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The Empowering Spirits Foundation: Bridging the gap between the LGBT community and non-LGBT neighbors

(SAN DIEGO) The passage of Proposition 8 was a devastating blow to the LGBT community, but for one organization it was the catalyst for implementing a new approach to reaching the voters who may have voted yes. 

The Empowering Spirits Foundation, Inc. (ESF) is a non-profit, non-partisan, grassroots-based civil rights organization working to achieve LGBT equality through community service activities. Instead of changing the laws, it strives to change the hearts and minds of the voters that are generally ignored by the other existing LGBT organizations.

“The day after the [the passage of Prop.8] various gay rights organizations attacked Christians, the Mormon Church and minority groups. In my mind this intolerance only amplified the hate, it didn't create change,” said A. Latham Staples, ESF President and CEO.

Staples, a long time activist (and SDGLN contributor), was laughed at when he suggested to one of those organizations that the LGBT community should foster dialogue with such groups instead of attacking them. Four days later ESF was established.

ESF continues to grow as an organization by collaborating with other groups both nationally (Habitat for Humanity) and locally (San Diego’s Park & Recreation Department and the Gethsemane Lutheran Church). ESF’s LGBT volunteers engage with other organizations' diverse mixture of existing volunteers on projects that range from home building to park restoration to canned food drives and even educational partnerships.

The goal is not to promote a political issue, but rather to befriend an individual who may not interact with an LGBT person on a daily basis- while also providing a worthwhile service to the community at large.  ESF also focuses on working with minority groups and with people in conservative regions, where research shows marriage equality is largely unsupported. 

“Overby and Barth in 2002, and several other researchers since then, have found that increased exposure to LGBT individuals results in significantly warmer attitudes towards the population as a whole," adds Staples. "Interaction with even one LGBT individual increases the willingness to vote for equal rights, by a significant amount. When you increase the number of LGBT individuals a person is exposed to, their tolerance of the entire population increases dramatically.

"When people see that LGBT individuals are not very different from themselves, the old, unfounded and inaccurate stereotypes are shattered. By bringing together the two groups of people, ESF helps to create the interactions that dispel the stereotypes."

Although more than 80% of ESF’s projects take place outside of California, the organization recently helped to plant more than 250 trees in Ruffin Canyon and assisted in the building of a new trail in Del Mar. In October, ESF held its first annual event, Proud Hearts Reach Out, in which roughly 5,000 volunteers, helped to build 36 habitat homes, participated in food drives in LA, assisted in a marsh clean up in Orange County, and collaborated in a farms conservatory in Memphis.

As an example of ESF’s impact, one recent volunteer sent along an email after the tree planting event in San Diego’s Ruffin Canyon.  

“I am an older woman, have never had kids, and don’t know much about the gay community," said the author of the email, identified as "Barbara".

"I’m still a bit confused on the idea of two men or two women being together. But after getting to know you guys at Saturday’s event, I will admit that my preconceived notions may have been wrong. I really appreciate your honest and thoughtful approach.  Everyone was down to earth and I didn’t once feel like I was being attacked or that your viewpoint was being forced upon me. It was a pleasure getting to know everyone.  You’ve opened up my mind to the possibility of different things.”

When legislation affecting the LGBT community makes its way onto the ballot once again, it is highly likely that volunteers such as Barbara will rethink how they vote.

“[ESF] is about taking action to better the world we live in, rather than talking about it,” said Sara Beth Brooks, an ESF volunteer. Brooks, who also volunteers with organizations like Courage Campaign, feels that ESF also provides networking opportunities not specifically internalized to the LGBT community.

Currently, ESF has 38,723 members nationwide and 17 board members scattered throughout the US in cities like Austin, Birmingham and of course San Diego.  Its fan page on Facebook has amassed close to 7,000 followers.

At the moment ESF is preparing for their Spring 2010 national event that will take place across 103 cities. To become involved with the organization or to learn more, send an email to info@empoweringspirits.org.