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  • Writer's pictureWoman Up Cleveland

Being One for All with Phyllis

Phyllis Harris - Executive Director of LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland

At Cleveland Pearls, Brittney provides fun and engaging opportunities for girls in our community.
Phyllis' leadership has led the Center to grow and expand its initiatives, like the annual Pride in the CLE, and its presence in our community.

Cleveland has always been a city of excellence and encouragement. No one knows this fact better than the people who live here and who have benefitted from the city's supportive and inclusive energy. Phyllis Harris is a perfect example of this Cleveland magic that motivates her to both pay it forward and give back.

As the Executive Director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, Phyllis knows that her story is what gives her the drive to make a difference in the community that has been such a huge part of her life. Cleveland-born and raised, Phyllis has always been loyal to the communities that have gotten her to where she is today and has made her career by turning around and handing that support right back. “I see myself as a leader in Cleveland and I think that’s important because as a Black, lesbian, feminist, mom, and executive director, I have seen myself as a leader within these communities,” Phyllis shared.

Ever since coming out at 19, Phyllis has been advocating for herself. For nearly 40 years, she has been using her own experiences to motivate her work and cultivate her passion for making a difference. She references her work as a ‘lifestyle job’ and notes the difficulty in separating her personal life with her work. Feeling the deep connection to her work often serves as an incredible motivator and is one of the things that makes her so excellent in her role.

After graduating with her undergraduate degree in 2001, Phyllis went on to get a graduate degree in non-profit management which soon led to her many careers throughout that space. Before beginning her journey to tenure at the LGBT Center, Phyllis worked in several other non-profit and community-based roles including the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Cleveland Site Center, Planned Parenthood, and many others. She has gained experience over the years working for both local and national non-profits, gaining insight into how the management and success of organizations can differ. In many different roles throughout many different organizations, Phyllis has truly been a lifelong learner.

Always knowing the importance of networking, Phyllis joined many organization boards including Spaces Gallery and Community Shares, in order to gain knowledge and dip her toe into the other non-profit spaces different from health and human services. Over the years, Phyllis has developed her passions and explored many different avenues. Continuously asking questions along the way has led her down the path of continued education and put her into the shoes of others.

During this time of exploration, overworked and underpaid, Phyllis received an inquiry from the LGBT Center to join their board as well. After politely declining twice and finally agreeing to hear the organization out, Phyllis walked into a meeting knowing already that she would soon join. At her first board meeting, the team was tasked with hiring a part-time Executive Director. Feeling strongly about finding a long-term solution, she took the leap and submitted her name into the ring to be hired as the Executive Director. Today, Phyllis has been at the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland for 12 years and continues to not only maintain the success of the organization but propel the entire local community into its bright future.

Lying beneath her work and passion for the community, there is a clear love for the city and all that makes it special. As we see with so many lifelong Clevelanders, there is something truly different about the environment in which community leaders are made. Phyllis said, “I'm a proud Clevelander. I am a product of Cleveland schools K through 6th grade before we moved to the heights. I was at Tri-C for a couple of classes! I feel like I am Cleveland, and I am proud of that as well.”

Unsurprisingly, her work reflects her passion for advocacy and the center has continued to grow and thrive under her direction over the past decade. The LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland will be heading into its 50th year in 2025. An absolute legacy in not only our local community but on the national stage, the LGBT Center was one of the first established centers in the nation. Today there are over 300 centers nationwide, but Phyllis encourages us all to take pride in the fact that our great city has been one of the first and one of the most consistent in support of the LGBT community for almost 50 years. She proudly declared, “If you’re a queer professional or a queer family, come to Cleveland. We've got some support here for you at the center.”

With a budget of 2.7 million, 25 staff members, and a variety of supportive and educational programs, the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland is truly a shining gem in our city.  Phyllis went on to share with us about the center's core youth programs which include ‘QU’ programming for ages 11-19, curriculum-based programming, a youth participatory research program, School of One alternative high school program, in-school programming throughout the city, and their annual June youth Prom. 

Additionally, Phyllis shared about the Rainbow Pioneers program which provides services for older adults and meets three times a week for social time, exercises, outings, and speakers. The center also offers programming for Trans and gender-expansive individuals that helps to guide them throughout their journeys and provide resources. Not only do they serve the community from their Gordon Square location, but they have east-side programming as well in order to help reach more of the population.

In addition to these expansive core programs, the center has many projects such as their massive and successful Pride in the CLE event each year. Executing all that comes with this large-scale annual celebration is just one piece of the expansive offerings the LGBT center provides to the community. A life skills program, queer sex-education program, and cultural competency programs are just a few of the other things the center provides. “I like to tell people that we’re a community center where people can come and find a safe space, but we are also a cultural center where we also do training and research,” Phyllis said.

Activism is at the forefront of many of the LGBT center's projects and Phyllis shared with us how this impacts how the center presents its events and programming. For example, in place of a pride parade that is commonly held to celebrate, the Cleveland Center holds a march each year during its Pride celebrations. Remaining mindful of their activism within the organization's limits, the team at the LGBT center balances both celebration and advocacy. Even with this expansive list of achievements and offerings, Phyllis told us, “There is so much more about the center. I have some amazing colleagues and amazing projects. We are innovative, we are affirming. We are always growing and learning about who we are leaving out. I promise there's someone we haven't thought of but we listen and with each year we get better at serving more and more of our diverse community.”

The LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland is a flawless example of how an organization can take care of its community. In the same way, the LGBT center has truly thrived over several decades due to the support of the community it serves. Simply put, Phyllis told us that the community “shows up.” She went on to list the ways the community rallies around the center time and time again citing the involvement of volunteer staff, the knowledge and experiences of the board members, and people's attendance and solidarity when it comes to pride events. She also shared about our city's commitments to legal protections surrounding access and discrimination that counteract the lack of support from the state and federal governments.

