“I love the job that I do, because we are putting into place many things that have never existed before, that I never got a chance to have, or that I never even knew was a possibility,” said Sociology alumnus Ernie Gonzalez ’06, the operations director of the Compass Community Center in Palm Beach County, Fla. “It's creating not just the revolution that we're seeing out in the world today, but it's creating a sense of wellness within our youth who are most prone to homelessness, HIV/AIDS, and violence. It provides them with a sense of self before they are set out into the world, and to be validated and identified as who you really are, opposed to what was imposed on you.”
The Compass Community Center is the largest LGBTQ+ community center in the American Southeast, serving over 25,000 people each year. Gonzalez, born in Puerto Rico and raised in North Philadelphia, assists Compass in providing a variety of services such as mental health resources, STD testing, after school programs for youth, and community events such as Pride.
Gonzalez found his calling for social services after meeting Dr. Ana Maria Garcia, associate professor of Sociology, and Dr. Doreen Loury, assistant professor of Sociology and director of Pan-African Studies. He credits them with helping him discover how he can become a force of social change within both the LGBTQ+ and Latino communities.
While at Arcadia, Gonzalez was an intern with Congreso de Latinos Unidos, an umbrella organization which offers services to the Philadelphia Latino community, such as HIV/AIDS prevention and care programs. After graduation, he went on to provide social services with the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, before relocating to Florida where he found his home with Compass.
Gonzalez (right) on stage at a Compass Pride celebration.
Today, Gonzalez uses his experience in the intersectionality of Latino heritage and LGBTQ+ identity to better understand the unique needs of Palm Beach residents, some of whom are marginalized due to their ethnicity or language barriers, or are in different stages of their legal citizenship process. To assist the local Latino community, Compass held an Immigration Open House earlier this year, where community members could meet with immigration lawyers and receive legal assistance for free. Recently, Compass held a community meeting to facilitate discussion and understand the diversity within the Latino population itself.
“I have definitely come to grips with both of my identities and have used that to my benefit in order to integrate services and resources. Whatever we're doing for the LGBT community, it has a Latino aspect. And whatever we're doing for the Latino community has an LGBT aspect, so that everyone is included no matter what the services might be,” said Gonzalez.
Some of Gonzalez’s favorite events that he oversees at Compass include an LGBTQ+ friendly prom and Lavender Graduation Ceremony, which are open to all public school students in Palm Beach County. The annual prom night, open to students who are welcoming of LGBTQ+ identities, provides an opportunity for youth to dance with their partners and dress as they prefer. The Lavender Graduation Ceremony recognizes LGBT+ high school seniors and calls them by their chosen name, which some schools in Palm Beach County may refuse to do for transgender students. Gonzalez sees these events as important for the development of LGBTQ+ youth, as it affirms their identity and importance within their community.
“We have a little bit of everything. We are able to provide such a wide array of services not just for LGBT people, we are open to the community as a whole. All of our services are open to everyone and anyone,” said Gonzalez. “And I think that's one of the things I love about working at this organization—you really get to participate, work, and see the change you're creating within the community.”