Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On the history of the Westchester LGBT Advisory Board: a speech

The following is the text of my speech last night at the ceremony marking Pride Month at the commencement of last night's Westchester County Board of Legislators' meeting:

A Brief History of the Westchester County LGBT Advisory Board

The history of the Advisory Board begins a decade before the Board was formed, with the initial creation of a position of part-time liaison to the lesbian and gay community by County Executive Andrew O’Rourke, in 1992.

The first liaison was Norma Karmiol Crohn, whose served from 1992 to 1994. In 1994 Dr. Zelle Andrews was appointed by County Executive O’Rourke, and she served until 2000. The position was made full time and filled briefly from February to May 2001 by Joseph DeFilippis, a community activist, He was followed by Laura Newman, who was appointed by County Executive Andrew Spano in October 2001. Ms. Newman served until October 2007. In January 2008, she was replaced by Yvette Christofilis.

The position of liaison was consolidated with other liaison positions at the beginning of the Astorino administration in 2010, and the person appointed to fill the consolidated position was Diane Balistrieri, who continues to date to provide a connection between the Advisory Board and the county executive and other county officials.

From the time of the initial creation of the liaison position, one of the primary interfaces of the liaison with community groups was with one group, the LOFT in White Plains. By late 2001, the community landscape had changed, and there were a multiplicity of organizations serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population in Westchester County.

Before the Advisory Board was created, Liaison Laura Newman, recognizing the changed landscape of the community, expanded the liaison’s contacts with LGBT community organizations to go beyond the LOFT. While The LOFT remained and still is the largest LGBT community center, Ms. Newman recognized that there were a number of other groups in the county. Initially, she ran several meetings with community groups in 2001 and 2002, but this proved to be somewhat unwieldy over time.

The LGBT Advisory Board was created in 2002 for the purpose of providing a conduit between the LGBT community and the County Executive, through the Liaison. Consisting of unpaid volunteers appointed by the county executive on the recommendation of the liaison and the board, the board serves as a think tank and its purpose is to advise the county executive on LGBT issues. Members of the board provide the liaison, and the county executive with their expertise in issues that relate to the diversity of the LGBT community within the county. The board assists the liaison in other ways, helping to formulate policy recommendations, surveying the community for needs assessment purposes, and more recently, providing an annual report to the community in a Town Hall meeting.

In addition to having meetings that are open to the public, since 2006 the advisory board’s annual Town Hall meeting in the late spring, provides a conduit for the board to report to, and obtain input from, the LGBT community. The board also set up a program of annual awards to recognize achievements of individuals, businesses, and organizations that contribute to the life-blood and well-being of the community.

The Advisory board has been involved in assisting with the annual PrideWorks program for LGBT youth, sponsoring college summit meetings to engage college students with the community, and in implementing ever-so-needed sensitivity training programs for police and county employees.

The Advisory Board also contributed to the formation of the Westchester Pride Coalition, an organization of 13 community groups based in Westchester County, that organized annual pride celebrations, commencing with Pride at Playland in 2009.

As we look to the future, the advisory board hopes to continue its work of service to both the county government and to the community.

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