Thomas Pierce has worked his way up from a volunteer in charge of beer tents to running the Grand Rapids Pride Center. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Thomas Pierce learned his first lessons in work and leadership during his college job at Walmart.
They’re lessons he still uses in his new role as executive director for the Grand Rapids Pride Center, the local LGBTQ organization that hosts the Grand Rapids Pride Festival.
He started at Walmart while working toward a B.S. in public relations from Appalachian State University in his home state of North Carolina.
“I think that’s probably something everyone needs to experience once because you gain a certain respect for the people that do that job every day,” Pierce said.
By age 20, he was promoted from a photo lab associate to the customer service manager, overseeing cashiers and greeters.
Many of the people he was supervising were two or three times his age.
“It’s a hard and kind of awkward path to navigate,” he said. “But I think it’s all about showing them that you’re consistent and dependable.”
As long as leaders show those qualities, work hard and have confidence in their abilities, people will follow, he said.
He added confidence doesn’t mean “putting people down so no one rises above” the leader — on the contrary, that’s what can happen when leaders lack confidence or feel threatened.
Ultimately, it’s important for leaders to understand their role on a team, which he said can mean simply supporting the staff and enabling and empowering them to do their jobs.
Pierce said it’s important to think long term and focus on how an organization will stand when passed to the successor. “Because then people will know you’re invested,” he said.
Pierce, 29, admits he made many mistakes along the way, but he learned those lessons early in his career and has applied them along the way. Now that he’s nearly 30, he said people tend to take him a bit more seriously than when he was supervising at a younger age.
Pierce knew retail would not fulfill his desire to do something meaningful. In 2012, he began pursuing his master of public administration degree in nonprofit management from Grand Valley State University and started working in the adolescent residential program at Hope Network, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that helps people with disabilities live independently. He also received a master of social work degree from Spring Arbor University in 2016.
Through various promotions, he became the director of children’s residential services at Hope Network. In that experience, he was involved in the clinical side of the organization, providing therapy to children with developmental issues.
He “fell in love” with the work, but he really wanted to interact with more people in the community on a broader scale.
As a gay man, Pierce first became involved with the organization as a volunteer in charge of the Pride Festival beer tents.
He was approached about being on the organization’s board by a Hope Network colleague who was also on the Pride Center’s board.
He joined the board in 2017 and was approached about the executive director position nearly a year later.
There had not been an executive director for a few years, just a board, one employee and volunteers. Through grants and some increased support through the community, the Pride Center was able to hire an executive director starting this year.
The center administrator, Larry DeShane Jr., will continue taking care of day-to-day operations, but Pierce will be able to provide that “thought leadership” he said is necessary to keep the organization on track according to its mission.
The Pride Center, formerly the Lesbian and Gay Community Network, was founded in 1988 — Pierce and his team are working on plans to celebrate the 30th anniversary — by a small group of West Michigan residents who had marched during the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on Oct. 11, 1987.
The Pride Center’s mission is to empower the LGBTQ community through supportive services and awareness.
The organization is perhaps most widely known for the Pride Festival hosted each year since the first in 1988 was held at the Monroe Amphitheater, now known as Rosa Parks Circle. The LGBTQ celebration, which takes place in June each year, is the organization’s largest event and fundraiser. Last’s year’s celebration saw nearly 8,500 guests.
But Pierce said it’s an organization that people “grossly underestimate” despite all it does in the community. The Pride Center served 1,700 individuals in 2017, he said.
The center hosts eight social and support groups, including a teen group and a family group. There are advisory committees and educational and health initiatives to improve the lives of LGBTQ people. The organization is working to improve its resource guide, a list of LGBTQ-friendly businesses in the area.
The Pride Center is available to provide consulting or training sessions to businesses and organizations working to be more inclusive. He said the Pride Center has provided those services in many types of organizations, including health centers and schools.
“I think that more and more organizations are realizing that equity is progression,” Pierce said.
During his tenure, Pierce said he plans to strengthen the organization with increased partnerships.
The Pride Center has a lot of support from the community already. Steelcase is a big sponsor of the Pride Festival every year, and Meijer was a sponsor for the first time last year. Much of the center’s furniture was donated by Haworth. Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss always has been a “great partner,” he said.
West Michigan is known as a conservative community, but Pierce said the center feels a lot of general support from the area, much of it from Christian-based organizations.
There was a bit of an influx financially after same-sex marriage was passed in 2015. Pierce attributed it to people thinking the fight was “done” after the ruling.
He wants everyone to know, though, that the fight is continuing, though it is beginning to change.
A big focus of the center now is on the transgender community. Just as the organization was teaching that two people of the same sex can love each other, he said, now they’re educating the community about gender and struggles trans people face. A “disproportionate number” of trans black women are killed each year, he added
“Our transgender community is very much a minority, but they still need to be respected and identified,” he said.
He understands the concept can be “hard to wrap your mind around if you’re not in that community,” but he recognizes advocates are able to have those conversations because of a cultural shift in Grand Rapids and beyond.
“We’re finally to the point where enough of society recognizes that it needs to be addressed,” Pierce said.
Pierce said he hopes to expand the organization’s presence and continue educating the community going forward — that includes having a role in designing policy for the future.
“At an economic level, Grand Rapids is poised to grow. I want to make sure that as Grand Rapids is growing, are we an inclusive community?” he said.