Resource Center CEO Cece Cox took her agency to new heights in 2016, but family, friends and coworkers praise her dedication to family as much as to community
This has been a banner year for Resource Center. And CEO Cece Cox is the one who has been waving that banner all along, leading the way in creating an agency continually striving to find new and better ways to meet needs in every segment of the North Texas LGBT community.
And so, in recognition not only of her six years as head of Resource Center but also her more than 30 years as an advocate for LGBT equality, Dallas Voice has chosen Cece Cox as our 2016 LGBT Texan of the Year.
Resource Center — first incorporated as the Foundation for Human Understanding in 1983 — officially opened its new $8.7 million LGBT Community Center at 5750 Cedar Springs Road a in May. Less than a month later, that new center was the site of an emotional gathering of hundreds of people mourning the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Resource Center continued operating its Nelson-Tebedo Clinic, 4012 Cedar Springs Road, as usual, while moving its food pantry to the former headquarters at 2701 Reagan at the same time the Reagan Street facilities were being remodeled. The remodeled — and renamed — Simmons Health Campus facilities were rededicated in mid November.
Dallas Voice spoke to Cox earlier this week about Resource Center’s milestones this year, under the guise of writing a year-end wrap-up on local LGBT and HIV/AIDS agencies. In that interview, Cox said that since she first took over as CEO, the task of building a new facility was what she feared most, and what most compelled her.
Her goal, she said, has always been for Resource Center to better serve the community, and with the opening of the new center in May, “we fulfilled our promise to do that.”
Cox described the new community center as a dynamic piece of architecture with “movement” and “an interesting visual. Six months after it opened, she said, she still gets excited to see people using the building.
Cox said the young LGBT people she has talked to tell her they are happy to have a place to come, and she said the building’s large expanse of glass does exactly what she had hope — project an image of an open and welcoming home. “We are,” she said, “inspiring. We’re a beacon.”
Cox said she is also happy with how the remodel at the Health Campus — which houses the food pantry, the hot meals program, the insurance program and an expanded counseling program — has turned out. “We transformed [the facility] while honoring its past,” she said.
Cox said she is grateful for the support that allowed her to lead the effort to build the new facility, renovate the older buildings and thus provide the space and opportunities the community needs. But her friends, family and coworkers said this week it’s Cox’s leadership, spirit and dedication that make them grateful as this year comes to an end.
“I’ve known Cece since the 1990s, when she was president of [Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance] and I was working in radio,” said Rafael McDonnell, communications and advocacy manager for Resource Center for the last eight years. He said that the construction of the new community center and renovation of the Health Campus “is the fulfillment of a dream we’ve had, as a community and as a center, for so many years. It’s taken a lot of work to get here. It’s been a long journey, and Cece is the captain of our ship.”
McDonnell credited Cox with having the stamina and the dedication to not only see the center through this massive construction phase, but to “at the same time remain engaged with the community.” He pointed to her role in the vigil for the Orlando victims and her meeting with Dallas Police Chief David Brown to express the community’s concerns when the Rev. Robert Jeffress, anti-gay pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, announced his church would be “counseling” police officers.
She has also maintained her position and duties as co-chair of the board of CenterLink, a national network of LGBT community centers. As the CenterLink board co-chair, Cox is “the face and the voice of the LGBT community of Dallas, and she is always very much aware that she represents us to the rest of the country that way,” McDonnell said.
And here at home, he added, “she is our vision person, helping us set our standards and our goals, and helping us reach them. Cece is our champion, and she is our cheerleader.”
Linda Moore, an attorney who served on the Resource Center board for more than 15 years, said she still gets an incredible thrill each time she drives by the new Community Center. And it was Cox, she said, that pulled together the capital campaign that made it possible, by reaching out to “a broader footprint of people” than anyone else could have done.
“Cece has the ability to inform and educate people about all the things Resource Center does,” Moore said, adding that she was glad Cox chose to keep the Reagan Street property and renovate it, rather than selling it. She said that the building there is “iconic,” and that “I hope it continues to be a special place for the people who use those services.”
Moore also had high praise for Cox’s work as an activist as well as an administrator. “She’s been an advocate at a lot of critical times” for the LGBT community, Moore said of Cox. “She’s never been afraid to say when something’s not right. She’s not afraid to talk to any audience.”
A prime example, Moore said, was when Cox began hearing that even though the Dallas Independent School District had a comprehensive anti-bullying policy in place, some DISD officials were telling principals not to enforce the policy. Cox went before the school board members, quickly convincing them of the necessity of enforcing the policy already in place.
David Chard is now president of Wheelock College in Boston. But he met Cox when he was dean of the Simmons School of Education at her alma mater, Southern Methodist University, before she took over as CEO at Resource Center.
Chard, who is openly gay, said he and his department at SMU wanted to do something that would benefit the school and the LGBT community, and “we thought of mental health support.” Cox stepped forward to help make that happen.
Chard said the program wouldn’t have happened at all without Cox’s help. “Her credibility at SMU was well ahead of me,” he said. “The university didn’t ask any questions. I’m not sure I could have done it without Cece.”
