September is Pride Month here in Champaign-Urbana. C-U’s annual Pride Fest and Parade is hosted by The UP Center of Champaign County. This year’s event marks the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, and the 10th anniversary of our local Pride celebration. I sat down with William Blanchard to get to know him and learn more about his work at The UP Center.
Smile Politely: What does an inclusive community mean to you?
William Blanchard: It means a community where not only everyone is free to be themselves, but also not afraid to access services as themselves. So many young LGBTQ+ people aren’t able to turn the government, their community, or school for help. This is something that Champaign-Urbana is actively working to fix.
SP: Tell me a little bit about The UP Center. What’s the mission? What’s your position?
Blanchard: I’m President of the Board of Directors at The UP Center of Champaign County. Our mission is to increase the visibility and embrace of the LGBTQ+ community and provide services, particularly to LGBTQ+ youth. Youth are often the ones who may not able to speak up for themselves. We’re a volunteer board and The UP Center doesn’t employ an executive director. Our Vice President, Nathan Alexander, and I pretty much fill that role as well.
SP: How is The UP Center organized and funded?
Blanchard: We’re a registered 501c3. Our youth and family services are generously funded through the Champaign County Mental Health Board. Our additional programs and events are funded through donations from community members, for which we’re very grateful.
SP: What’s your favorite part about being involved in The UP Center?
Blanchard: I’d have to say making the world better for the young LGBTQ+ people after me. I remember being young and looking up to all the people who came before me, who made it better for me. I’m lucky to be able to pay that forward to others.
SP: What makes The UP Center unique or special?
Blanchard: We’re a grassroots organization, and we don’t have a lot of high earning people on our board. Our events are primarily staffed by volunteers from the community.
SP: What are some challenges for The UP Center?
Blanchard: Like most nonprofits, our two biggest challenges are money and people. It’s also a challenge at times to paint an adequate picture of the great work we do in the community. Because we work with youth, we have to keep some of our achievements and community impact confidential. We can’t always talk about the stories that represent our work because that might jeopardize someone’s future or family situation.
SP: What are some things that The UP Center consistently gets right or are consistently successful?
Blanchard: In general we do a great job of networking with community organizations. When someone comes to us and needs more than we can provide, we know who to refer them to, other community organizations that are going to be accepting and loving. I would also say that our youth events are consistently highly attended.
SP: What comes easiest to you in your position as president of The UP Center?
Blanchard: I’ve been a part of the C-U community since 2002. I’ve been able to make a lot of connections with folks in town who are eager to help The UP Center’s cause. I led the Pride organization at the University of Illinois when I was in undergrad there. I’m good at finding people who are more talented and smarter than I am, and coordinating their efforts.
SP: What’s the next skill you want to learn?
Blanchard: I’d like to learn how to do more effective outreach. At The UP Center, we do a great job of creating opportunities where we’re face to face with people. Being able to rally a group and get others excited is something I’d like to learn.
SP: How can people get involved with The UP Center?
Blanchard: Champaign-Urbana’s annual Pride Fest and Parade is happening September 28th! It’s the largest Pride celebration in downstate Illinois. People should come out and support the community. We’re also still in need of volunteers. Check out our website, unitingpride.org, for all the event details and volunteer sign-ups.
Speaking as the gay kid from a rural town 20 years ago, seeing the community turn out in such a large way for Pride Fest would have had a big impact on me. I hope that the fantastic turnout and enthusiastic support that we get for the CU Pride Fest each year will be an impact on all the LGBTQ+ people in the region.
SP: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become more involved in building a better C-U community?
Blanchard: C-U has a number of fantastic volunteer opportunities. If you find a cause you’re passionate about, I can almost promise you there’s an organization for it. The United Way does a great job of promoting nonprofits, volunteer opportunities, and building community in our town.
SP: How would you describe yourself?
Blanchard: Occasionally smart, always attractive, always humble.
SP: Do you have a nickname?
Blanchard: When I waited tables downtown, everyone called me “tie clip.” My friend Ashley Malin bought me a sterling silver 1930’s tie clip because she was tired of me using paperclips to keep my tie out of the dirty dishes.
SP: Do you have a personal model who inspires you?
Blanchard: Curt McKay, who ran the U of I LGBT Resource Center for most of my undergrad. Curt always managed to bring different voices together and gave other people credit for the center’s successes. He provided a calm, reasoned and considerate voice to every room he was in. I also admire Curt’s successor, Leslie Morrow. She has worked tirelessly to increase the staffing and reach of the LGBT Resource Center. She always keeps the overarching goals in sight, but takes the time to step back and forge connections with individuals or personally help the students in her charge. Her stamina is unparalleled. And, Captain Picard is a close 3rd.
SP: What kind of music do you like to listen to?
Blanchard: I don’t listen to much music in my free time, but I do like Vienna Teng, who’s a singer/songwriter. You should check out her song, “City Hall.”
SP: What’s your favorite food?
Blanchard: The spicier it is, the better!
SP: What do you do in your free time?
Blanchard: After Pride Fest is over, I have a stack of science fiction novels waiting for me.
SP: What are your passions in life?
Blanchard: Right now I have two passions: the UP Center and sharing cute pictures of my bunnies on the internet.
SP: What makes you laugh?
Blanchard: Watching stand-up acts on YouTube, particularly lesser known comics from New York City. Our UP Center Vice President’s puns do not make me laugh and I hope he sees this.
SP: Where are you from? Where have you lived?
Blanchard: I was born in Carbondale. I’ve lived most of my life in Carbondale and Makanda until coming to Champaign-Urbana.
SP: Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to become involved in community building and activism?
Blanchard: I came out in high school and tried not to draw attention to myself and stay under the radar. When I was older and went back to Carbondale, I found out how some very supportive people had quietly helped me in the background during that time. I’m talking about some of my teachers, the guidance counselor, my friends’ parents. I wish there had been an organization when I was in high school, that could have let me know who I could safely ask for help.
I think that kids should have good people in their lives, who believe in them. Listening to William, it seems that The UP Center is all about that. School was tough for me at times, but I had supportive teachers and friends. With support from The UP Center and similar groups, I hope that other kids can have that, too.
Click here for more information about The UP Center of Champaign County and CU’s Pride Fest and Parade.
Click here to volunteer for the 2019 CU Pride Fest and Parade.