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Center’s new director seems born for the job

With a smile that lights up the room and a personality that makes you quickly feel as if you’ve known her for years, Colleen Carpenter could host a morning television show or be a star diplomat.

But, fortunately for the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, she’s decided to become its new executive director — after being selected from a pool of candidates that numbered close to 60. The announcement of her hiring was the crowning achievement of a year that saw the struggling center come back from near death to firm financial footing, while at the same time attaining an unprecedented level of community engagement.

Carpenter’s resume and her personal history create the portrait of someone who’s not merely suited for her new position but fated for it.

“I had four different people send me the announcement (for the job) and say, ‘You’d be perfect for this position,’” she said. “And I thought, ‘What fun!’” 

Carpenter’s professional background mirrors many of the programs offered by the center.

Carpenter was married and had three children when she finally came out to herself and her family in 1986. She lived in Milwaukee at the time and worked for organizations serving victims of domestic violence.

In the late 1990s, Carpenter relocated to St. Louis, where she ran a YWCA community center and also worked for organizations that that found housing for people living with AIDS and assisted homeless and runaway youth. 

She moved back to Milwaukee to be near her grown children, and she’s now single and living in the neighborhood she calls “Gay View.”

Carpenter officially begins the job on Nov. 18. I sat down with her shortly after her hiring was announced, and we had a wide-ranging conversation.

Louis Weisberg: What attracted you to the job?

Colleen Carpenter: The board of directors is the first thing. When you’re an executive director, you have not one boss but 12 or 14. This group has done such an amazing job of pulling in the same direction. I’ve never met more dedicated, intelligent and passionate people.

The second thing was the business structure. Most nonprofits are confined to a specific mission: sexual assault, domestic violence, homelessness, whatever it is. A community center is so different because whatever programming is there should be reflective of all the needs and interests of the community it’s designed to serve. You have a chance to be creative with the programming in a way that you can’t when you’re working with a single issue.

What will be your first order of business?

It seems to me that my first couple of months here my stance should be to watch, listen and learn. It’s really presumptuous when a new director comes in and her first week or first month comes says, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ I think it’s disrespectful, and I don’t really have an agenda.

To come in behind (interim executive director) Karen (Gotzler), whom I’ve idolized for 25 years, is humbling. I’ve known her since shortly after I first came out. She’s brilliant and driven and entrepreneurial — and it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ If  I can perform at half the level that Karen Gotzler performs at every day with one hand tied behind her back, I’ll be doing good.

What’s your vision for the center?

I’m really interested in hearing from the community. I really do believe that we should be reflecting the interests of our community. When our community says, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we could do this?’ then our job is to make that happen. 

“I describe the community center model as a big canvas. You’ve painted certain things in certain places on the canvas but there’s still a lot of white space there. I want to see us painting on a larger surface of the canvas.

What’s your approach to youth programming?

“When we talk about young people, we’re always programming toward their deficits. We want to help them address safety, risk prevention and all of those things. They’re absolutely essential. But you talk to any of our young people and they can tell you what their issues are, but they might not have a clue what their gifts are. In a broad sense I want us to figure out ways to help our young people to find their gifts and find things they can celebrate as opposed to just what their problem is this week or month.

Are you looking forward to this?

I think it’s going to be a blast. I know you’re not supposed to have fun at work because then it’s not work — that’s our puritan upbringing.

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