"The numbers of people we reach are very limited. We gotta do better," said Ed Straub who is with Switchboard of Miami's GLBTQ Helpline and Suicide Awareness Program in a momentary aside during his imaginative slide show entitled Developing a GLBTQ Virtual Community Center.
On Saturday, May 16th, at the Conrad Miami Hotel, Mr. Straub led thirty-four South Florida community service providers through a proposal for the creation of a GLBT Virtual Community Center for Miami Dade. None of the attendees gave him any argument, and in the course of the morning it became clear that if these experienced, skilled and concerned community leaders decide to increase the reach of their programs through a virtual center, with the dedicated Mr. Straub at the helm of such a venture, it would probably succeed beyond expectation.
Following Mr. Straub's presentation, a panel of four, including Linda Jain, Volunteer Coordinator for the Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Community Center, Jennifer Ortiz of Switchboard, Charles Martin, Executive Director of the South Beach AIDS Project, and Carla Silva, Acting Director of the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth, proposed questions about the logistics, merits, cost and organization of such a project.
The participants described a variety of "old school" outreach strategies, such as condom distribution, the construction of brick and mortar drop-in centers, hosting social events, entering chat rooms, patrolling hook-up sites and using existing popular LGBT websites to advertise their services. There was avid agreement that their clients are spending significant time on Facebook, Twitter, World of Warcraft and the like. Two of the participants were eager to use a website called Second Life as a model of a virtual world, but none of the other participants at the session had ever visited that site. This led to a discussion of the ephemeral and ever-mutating nature of online nesting. My Space is yesterday. Facebook will eventually be replaced by something more popular. Twitter will wither. There is always a new virtual juggernaut. A virtual community center would have to be flexible in design and able to reinvent itself at the speed demanded by its users who will vacate a website en masse the instant it is deemed to be out.
The core questions holding the group's attention included the following from Mr. Straub's list of twenty:
- What are the driving reasons for a GLBT community center in Miami- Dade?
- What are our clients now using for online social networking?
- What makes other community centers successful?
- Can some of those elements/needs be met online?
- What are the perceived costs of implementing and the payoffs?
- How much time do our clients spend on the computer?
- Would people feel comfortable with online counseling?
- What are the security and privacy issues?
Without any formal vote, the attendees seemed to reach consensus that an online virtual GLBTQ community center is a good idea, that the project should be cooperative and that funding should be sought for this venture. At lunch, Mr. Straub concluded the meeting with a promise to continue his work to achieve these goals.