Q & A with A. Charlene Leach

By Levi Weinhagen

In August, the PFund Foundation welcomed its new Executive Director, A. Charlene Leach (ACL). Since 1987, PFund Foun- dation has set out to invest in bold leaders so that LGBTQ communities in the upper Midwest can thrive. MCF Program Manager Levi Weinhagen (LW) got the chance to sit down with Leach and hear about what brought her to PFund, what informs her work, and what the future might look like for PFund.

LW: Can you talk about the roles you’ve had and what led you to PFund?
ACL: The bulk of my career has been LGBTQ work. It’s just looked different depending on the organization. My first foray was at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which is the home of the Harvey Milk High School, under Verna Eggleston. That led me to the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, where the executive director at the time was Rea Carey, who is now over at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

I then got into the field of HIV/AIDS still working within the LGBTQ community. It segments because the LGBTQ community is diverse, whether you’re working with people of color, or homeless youth or the various underserved populations, it was always part of that community. I never swayed from the community; my target population in the community is what varied.

LW: Do you think differently about impact when leading a direct service organization versus leading a foundation?
ACL: Not really because I think what’s going to show you the impact that you have is how you evaluate your programing. So, my focus will always remain on evaluation and being in the community. When you talk to the community and find out exactly what their needs are, then of course you want to evaluate to ensure that you’re giving the community what they need, and you’re effective at what you’re doing. In the end, there is your impact.

One of the things that I am doing here, almost since the day that I got here — is at least once a day, every day I’m meeting with someone in the community, one-on-one — whether that is someone who is currently involved with PFund Foundation, someone who was formerly involved with PFund Foundation, or someone who has never been involved with PFund. I’m meeting with folks to glean an understanding of what the community views as their major needs. I came from the East Coast, so it would be arrogant of me to come in and automatically assume I know what the needs of this community are without having their input. Once I have a real good idea of what that is then one of the things we’ll be doing is using those needs as the base of our strategic planning so we can ensure that as we are developing evaluation components to meet the needs of the community.

LW: Do you think having led a direct services organization gave you an awareness of the importance of coming in with questions rather than answers?
ACL: No, I think, quite honestly, that’s the result of being a person of color. Being a person of color and having lived in communities where the work was being done by non-people of color and having that work not reflect the true needs of the community, gave me the insight to ensure that when I’m going into communities, to make sure that the needs are defined by that community. When I go into new communities, I enter as a listener.

LW: How does your background set you up to lead PFund as it moves forward in new ways?
ACL: PFund Foundation has been around for 31 years and it’s done some absolutely amazing work and funded some outstanding individuals and organizations. What I bring to PFund is that I have relationships with a lot of national funders that traditionally fund the coasts. I hope to create more meaningful funding relationships in the Midwest.

Aside from creating those relationships with coastal funders, I’m really looking at growing the organization. PFund’s board and staff have a really clear idea about where it is that they want to go. In my conversations with the community stakeholders, they have a really good idea about the need for PFund Foundation as that go-to LGBTQ regional funder. I hope to be able to mesh those visions in a functioning way that supports and uplifts the LGBTQ community of the Midwest.

LW: Can you talk about how your personal values have shaped your professional path and ways the work you do has influenced how you think and reflect on your own personal values?
ACL: When I was 13 I had an uncle who came out to the family. My family is Southern Pentecostal Holiness. My family kind of went off the deep end and he ended up committing suicide. While I knew when he passed that I was a lesbian, that singular incident didn’t change my goals. I always wanted to be an attorney and that was my plan in leaving North Carolina and going to school in New York. However, I was in New York City one day, walking down Fifth Avenue, and I had a chance meeting with ACT UP. I wanted to know why a group of men were carrying a coffin down the street. I’m a southerner; funerals and death are sacred, so I needed to know why this was occurring. I had an opportunity to ask one of the men why and he explained to me that they were protesting the Catholic Church over their treatment of people with HIV. The Catholic Church ran some housing and they were not letting people with HIV into the housing. They were refusing to hold their funeral services in the churches. There were a lot of things going on.

So this man from ACT UP talked to me about HIV and at the time I was still under the impression, as a lot of people were, that only affected gay white men. He was like, “Um, no, there are also black men that are hospitalized in San Francisco as well.” That man, by the way, was Keith Cylar, who co-founded Housing Works in New York City. Amazingly, I ran into Keith about ten years later and I was actually working in the field of HIV. I feel blessed that, before he passed, I was able to let him know that he changed my life. I always go back to what happened with my uncle and I go back to the struggles I‘ve had, being gay and born and raised in the Pentecostal faith, but my commitment has never wavered. Not since that day when I was 18 and I ran into ACT UP.

LW: Having come from the south and having worked all over the country, are you noticing cultural differences in how the kind of work PFund does is talked about?
ACL: Oh yes. I moved here from DC. DC, like most cities, is suffering from extensive gentrification, and many low income LGBTQ, gender non-conforming and people of color are being pushed out of the city. Being the seat of US government, the approach is different, the conversation is different, the players are different. It’s not without its own issues…living in a city where our congresswoman doesn’t have a vote was very frustrating. However, given the current administration, it has been refreshing to be out of DC.

LW: What’s something happening at PFund that you’re really excited about?
ACL: I’m excited about the Better OUTcomes Initiative that we’re working on. One, it has the potential to be replicated all around the country. Two, there are a lot of communities who are wondering, ‘Okay, we’ve achieved marriage equality, what’s next?’ Three, there are a lot of communities, particularly communities of color, for whom marriage was never number one. For some of us, police brutality was number one. For a lot of low-income communities, dinner was number one. For those who are at a high risk for HIV, their personal safety was number one. For those living in the south and in hostile communities to their overall queerness — again, their personal safety as they walk the streets was number one. Not to reduce the importance of marriage equality — because many, many of us have taken advantage of the fact that we can now marry the person we love. But there are still some real issues that underserved and often overlooked LGBTQ communities still face. And a lot of those funders who funded the equal marriage initiative have kind of backed away. And I don’t think it was an intentional backing away, but it was kind of like “we’ve got victory and now we can focus on something else.” There are still so many issues out there that need to be addressed.

LW: Anything you’re excited about for your first full winter in Minnesota?
ACL: I was born and raised in North Carolina and didn’t see more than a few flurries of snow until my late teens when I was in college in New York. So, I’m excited to build a snowman and then, to be completely honest, I will be excited to jump right to spring.

Levi is a program manager at MCF and is the private, independent and family foundation contact. Additionally, Levi has been collaborating with artists and creative types for all of his adult life as a theater maker, comedy writer, and performer.