Editor’s note: the full Black Pride schedule is here.
When D.C. Black Pride, the five-day celebration of the metropolitan area’s black LGBT community, unfolds this week, it will be with notably less fanfare than in years past.
Vendors won’t be as prevalent. Crowds are expected to be smaller and more local. Panel discussions on issues affecting the community will number fewer.
It’s a change to D.C. Black Pride as many know it — and organizers say it’s a good thing.
“It’s not bad – the fact is that Black Prides, including D.C., have to reflect on what it is we can do to make a difference in the lives of people in our community,” says long-time event organizer Earl Fowlkes, a 14-year veteran of Black Lesbian and Gay Pride Day Inc., the 501(c)(3) that oversees the event. “We’re doing much more advocacy and much more community service.”
After a generation hosting one of the nation’s premier Memorial Day events for black gays and lesbians, the organization is shifting attention toward a slate of year-round workshops it says better serve an audience with changing priorities.
It means lower-key Pride celebrations with fewer offerings. But organizers say the tradeoff is attention to practical issues that matter to black gays and lesbians more than all-night parties and rainbow flags.
“It’s really about being relevant and being around for the next 20 years,” Fowlkes says.
Make no mistake — the event running from Thursday through Monday will feature many long-time staples: The writer’s forum, film festival and a poetry slam with a $250 grand prize are among the audience favorites that haven’t gone anywhere.
But changes also are apparent: A long-running vendor marketplace, for instance, has disappeared. Panel discussions on topics like depression in gay black men, meanwhile, will number fewer than in recent years.
Part of the reason is economic.
“We have scaled down some of our expenses so we can really focus on being a year-round organization,” Fowlkes says, adding the group also has been impacted as nonprofit donations have slowed.
In 2011, the organization plans community outreach surrounding domestic violence and LGBT foster parenting. Providing career-building help, targeting youth and transgender men and women especially, is another goal.
It’s a return to basics for the event, founded in 1991 to help raise money for HIV/AIDS organizations as well as provide a Memorial Day meeting ground for area gays and lesbians of color. The event has since grown to attract up to 30,000 attendees, Fowlkes says. This year, like last year, is expected to bring in about 15,000 as some would-be attendees head to fledgling Black Pride events around the country.
“In many ways, [D.C.] Black Pride is a victim of our own success,” says Fowlkes, who heads the International Federation of Black Prides, a growing umbrella group representing 35 black prides from Toronto to San Diego. “People see that it’s not difficult to do [an event] and people who are entrepreneurs have taken advantage.”
At the same time, the audience is changing, he says.
“Some people were coming to the Pride in the early years when they were 23,” he says. “Now they’re in their 40s and now coming to our form of celebration is not as refreshing and new as it was.”
Jack Hairston understands that sentiment. An attendee since the early ’90s, at 49, he said he’s lost interest in the party aspects of Pride. He says organizers are on the right track by shifting gears, but also need to ramp up efforts to reach the next generation of black gays and lesbians.
“They think it’s all about parties and D.C. is not giving the best parties anymore – so why even come?” he says. “[Leaders] need to recruit the right people across the age groups to keep it relevant.”
Fowlkes says crossing generational boundaries is a high priority for the group. This year, for instance, he says the board included two young adults who later bowed out due to scheduling conflicts. Also, among the panel discussions planned for this weekend is one titled, “Does the Black LGBT Community Really Care About Black Youth?”
But the fledgling efforts ring hollow for B. “Breeze” Bennett, a 25-year-old area party promoter and community personality. She could think of only one person under age 35 who is directly involved with the group and saw little outreach on the many e-mail lists she belongs to.
“It seems like they’re definitely interested in spirit,” she says of the Black Pride board’s efforts to recruit young leaders. “I would just like to see more action behind those sentiments and more resourceful outreach – just a bit more gumption.”