Inside Track: McKinney looks to drive inclusive change

New executive director of Grand Rapids Pride Center is rooted in a ‘community caretaker’ approach.
Jazz McKinney started volunteering at the Pride Center close to a decade ago, most recently serving as chair of the Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming committee and as its representative on the board of directors. Courtesy Grand Rapids Pride Center

Jazz McKinney’s converging identities and abilities could be exactly what the Grand Rapids Pride Center needs in its next season of service to the LGBTQ+ community.

McKinney — who identifies as a Black and Indigenous two-spirit individual and a transmasculine nonbinary person whose pronouns are they/them — became executive director of the Pride Center in March after taking on the role of interim executive director in October when the nonprofit’s former leader, Thomas Pierce, stepped down.

A native of Detroit, McKinney earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Grand Valley State University in 2009 and a Master of Arts in counseling psychology from Western Michigan University in 2014.

McKinney started volunteering at the Pride Center close to a decade ago, most recently serving as chair of the Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming committee and as its representative on the board of directors. Then, the opportunity to become interim executive director arose.

The Pride Center, in its announcement of McKinney’s hiring on March 22, thanked Pierce for his nearly three years of service and said that McKinney brings a “unique perspective on how complex West Michigan can be for a (Black, Indigenous person of color, or BIPOC) person to navigate.”

“Jazz is not afraid of change and eager to listen to multiple perspectives while staying true to advocating for those most oppressed,” the organization said. “The GRPC community is excited to begin a new decade with Jazz McKinney at the helm. We are prepared to bring a hunger for change, intentional leadership and the practiced inclusivity required to build a community center where all of us feel like we belong.”

McKinney knows about belonging. Growing up in a close-knit neighborhood in Detroit, they were raised by their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, all of whom are still alive. While their mother, Juanita, had them at 17 and their parents never lived together, McKinney still had plenty of male role models growing up, including a godfather, stepfather and second stepfather when their mother remarried, as well as a community of unofficial uncles.

Grand Rapids Pride Center
Position: Executive director
Age: 34
Birthplace: Detroit
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Spouse, D.L. McKinney; caregiver to their children, Rian, 6, Tai, 15, and Jacob, 22; mother Juanita also lives with them
Business/Community Involvement: Co-owns a consulting business, Paradigm Shifts Consulting, with their spouse; is on the DEI committee of MomsBloom; serves on the Grand Rapids Public Schools Montessori advisory council
Biggest Career Break: “The Pride Center is a culmination of a lot of hard work I’ve put in in the community, between doing individual consulting and training, and education and community building,” as well as individual counseling as an LGBTQ therapist at the YWCA West Central Michigan and residential clinical management at D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s before coming to the Pride Center.

“I loved it because it was the type of neighborhood where everybody on the block was my grandmother or my aunt, and I could be six houses down and whoever’s house that was could come outside, I would get in trouble, they would call my mom and then I would get in trouble again … but it was very close-knit,” McKinney said. “I’m still friends with some of the people I grew up with on the block and still friends with some of the people my mom grew up with. … I grew up with a very well balanced (set of role models).”

McKinney was an only child for 12 years until their brother was born, and they ended up helping care for him when their mom was experiencing mental health difficulties.

“I’m the oldest kid on both my mom and my biological dad’s side, so I just kind of have that oldest kid mentality — a caretaker mentality,” McKinney said.

McKinney was inspired to pursue psychology not only by their mother’s mental health struggles, but also by her successes. When they were 6 years old, their mother went back to school to earn a degree in psychology, and McKinney tagged along to class and became fascinated by the topics.

“I had a lot of fun because it was almost like I was in class myself, and I’m a dork; I’m a lifelong learner, so I love school,” they said.

After finishing graduate school — during which McKinney did internships and volunteer work in various mental health and LGBTQ advocacy settings — at the age of 28, they landed a job as a clinical specialist at a crisis intervention hotline. Much of the time, people needed someone to talk to when they were feeling down, but sometimes, McKinney had to talk suicidal individuals out of killing themselves.

“I had to figure out, what does each person need? What do they need me to say? How can I tap into trying to figure out who this person is and what interests they have that I could talk about to keep them going and really try to figure out their ‘protective factors,’ we call them. What is it keeping them here on this Earth? It could be anything — sometimes, literally the only thing I had was, ‘Hey, you told me you were a Christian and you believe that if you do this, you’re going to go to hell. You don’t want to go to hell, do you?’ Sometimes, that was all I had. Most of the time, it was kids or pets, though.”

McKinney next became the LGBTQ domestic violence/sexual violence outreach therapist for the YWCA West Central Michigan, where they worked for three years, then took the job of residential clinical manager at D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s. During their six-month tenure at DABSJ, they worked to make the campus more LGBTQ-friendly, along with providing clinical insight and analysis of data, patterns and best practices for the integration of therapy services into the 24-hour mental health behavior stabilization program.

When the pandemic hit, DABSJ had to downsize its staff, and McKinney was laid off in April 2020. They were a stay-at-home parent once again for the next six months, enjoying time with the family. McKinney said this love of being a caretaker is part of their two-spirit identity. In the Native community, they said, a two-spirit individual is a community caretaker, a connector, a marriage counselor and a healer, among other nurturing roles.

Because McKinney loved being at home, they weren’t planning to go back to work until Pierce called and said he was stepping down, and would McKinney consider taking over as The Pride Center’s next leader. Since October, McKinney has led the organization remotely while caring for their family.

McKinney said they feel as though this moment is the perfect time to implement a new vision and goals for the nonprofit, which historically — reflected in its former name, the Lesbian and Gay Network of West Michigan — has served white lesbian and gay individuals better than all individuals within the BIPOC, 2S-LGBTQ community.

“I’m Black, I’m Indigenous, I’m trans, I’m two-spirit, I’m nonbinary, I am not a Christian in West Michigan, I’m physically disabled, I have a traumatic brain injury, I have mental illness,” McKinney said. “That’s not to say that I’m the perfect conglomeration of a person to serve these communities well, but at least I have a little bit more knowledge … of how the system treats people like me.”

McKinney said the first step they are taking in forging a more inclusive Pride Center is a series of community listening sessions the organization can then use to create a new strategic plan. They said they also want to build on the work Pierce did with expanding social groups and focusing on LGBTQ-inclusive health care, while adding more LGBTQ-friendly service providers to its resource list, such as more lawyers, real estate agents and therapists. And another big goal is building sustained community partnerships.

On June 20, the Pride Center will host its first virtual Pride Festival on Facebook, which will feature live and recorded entertainment such as drag shows, singers, spoken word artists, comedians and more, to raise funds for the nonprofit. Typically, about 90% of its budget is raised at Pride Fest, and when it was canceled last year due to COVID-19, the nonprofit struggled.

McKinney said they have a big job ahead of them, but they have already accomplished much by giving the community a renewed sense of hope, and they feel they are the right person for the job at this time.

“I get to do education and training, I get to do mentoring, but I also get to work with the LGBTQ community every day, I get to work with the most marginalized people, all the way to (being) in a room with other EDs and CEOs. I’m still trying to realize, ‘Oh yeah, you belong in this room, too.’ I get to work with everybody, and I get to utilize every single skill that I’ve ever learned growing up, in school and in life. … It is such a culmination of everything.”

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