There are leaders who love to lead for the sake of it. There are leaders who love to hear the sound of their own voice.
There are also even leaders who love to merely have an audience. Then there are leaders like Center on Halsted's CEO Modesto Tico Valle. Affectionately known as Tico around the community, the no-fuss director keeps his voice, his passion, and his loyal staff to where it all matters - the people.
With 2012 marking the five year anniversary of Center on Halsted since opening its doors in 2007, the upcoming highly anticipated Human First Gala hosted by Bravo's Andy Cohen on May 12, and program as well as building expansion initiatives, Tico has a lot to be proud of and to celebrate. He snaps a smile, thanks his staff and it's back to work, which is what makes Tico a leader's leader.
Tico is no stranger to rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty.
From his days as the founder of the NAMES Project in 1989, an AIDS Memorial Quilt, and organizing national displays of the quilt at Navy Pier and Washington D.C. to his more current role as the head of Center on Halsted, Tico has a "just the facts ma'am" tone matched with a reassuring presence that would let anyone know he cares. Above all, Tico isn't out to lead; he's out to serve.TC:
(Terrence Chappell) You have an extensive history in the nonprofit sector. How did you get started in that field?MTV:
(Modesto Tico Valle) I went to seminary school and that's kind of where everything got started. Prior to that, I was doing a lot of volunteer work and very much wanted to make a difference in society, to give back, to help find people's voices, and to help create change. I thought I would find that in the religious light but later discovered that was not my calling.
So, I very much got involved in the fight for AIDS because at that time the AIDS epidemic started surfacing. It was the 80s, and I started losing a lot of friends. The first task was to bring the AIDS Memorial Quilt to Chicago, so I was apart a large group of volunteers who worked on that endeavor. The first display (of the AIDS Memorial Quilt) was so moving that it really mobilized our city of volunteers. It really began to create the infrastructure to take care of our family, of our brothers and sisters that were dying.
So from that open hand, which today is Vital Bridges was born – Meals on Wheels for people living with AIDS – Chicago House was born as well. Horizons at the time was very active on creating buddy systems and support groups.
Howard Brown later surfaced because it was born out of Horizons. So, there's a lot of history with the work on the quilt and Horizons. Since Horizons was always there, it helped create a lot of the organizations that exist today.TC:
You mentioned that you lost friends to the AIDS epidemic. So, it affected you on a personal level as well.MTV:
When I came back to Chicago after several years a very close friend of mine approached me and said he was just diagnosed. This is a prominent man who has a very prominent family in politics, and he asked if I would be there for him when his time comes. At that time it was a death sentence. It was just a matter of time. I said of course I'd be there for him but you have a family, you have all these wonderful friends. His response was that no they're not friends and my family won't be there for me because all they want is my money, and I really want a friend to be there in my most quiet moment, my most desperate moment. I was there to the very end. It was ugly. It was painful.
Even though today there's hope and people are living longer but the deaths that people suffered at the early days of this epidemic was horrifying. I remember our friends growing together and cooking meals, changing IV drugs, feeding him, taking care of the cats, and really coming together as a family because hatred and bigotry was all over our community. Not only were the elected officials of this country turning their backs on us but also the straight community was turning their backs on us. Even in the gay community no one knew what this was, so it was hysteria there too.TC:
Were you scared?MTV:
We were all scared. But at the end of the day these were human beings. These were friends. And that ultimately is what mattered to me.
I do remember a turning point for my family. I was pretty exhausted because of long nights at work. I went to my mom, and said I'm at the house alone today and at least need to get some sleep. I asked if she would come over and at least sit with him (friend diagnosed with AIDS) for a couple of hours. For my mom it was such an eye awakening that his family had disowned him and that his partner had left. It seemed like a very lonely place but friends gathered and took care of friends.
It was then when I realized that this epidemic is not about people being gay. It was about all the fears and hatred people had and how we needed to speak up.
There really is no other disease that has hit this country during our lifetime like AIDS. People lost their jobs. People lost their homes. People lost their dignity. And that's why AIDS really was a defining moment for the AIDS community.TC:
How did you transition from the NAMES Project (AIDS Memorial Quilt) to Horizons Community Services, which is now Center on Halsted?MTV:
I was a volunteer for Horizons. HIV made headlines and more and more organizations were set up to support people living with AIDS and new drugs were popping up during the time. The Quilt continued to be an inspiring voice to educate them, to open minds and hearts. So, it allowed me to really explore other opportunities, and I got more involved with Horizons at the time.
Fast forward to the late 90s and there's talk of creating a community center. So, when Horizons decided to go down this path of creating a center the volunteers agreed to not make any announcements.
We wanted to make sure that we knew what we are doing because there had been so many false starts in Chicago and that's how we got started.