“One thing about us is that we are who we serve. It really helps us to be there for each other and know what it's really like. Folks show up when we’re feeling like we are on the front lines, and we are exhausted but then we have a campaign to do some crowdfunding for the center and then we reach and exceed our goals. The community shows up because we are able to have an established, leading LGBT center here in Cleveland that is thriving,” Phyllis said. 

It is no surprise that advocacy and non-profit work isn’t without its challenges. We asked Phyllis about the largest barriers for the center and how they continue to overcome obstacles and maintain such a successful organization for so long. She shared with us that as all organizations know, cash is king. There is always a wall to climb when it comes to funding programs, events, and projects to further a group's mission and the continued need to raise the amount needed to provide these services is a driving force between many of the team's efforts. In addition to innovating and creating new programs and fundraisers to keep the projects going, the organization must also cover its day-to-day operating costs and the proper pay and benefits for its staff who work hard to keep everything afloat.

Additionally, Phyllis spoke about the importance of overcoming the challenges of issues larger than the organization's day to day work. Speaking out about threats to the community as well as decisions and policies that affect the population is a huge part of the center's work as well. “It's a difficult time in society right now and all around the world there's so much polarization. All of this is challenging. It’s hard being an activist and doing movement work and doing it with limited resources. Knowing there are people who hate you and would do you harm. We want to be open and affirming and welcoming, but we also know we can be targeted. So, I want it to be clear that while we are doing ok and we can be proud that Cleveland has had an LGBT center for 50 years, I want folks to know that this work isn’t easy. We are on the front lines, we do take risks, and it takes courage. It's harder than people think and harder than we get credit for,” Phyllis shared.

With every challenge comes a reward when the hard work and dedication pay off. We asked Phyllis about her achievements over the years and with her work at the LGBT center. She shared, “I tell people that I don't work at the center because I’m a lesbian, I've been that everywhere. I came out early and every job I was out. I had other folks around me who helped support me. I work here because I am a non-profit practitioner. I found that I can be successful and that feels good as a woman. To say, ‘Here is my strength and here's how I can apply it to see the organization thrive.’”

When we asked Phyllis to tell us more about what she is most proud of, she didn’t hesitate to tell us all about her favorite role: motherhood. She told us of her proudest moments, “Personally it has to be that I have two healthy, thoughtful children. I birthed my son, and I caught my daughter. I am the birth mom of my son and my parenting partner is the birth mom of my daughter. They are 18 and 26 and the kids are alright, I'm telling you.”

Professionally, in addition to her long list of impactful job roles and meaningful differences made during her time at the LGBT center, Phyllis shared, “I’m proud of the legacy that I feel like I will be able to leave if things go well around my work for the center.” When she began over a decade ago, the organization's budget was $256,000 and is currently 2.7 million. This significant growth is due to the hard work of many people operating under Phyllis’s leadership and her deep pride in the work she does for the community. 

It can be so difficult for women to speak on their strengths and brag about their accomplishments that oftentimes our questions regarding proud moments and accolades leads to mentions of others who helped them get there. Though we all know that it takes a village and no one person can do it all alone, Phyllis had the perfect sentiment to describe the importance of recognizing our achievements as women both personally and professionally. “I think it's important for women to document our own lives and tell our own stories. Because there's always a lot of study that gets mixed about two things happen. I am grateful because the more I have the chance for people to hear it from me, the more the story is going to be right,” she said.

Additionally, Phyllis mentioned another point of pride that resonated with us. “I am very proud of myself for learning four chords on the ukulele during COVID. I can play some campfire music. That felt good to be able to say I taught myself something new. That self-care stuff is real,” she shared, reminding us that all achievements are worth celebrating and nothing is too minor of a goal to set for ourselves. There must be joy in the small things in order to properly acknowledge and applaud the bigger moments too.

Looking ahead to the future, Phyllis is very aware of her time with the organization and has no plans to overstay her welcome. She often looks to the next generation saying, “At some point, there will be others who will bring new fresh insights and energy to leading a place like this and we are poised. I want to go while it’s good.”

Personally, Phyllis hopes to focus more on her consulting business, Sage and Maven. She would love to become a certified coach and provide early to mid-career professionals with guidance and structure. A side-gig for now, Sage and Maven is something she hopes to foster in the future, and continent to grow in her knowledge and mentorship for others.

When it comes to her work at the center, Phyllis unsurprisingly has more big plans. Within the range of three to five years, the center has a dynamic plan to achieve clear goals, an action timeline, and clear objectives. Some of these plans have already come to fruition with the addition of east-side programming but Phyllis and her team are not done yet.

For Phyllis, the organization's goals will lead to her work raising 10 million dollars over the next three years. This comprehensive campaign will take advantage of the upcoming 50-year anniversary and encourage the community to help the center reach its goals. Phyllis considers this goal to be a high note and wants to make it a part of her legacy, both with the center and her career as a whole.

By her own admission and the clarity that comes along with speaking to her, it is obvious that Phyllis Harris is in fact, an incredible leader in the LGBT community, Cleveland community, Black community, and feminist community. A beacon of light for our city and its people, she has made such an impact on the world as a whole in her various roles with various organizations throughout her career. Her time at the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland is not only undeniably impressive but is every bit of the legacy she hopes to leave behind as she explores what may come next. It was an honor to speak with such a kind, thoughtful, generous, and beautiful soul as she detailed her journey, challenges, achievements, and plans for the future. As we head into Pride month, we encourage everyone to get out and support the LGBT center, their events, and all the missions of LGBT organizations in our community to celebrate! 


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