By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
The CEO of the San Diego LGBT Community Center, Cara Dessert, is celebrating two years at the helm of the service provider. As a queer Latina, she brought renewed attention the Latinx community and is currently focusing on addressing coronavirus-related challenges.
In her first year as the organization’s youngest ever and first Person of Color CEO, Dessert notched major accomplishments, including opening a South Bay Youth Center, increasing civic engagement and expanding services to LGBT+ immigrants.
The Chula Vista-based center, which opened in February 2019, is The Center’s first new facility in over a decade. Dessert said it aims to bring a safe community space to an underserved area.
“Already, it has been an incredible place for families and for youth to come together and get services that they need in South County,” Dessert said. “It’s the first LGBT organization in South County.”
In 2019, Dessert also convinced the board to increase support and funding to LGBT+ immigrants. The organization has provided case management, legal services and humanitarian relief like food and water to over 100 LGBT+ immigrants and asylum seekers.
“We’re really proud of the Center’s work to do more to build upon the work we’ve been doing to serve our Latino community but also to grow that work and more intentionally serve immigrants at our border,” Dessert said.
The response to the initiative was widely supported, something Dessert credits to years of education on how immigration is an LGBT+ issue because LGBT+ people should be able to find safe harbor in the US after fleeing dangerous countries.
Dessert’s background was a major factor in addressing this issue as well. She previously served as the CEO of Immigration Equality, a New York-based nonprofit focused on LGBT+ immigrant rights, before returning to The Center four years ago as the chief development and community engagement officer.
After being raised in El Centro, Dessert served as The Center’s public policy and community organizing coordinator and as San Diego’s field director for the No on 8 campaign. In addition, she worked at Planned Parenthood before leaving San Diego for law school at UCLA.
After graduating UCLA, she worked in the Public Rights Division for then-Attorney General Kamala Harris.
“Through all of those steps, I learned how to serve better, how to lead better, how to listen better. But I am here today because people believed in me and gave me a chance to lead from a very young age, and I’m so grateful,” Dessert said.
The Center covers a wide range of services from housing to an emergency hotline and therapy. Most major metropolitans have multiple LGBTQ-specific service providers. While there is a North County LGBTQ Resource Center, The Center is the sole provider in San Diego City.
“Being the anchor organization of our LGBTQ community, there’s a lot of incentives to create community, to create space and resources for community and to provide services to thousands and thousands of people,” Dessert said. “It’s really important that the Center provides cutting-edge services for youth, for seniors and everyone in between.”
Her second year as CEO looks different due to the coronavirus. Many of the services like youth shelters, food distributions and HIV testing needed to remain in person while behavioral health services like support groups moved online.
In addition, the organization’s funding has taken a major hit, spurring pay cuts and hours reductions for staff. This was largely due to the cancellation of The Center’s two biggest annual fundraisers, both scheduled for the Spring. The Center created an emergency fund at thecentersd.org/giving that has brought in 200 new donors.
As national focus shifted from coronavirus to anti-Black racism, The Center has renewed focus on better serving Black LGBT+ community members. At a town hall last year, many Black people shared stories of discrimination and mistreatment in Hillcrest in general and even at The Center.
In response, a Black Council filled with community leaders was set up to provide recommendations on how to address these inequalities. So far, The Center amended its hiring practices to reduce education requirements, created a Black-specific support group and increased staff training on racism and discrimination.
Dessert said she remains proud of San Diego’s LGBT+ community.
“Being gone for 10 years from San Diego is part of what helped me understand how special our San Diego LGBTQ community is. I have lived in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and I have never seen a community that comes together, that shows up for each other, and that is invested in our collective equality and success like the San Diego LGBTQ community,” Dessert said. “I am so proud to be part of this community and it is the greatest honor to have the opportunity to lead the center, which has been a beacon of hope for 48 years.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.