Through that program, SMU began offering counseling internships at Resource Center, and Chard brought Cox onto the Simmons advisory board. While most advisory board members are major donors, most aren’t what Chard calls “doers.” But Cox was a doer, he said.
“Her contributions there have been enormous,” he said. “She really gives substantive advice.
“Nonprofit leadership is really a tough job,” Chard continued. “It doesn’t always attract savvy people like Cece. I’ve worked with many, but she’s at the top.” he agreed that while the opening of the new community center was a transformative milestone for Resource Center, he said Cox’s leadership through the years has benefited not just the LGBT community, but Dallas as a whole.
Cameron Hernhold has been the Resource Center’s director of development for three years and seven months. Shortly after she took the job, the agency redefined its goals for the new community center project, setting new goals for the capital campaign intended to fund it.
“When you work in development, you know you’ll either have a fundraising CEO or executive director, or you have someone who focuses on other aspects of the job. When you’ve got a fundraising CEO, it makes projects like our capital campaign easier,” Hernholm said. “With Cece Cox, I got both. I can tell you, Cece is responsible for the success of this capital campaign. In 2013, the board decided to allow her to focus on fundraising, and that’s what made us able to do it.”
Hernholm said Cox is not just a boss, “she’s also a mentor. She is so strong, and so inspiring. Her success leads to success for this agency. She’s a real door opener, for Resource Center clients and for her staff, too. She’s just a rockstar.”
But Cox is also “a whole lot of fun,” Hernholm said. “She’s just a total joy to work for and work with.”
It’s a sentiment that McDonnell echoed, saying that he thinks of Cox not just as an outstanding boss, but as an outstanding friend, too. He recalled the day of the massacre at Pulse, saying that in the midst of planning for the vigil happening that same evening, it was Cox who reminded him “that we’re still human, and that our reactions are human. She’s the one who reminded me to stop, take a breath and have that human moment, then get back to work. She helped me get centered into what we had to do that day.”
McDonnell said that Cox was there for him as a friend when he lost his father and, just this month, we he lost his friend and fellow activist, David Mack Henderson.
He was at work when he got the news of Henderson’s death, McDonnell said. “I called Cece and told her, and she said, ‘I’ll be right down.’ She came to my office and we just held each other and cried.
“When you are an advocate, finding a balance between work and life can be hard to do,” McDonnell added. “Cece makes sure that the people here [at Resource Center] find that balance.”
For Steve Atkinson, Cox’s friendship has been as valuable as her leadership and her activism. He said they first became friends in the early 1990s when they worked together on some really big activist battles, including the effort to get the city of Dallas to pass an ordinance protecting employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“I immediately saw that Cece was not only passionate about all the right causes, but that she was also brilliant and immensely talented,” Atkinson said. “In all the years since then, she has been one of our community’s most effective leaders and advocates. I am so proud she is one of my closest friends, and immensely proud of what she has done to advance equality for LGBT and to help those living with HIV and AIDS.
“Cece has been a stellar head of Resource Center,” he continued. “During her tenure the center has grown, thrived and expanded its programs greatly, which means many more people are helped and served by its work. Cece is one of the most visible and respected leaders our community has ever had, and that is a wonderful thing for all of us.”
Despite her commitment to her community and her job, Cox is also deeply committed to her family. She is, said her brother Martin Cox, “a devoted and dedicated mother who loves her son, Mateo, and who partners with Mateo’s other parent, Lisa Means, to raise him well. She’s a fun-loving person with a great sense of humor — a very fun aunt and sister.”
Martin Cox said his sister “has the skill of being able to easily relate to and communicate with many different kinds of people, while being unwaveringly clear about what she believes is right.”
Her girlfriend, attorney Shelly Skeen agreed. “Cece is one of the kindest, gentlest, most passionate, unwavering, strong, resilient and persevering souls I have ever known,” Skeen said. “I am truly grateful and blessed by how she shows up in the world each day, and that is equally true not just to those close to her, but for everyone she touches with her unending work in and for our community.”
Skeen added, “Cece is truly a pioneer. Her courage to be out and open when others were not, her undying work for our community, her passion for the most basic of the qualities that make us human and her willingness to see the beauty in them and then fight for them … has transcended and shaped at least two decades in the LGBT community, and has left us all better off than we were before.”
While her family, friends and coworkers are happy to praise her accomplishments so far, Cox herself is already looking ahead to what comes next.
“I have a huge goal” already set, she said. But she’s not quite ready to talk about what that goal is. Still, she has no problem talking about her priorities with and for Resource Center, including “expanding the counseling program. The youth program is coming alive, and so are senior programs.”
Texas and the rest of the country are facing some major challenges in the days ahead, as the Trump administration begins its reign next month, and, Cox warned,
“We must prepare for what we think will be coming our way, while not getting freaked out or panicked by it all.”
And with Cece Cox there to keep carrying that banner high, the way forward may be just a little bit brighter, after all.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 16, 2016.