Our 2019 Fall Pride Guide, in collaboration with VA Pride, is out now! In this article from the magazine, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Diversity Richmond and their continued commitment to support and advocate for the river city’s LGBTQ community.
1999 was a wild year. Britney Spears had a hit song on the charts, Wayne Gretzky retired, Y2K was a real fear, and blue eyeshadow was still okay. But most of all, a very important landmark in Richmond’s history was planted in the earth and cobblestone: Diversity Richmond was established.
Originally known as The Richmond Gay Community Foundation until a rebranding, Diversity Richmond was the brainchild of a man named Jon Klein. Seeing a desperate need for the LGBTQ community to have a space to come together in Richmond, Klein started with what would become Diversity Thrift. The inspiration came from seeing other LGBTQ stores around the country.
“I read in The Advocate about the ‘Out of the Closet’ thrift stores in Los Angeles that were bringing in over a million dollars a year,” said Klein. “I thought, ‘We need to do this here.’”
Klein admitted that not only was the community response overwhelming, but they also quickly outgrew the 45-foot space they had at the time on Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Since its establishment at the end of the 90s, Diversity Richmond has expanded in many areas — not just floor space.
Diversity Thrift in particular has long been one of the go-to safe havens for Richmond’s LGBTQ community. It is one of the few thrift stores that donate proceeds to the LGBTQ community, as opposed to the more conservative-leaning organizations like Goodwill or Salvation Army. And when the organization known as the Richmond Gay Community Foundation began to feel that their name presented an outdated and less inclusive idea of their brand, it became an inspiration.
“The word ‘gay’ is an antiquated term, [and it] is not inclusive,” said Diversity Richmond President and Executive Director Bill Harrison. “We decided to rebrand, so we hired two women — Lisa Cumbey and Kim Farlow — [who] orchestrated our rebranding effort. They presented us with about seven different names and ‘Diversity Richmond’ was unanimously chosen by the board.”
The list of things that the center has been able to accomplish over its 20 years operating in Richmond is lengthy. Diversity regularly offers other non-profits in the area the use of their meeting space, and Richmond Triangle Players has also used the space as a rehearsal hall from time to time.
“Rarely does a night pass that this building is not filled to capacity with different organizations using our rooms for free,” said Harrison.
By offering a meeting space for use by other non-profits, Diversity Richmond does a massive service to other community groups by helping them with the most terrifying piece of most puzzles — the bills. Keeping the lights on and offering space for meetings and storage saves these groups a lot of money, which they otherwise would have had to spend on basic utilities.
Another thing at hand that Diversity holds close to its heart is the beautiful Iridian Gallery. One of the only LGBTQ art galleries in the American South, this gallery has played host to a variety of artists and creators, including Richmond illustrator Mattie Hinkley, Savannah-based artist Ben Tollefson, a posthumous retrospective featuring the work of Richmond legend J. Alan Cumbey, and a queer quilting bee by Invasive Queer Kudzu.
“We always had an art gallery here, but it had been dark for several years so we brought that back as part of the rebranding,” said Harrison. “It’s the only art gallery in the South — and one of the few in the country — whose main mission focus is to support LGBTQ artists and allies. We have a different show about every two months, and that’s been very well-received by the community.”
As a community center, naturally the central focus is on what can be done to help the community. Harrison specified that a massive part of what makes Diversity Richmond so successful is being what they call “mission-driven.”
“The way I word it, we grab every opportunity we can to help,” said Harrison. “Nonprofits have to be careful to stay on mission, because when you try to become everything to everybody, it’s easy to go out of business.”
While Diversity has been through and accomplished a lot, one recent accomplishment that Harrison is particularly proud of is a simpler and more TLC-based step: Diversity Thrift was able to receive a much-needed facelift.
“The thrift store has a completely new look, [including] new flooring,” Harrison said. “It looks better than it’s ever looked, and that’s something I’m very proud of.”
It is undeniable that Richmond is much different and better off than it would have been if we did not have Diversity Richmond. Over the past two decades, it has become a landmark in the city for the LGBTQ community, and its leadership and influence is seen everywhere you go. But regardless of the status it has earned locally, it remains consistent in its call to action.
In 2016, after the Pulse Nightclub massacre, there was a community outcry to hold a vigil for those lost. Diversity was able to put together a candlelight vigil for the community in just two days.
“People started immediately calling Diversity Richmond, saying that [we needed to have] some kind of vigil in [our] event hall,” said Harrison. “We organized that in about 48 hours, and we had about two thousand people here. That was a signal to me that we are heading in the right direction, because I do believe that people look toward Diversity Richmond for leadership. That’s a privilege and a major responsibility, and we take it quite seriously.”
Living in the heart of the Confederacy is something that Harrison and Diversity Richmond are very cognizant of; they are constantly thinking about what they can do to grow and get better. Being LGBTQ by no means makes people and organizations immune to ignorance or racism, and Diversity is trying its best to stay on track not just to do better, but to be better.
They’ve done this by pulling in grants, from organizations such as North Carolina-based non-profit The Laughing Gull Foundation, to fund diversity training for its staff and board of directors, and workshops to help train the staff and the community. One of the first things they had to learn was to be aware of your own privilege — which Harrison admitted was especially important as a white man.
“We have worked very hard on creating a diverse board of directors, and it is a slow process, but we’re getting there,” said Harrison. “One of our main focuses, starting last year, is addressing racism in the LGBT community. We have had several community conversations on that. Recently, we have received a grant from The Laughing Gull Foundation to do intentional work on racism, and the first step is training for our board of directors and our senior directors. We started that at our August board meeting, where we are taking a look in the mirror, and our first workshop was on unintentional prejudice — things white people can do, not realizing how offensive they can be to people of color.”
While Diversity has accomplished much, there is still a long way to go, especially for communities of color. LGBTQ spaces still have a tendency to remain very white spaces, and Diversity Richmond wants to turn that around, starting right here in Richmond.
“I want to hear from the community what we are not doing well,” said Harrison. “You’re not going to hurt my feelings, I’m not going to be mad. We need to hear that. What is it that you are not receiving that you would like to receive? I think we’re on the right path, but I think that the community does look to us for leadership.”
As of this year, Diversity Richmond has existed in the Richmond community for 20 years, and what kind of anniversary would it be without a party? On November 21, they will throw an anniversary party for the entire community — founder Jon Klein will of course be in attendance, and no one could be more excited than him. Humbly, what he is most excited for is seeing old friends.
“I’m looking forward to coming back to Richmond and meeting friends, and hanging out with old friends,” said Klein. “I have a number of old friends I miss rather dearly.”
Diversity Richmond has been a friend to Richmond’s LGBTQ community for the past 20 years. Here’s to 20 more!
Top Photo by Sara Wheeler, other photos courtesy Diversity Richmond