Parting Glances

Six years ago District 202 executive director Michael Kaplan figured he'd always have to wait tables in order to make a living: Working at a fledgling nonprofit community center for queer youth certainly wouldn't pay the bills.

Kaplan's no longer taking orders and bussing tables, however: District 202, a Minneapolis nonprofit with programming and activities organized by youth 21 and under, has grown into a nationally recognized center with a staff of 26, a gleaming new facility, and approximately 12,000 visits by youth per year. The success of the place has become inextricably linked to Kaplan. But last month, the 30-year-old officially announced his plans to step down and move to Washington, D.C.

"I have a moving truck coming June 28," Kaplan says. "I fly out the 30th, and I start my new job on July 1." His last day at District 202 will be June 16.

The path that lies ahead isn't exactly mapped out, Kaplan admits, but neither was his arrival at 202. In January 1992, Kaplan was finishing a masters degree in education, focusing on public-school programs for gay and lesbian youth, when he began volunteering with the center's founding group. "My assumption was it would be a couple months and then I'd be back at school working on my Ph.D.," Kaplan says. "I never quite finished that." Kaplan joined the 202 staff in November of that year and, on New Year's Eve 1993, the center opened with an inaugural pizza-and-videos party: 21 youths attended.

As Kaplan moves on to greener pastures -- or at least ones farther east -- the question remains: Who will fill his shoes? "The board is working to appoint a new interim director who will begin before my departure," Kaplan says reassuringly. "Over the next four or five months they will do a search for a new executive director."

How did District 202 get off the ground? Were you there at the creation?

It started with a handful of adults and youth -- about five of each -- who had gotten together for a couple reasons. One was the youth were saying, "We are tired of not having a place of our own. One hour a week after school is not sufficient. We want a place where we can hang and be who we are, and we don't want it to be the bars. We want our own space." The other reason was that a couple of the adult founders at the time were really frustrated with the lack of resources for queer youth of color and for young lesbians. All these people...decided to break out and do their own thing; 202 was the result.

Now there are other programs like District 202 across the country.

Nationally there are at least 20 agencies with dedicated staff that focus on serving queer youth. I would say District 202 is probably one of the five largest, and probably one of three that's not at all focused on social services but rather focused solely on serving as a community center.

Why no services?

The goal from the start was never to provide services. Services were out there. What was really needed for queer youth was a space where they could be themselves, and this was intended to be a fun place where you got your social needs, community needs, and cultural needs met.... The other part of what District 202 would do and still does is systems change throughout the state, working with other agencies and institutions meant to serve youth.

Building any organization has its share of hurdles. What were some of the biggest challenges?

Funding is always a challenge. I don't know that the challenges we faced were unique to what a queer-youth center is. They're the challenges that any start-up nonprofit faces -- the evolution from a founding board to a board that steps away from doing the day-to-day work and works on governance and the transition from all volunteer to a staffed place, building up a donor base and financial stability. In a way too, we benefited from being a queer-youth agency because it was press-worthy. So we got good press from the very beginning. That always helps, especially to raise awareness around queer-youth issues, and also to help find our allies out there.

When the doors opened in 1992, were you sure the idea would fly?

Yeah. There was no way it wouldn't be successful. There was clearly a need and there clearly continues to be a need for queer youth to be queer youth.

Has the crowd at District 202 changed over the years?

Definitely in terms of growth. Gender-wise it has always been consistent. For the last three years it has always been 60 percent female, 40 percent male. The first year I think it was 50-50. Racially, it has always been between 33 and 40 percent from communities of color. I think the change has been just in branching out. Our old space looked like squat. It was really comfortable for a lot of kids, but for many youth from the suburbs it was intimidating as hell. I think this new space has broadened, speaking about class issues, the range of kids that hang out here.

You've had some changes and resignations on District 202's board within the past year. Have things stabilized? Any concerns about the center's future?

We went through a transition four months ago -- a bad alignment of the planets. I went away for a month to do a fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control, and the day I left was the day our new program director started. There was some breakdown between youth and adults, and it culminated into some really loud, loud power struggles going on, some yelling. At the very worst point, I would say that there was definitely some disrespect going on, and I know that one of my board members, Monica Bryand, was very disrespected. She ended up resigning. She has said that she believes what District 202 does is important, but after the way she interacted with the youth she couldn't continue in the role she had. There has been one other resignation, Dawn O'Donnell, a board member who was on the board since '93 and said last year already that she planned to resign. Those are the only resignations that have happened in '98. The rest of the board is there, they've been ongoing, they're committed.... It feels like we've gotten over some huge hurdles in the last half year.

What would you like to see done that hasn't been done?

Build a financial cash reserve for the agency. Since day one it's been hand-to-mouth. That is, I believe, it's one of the main board goals for the next couple of years. Most of the goals are defined by the youth, so it's hard to say what I want to see done. It's really about what they want to do.

Talk about your decision to leave 202.

I have done this for a long time, and I made a commitment to myself about a year ago that I would leave by the end of 1998. About four or five months ago, I put the word out on the street that I was looking for something else. I let my board president know. I was really committed, saying "I don't care if I have to go back to waiting tables starting January 1, 1999. I need to do something new for myself." I think District 202, too, should have someone new. I think I'm much better at building than maintenance.

In April, I got two offers to do things that I really want to do: One is a job with the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, a D.C. agency that works on behalf of gay youth. I've been on their board, and I'm taking a temporary step down to go in for five months and help them set up their finance-management development structures. Then I'll help them recruit and train in a development director. As for the other position, we're still working out the details. The plan is to work on public-health strategies, community-based matters, and youth issues at a fairly large -- like 600-employee -- nonprofit in D.C., the Academy for Educational Development. When I told my mom about both jobs, she was just like, "They are so you."

So it's good-bye to the Midwest. Any worries?

No. I'm totally excited. I love Minneapolis. I feel like I have a great base here and a home to revisit and keep coming back to. But it feels like my first big adventure in almost a decade. I think the last one was when I was 20 and coming out as gay and backpacking around Europe by myself. I don't think I've done anything like this. I'm moving, and I don't know where my apartment is yet. The second job isn't quite finalized yet. I'm really excited for an adventure.

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