed in us. I’m so deeply grateful to be in this role, and it’s such an honor. The community’s support has really provided us with the opportunity to do this work and has made possible a year of incredible opportunities and growth.”
Dessert said that The Center is continuing to face unique opportunities and real challenges. It has to meet its ongoing needs, and the unexpected needs.
“The basic humanity and existence of our transgender and non-binary community has been under attack,” Dessert said. “In a year where we saw tear gas utilized at our border, we also opened the first LGBT organization in the South Bay. In the face of deep and very real challenges, we’ve capitalized on some incredible opportunities – bringing in a $3 million gift, paying off the mortgage at our Centre Street location and providing a record number of service visits. We are all so grateful for the community’s support that makes all of this possible. On behalf of all of us at The Center, I thank you for the incredible support of this community that makes all of this possible! ¡Mil gracias!”
—Caroline (Cara) Dessert, Esq.: Prior to being named CEO of The San Diego LGBT Community Center, she served as the organization’s chief Development and Community Engagement officer. A queer Latina, Dessert is an attorney and non-profit executive with 15 years in social justice leadership. Previously, Dessert was executive director of Immigration Equality, a national organization focused on LGBT immigrant rights. She worked closely with the Obama Administration, as well as local, state and national organizations working at the intersection of LGBT and immigrant rights. During this time, she was named an Arcus Leadership Fellow. She served in the California Department of Justice in the Office of the Attorney General as a deputy attorney general in the Public Rights Division, Consumer Law Section where she also worked with then-California Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) Kamala Harris’ executive team. Dessert also worked with the U.S. Central District Court and with California’s Fair Employment and Housing Commission. Dessert has deep roots in the San Diego area. A native of El Centro, she previously served as The Center’s public policy and community organizing coordinator, and as San Diego’s field director for the No on 8/Equality for All campaign. She also worked for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest. She completed her JD at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law, where she was the editor-in-chief of the Chicana/o Latina/o Law Review and earned degree specializations from the Epstein Public Interest Law and Policy and Critical Race Studies programs. She earned her BA at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD). Dessert is married to Lisa Valenzuela.
— Albert Fulcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.