I was a volunteer and then I joined the board that voted to cerate a task force to look at creating this community center. I soon joined the staff of Horizons to help get ready for this center. So, many years later here I am, the CEO of Center on Halsted; the most comprehensive community. The model for the country.TC:
When you were a volunteer, did you see yourself as the CEO of what is now the Center on Halsted?MTV:
I didn't see myself as the CEO of that time. I saw myself as someone who could help be apart of something that could be powerful for our community. It was probably two to three years later when I was on the staff that I said to myself I can see myself as being a leader here.TC:
And now you are a leader here. What do you have to say for the Center on Halsted now in 2012?MTV:
We want the Center to be a destination. We want it to respond to the needs of our community. But I don't think we realized that the need was greater then we expected. Years ago, a lot of talk focused on rather or not we needed a Center this big. Now, five years later, we do need it this big. The need was great in our community and we need it bigger. We need Centers on Halsted throughout the city of Chicago.
That's pretty powerful that here we are in 2012 and our community is asking for more of us. Young people come from the border of Indiana for our services because this is a safe environment. Seniors travel from the suburbs because this is the only place that exists for them to connect with other seniors like them. Families come here with their children because they want their children to be loving human beings.TC:
What are some long-term goals you have for the Center on Halsted?MTV:
We see a lot of homeless youth and adults at the Center. I think we have an obligation and a role to be more active in looking at the homeless crisis in the city of Chicago for LGBT people and helping to create solutions. That to me is a priority.
I believe as we continue to strive for equality that we need to look at all the other challenges that face the LGBT community around health disparities and transgender equality, which we have a long way to go on those issues. Hate crimes and bullying are products of our movement towards equality.
The more we move towards ensuring that we receive all the benefits that all Americans receive, the more people will want us to go back in the closet. There will always be a need for community centers like the Center. There will always be a need for activism, advocacy work, and policy work. We will go down that path and continue to make sure that our voices are heard and that people's rights are protected. We can be a beacon of hope for people who come through our doors everyday.TC:
Any plans for satellite locations for Center on Halsted?MTV:
There's always the dream to have satellite locations, so there would be a Center on Halsted South, West, just to follow the Halsted street on down because it's a very rich street. TC:
You mentioned challenges that face the LGBT community. It could be argued that race relations in the LGBT community is a challenge. What's the Center on Halsted stance on the issue?MTV:
Racism. Sexism. All the isms of our society are a challenge. They take time. We have a role as a community center to Lakeview but also all LGBT people in the Chicagoland area. We won't shy away from those challenges and we will take them on and call them out what they are and when it occurs – when people are being racist, sexist, or homophobic. We will really work with the community to try to find solutions.
There's no one answer for every situations. We will look at every situation and see what's the best strategy or best approach.TC:
How has the Center on Halsted worked with the neighborhood on dealing with challenges of all types?MTV:
We work very closely with the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce. We work very closely with both aldermen – James Cappelman and Tom Tunney. We work with the police department as well. We have very strong relationships with business owners, churches, elected officials, and law enforcement. We have to because we see such a large presence of community at the Center and around, so we want to make sure that our communities respect it. We take a lot of time and are purposeful in building those relationships and maintaining those relationships, but also bringing those relationships in the Center, so they can be advocates for our work and us.TC:
That's great. What is Tico's vision for Center on Halsted; your personal takes?MTV:
I definitely want us to go down the path of doing more advocacy and policy work. I want us to take a more active role around homelessness for adults and youth, specifically around LGBT people and those that are underserved. I want the Center to continue to thrive around being the educational institution for people and students who want to go into the field of serving the LGBT community. So, if you're a clinician wanting to be a therapist, you go to the Center to do your internship. If you want to go into youth work, you go to the Center to do your internship. I want us to be that training ground for the future, so that our work is not only in Chicago, but all over the country and the world.TC:
Center's Human First Gala is right around the corner. So, that's really exciting.MTV:
It's very exciting this year. We're honoring some incredible people that have been with us for five years or more really. They were apart of creating the Center. So, that's exciting because we honor our history by honoring individuals at this gala. We have some fabulous talent as well – k.d. Lang and Andy Cohen is hosting this year, which is a testament to our work – that we draw that caliber of talent that wants to be with us and perform for our community. 1,500 people are coming and that's pretty big. So, that's another testament. But this is a party to start other parties later on in the year to celebrate our work. We want to make sure everybody has a chance to celebrate with us.TC:
What has been some of your best memories from working at the Center on Halsted?MTV:
For me it's when I have time to be in the hallways with the patrons that come to the Center, and I hear all the stories. I love hearing from our seniors about their journey in life and how the Center means something to them. I love to be in the lobby and hear why people come to connect or to just have a cup of coffee, or to enjoy the art exhibits. I love going in the family room and hearing a dad say that he wants to network with other families and I want my son to be a loving human being. When I hear those stories, I'm like wow. Wow, that's what it is about – it's about them. It's not about me. It's about them.
And the other thing that inspires me is my staff. I have an incredible staff here who are really dedicated to the work. They could be anywhere but they choose to be here. They are committed. They work long hours and they're always client centered. It's about the client. You don't find that in a lot of places.TC:
What do you want your legacy to be?MTV:
Oh wow. Good question; that I was for the people and that I represented them and carried their voice.