Executive Director Jan Hefner talks about her personal journey that brought her to be a member of The Center’s core leadership: acting, theater, advertising, AIDs activism and community health work. Born and raised in Bakersfield, Hefner gives us a glimpse into what she finds challenging and rewarding about working as an LGBTQ advocate here in Kern County.
Do you face specific challenges as a member of the LGBTQ community in this particular area, the Central Valley?
It's interesting. I was born here, and except for the two years I lived in LA, I've lived here all of my life. I've never felt the need to flee Bakersfield as a place, but I acknowledge there are a lot of people who really have struggled being here.
I'm not sure why I never felt the need to flee, but really attribute it a lot to the community I found through theater because there were a lot of LGBTQ people in theater.
Were you out in your daily life?
I had not considered myself closeted, but I also didn't talk about "those things that we're not supposed to talk about." And I was partnered during almost all of my time when I worked at the newspaper, and I talked about my partners but not in a partner kind of way. You know, roommates or friends or whatever.
But there were several people that I became friends with, and of course they knew, and we talked about it openly.
When I got involved in the Center, before I was hired here, I was a spokesperson for the news, because of my marketing background.
I distinctly remember standing on the corner outside my office over on the corner behind the hospital, with the news crew who wanted to shoot it outside because of the light. I was doing something about transgender rights. I'd done lots of TV, I'd done commercials and all that. But I remember my stomach just flopping over, because it was the first time that I was going to be on TV advocating for the LGBTQ community.
And it just made me incredibly nervous.
But it's like anything else, because you go through and you think, "OK, that was okay, nothing broke" - and then you do it some more. And now we're doing these TV spots that are out there, and it's going to be interesting to see what kind of response there is to those.
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How do you think that’s going to play out in your personal life?
I was raised as Southern Baptist. and I now drive my 92-year-old dad to the same church that we used to go to. I attend Sunday School and services with him because he has serious mobility issues.
I’m not a church member. It's going to be interesting to me, because TV ads can be ubiquitous, and somebody's going to see them. And you know, my face is up there, saying, "Hi, this is me, Jan. I'm a lesbian, and cisgender..." You know, so it's going to be interesting to see if anyone bothers to say anything, because I don't think anybody will.
We'll see. I don't care- if they want to talk to me about it, I'll talk to them about it, but I'm not going to force it. I'm certainly not going to step away from having a real conversation if someone is open to doing that. But I lived deeply inside that religion for many years as a child, and as a young teenager, and I can only imagine.
You mentioned you were involved in theater, but your main background was in marketing.
I have found myself in places throughout my life where I step into it and say "This is fun, I'm going to stay a while". Looking back on it I'm sure there are important life lessons contained in there somewhere for me.
I'd been doing community theater since my senior year in high school. And so a friend I knew from theater had a small ad agency and I went to work for him after I left college to find myself. I basically did everything- the receptionist, the gofer, and the layout artist (not my forte).
I went from there to radio sales and then to the newspaper for almost 17 years.
And then I moved to LA to act, and then after two years I moved back, in 1977. I worked in advertising in some form until the end of 2002.
How did you first get involved in social justice?
I stopped doing theater in 1991. I walked away from it. Probably the reason that I stayed away from it for so long was because I became very involved in AIDs advocacy. I lost a very close friend. He was the closest friend at that point I had lost - I knew several people who passed away, but he had been a long-time friend.
Then I saw something in the newspaper, that there was a group meeting to try to see if Kern County could receive some of the brand new Ryan White CARE Act funding that came out of the White House - the first George Bush White House, in 1991.
The thing about the Ryan White CARE Act is that activists kept their fingers in the implementation of that program. It's federal money implemented by states. In California, it was required that there be a grassroots effort in order to receive those monies in each county. That was specifically to keep the governmental public health system from gobbling it up, swallowing it, and not really seeing it go out to meet the need that was there.
So that was a direct result of the activism of the late 80's, early 90's. I didn't know any of this at the time, I was so far away from being an activist, I had no clue.
I saw the notice in the paper a couple weeks after my friend Dan died, and I was like, "I am going to go to that, I have to do something with this" and so I went.
It was a bunch of very passionate people in a large room screaming at each other. The local activists, the ones that were intent on not letting the Kern County Department of Public Health take the money were screaming at the proponents of Public Health - they were just yelling at each other, literally. And it was just like, what is happening, what is this.
And then there was a guy from the state, and his whole deal was "This is what you need to do to get the money from the state." And it had to be a grassroots effort, there had to be specific constituencies represented in the group.
Kern County Department of Public Health had applied for the funding, but were turned down. Partially because this group of activists had gotten to the people at the state and said, "No, no, no, they can't do this."
I was sitting at the meeting, and I had never done anything like this, but I opened my mouth at one point and said, "Look, I know you all disagree with each other on how the money should best be spent, but this guy is saying that Public Health isn't going to get it, so why don't we listen to what he has to say and see what we have to do, so we can get the money here so it can provide services?"
Then everybody calmed down, and he said "Here's what you got to do: you need to form a group, you need to have officers, you need to figure out what the needs are here" - he went through several steps. And someone else asked what the first step would be, and he said, "Well, you might want to get some sort of interim leadership group going."
And my friend Dan, who had just died, his sister was also at that meeting, and she nominated me, to be the Founding Chairperson of the Consortium. That was my jumping in with two feet into activism. I did that until 2000. Both with that group, with The Kern County Ryan White HIV/Aids Consortium and then the Bakersfield AIDs Foundation, which was a private 501(c)(3).
That must have been challenging but I imagine you learned a lot from that environment.
I learned a lot. It was very challenging. It was similar to what we found in opening the Center. People were coming in and in some cases it was hard for them to even understand what they were asking for.
In the days of AIDs, it was one of our biggest things was that we can't keep going to LA for medical care, we need it here. There weren't many county doctors who had any kind of knowledge at all about HIV and AIDs and it was really difficult, with the social stigma, of course. There were an awful lot of young gay men who were coming out to their parents and telling them they were dying in the same breath. It was a terrible time.
Idealistically I was like, "We've just got to get more medical care here." But realistically what I learned was, you go to LA and there's thousands of people accessing HIV care. When a friend of mine got sick, another friend recommended we go to a place down in the Valley. It was swarming with people, and they had doctors who were experienced with exactly his opportunistic infection.
And that wasn’t the case here?
They didn't have it in Bakersfield. An ER doctor who was supposed to be an HIV specialist basically said, "You have a headache, take a Vicodin and go home." He had a raging lymphoma, HIV-induced. It took a few months after that for it to kill him, but at the time it was a miracle he even made it through the hospital because it was growing so fast.
Logically, are doctors going to come and practice here if they want to become a specialist in HIV? Valley fever maybe, because we have a lot of valley fever; but that didn't happen for HIV.
What was the ultimate outcome of the Ryan White CARE Act grant? How was the money eventually spent?
What we did do with that 100K is we started a project called Kern Lifeline Project.
Community Health Centers I believe was the name of the clinic organization at that time; they were eventually absorbed by Clinica Sierra Vista. It was very clear from our community needs assessment that we needed case management for a large number of clients.
At the time, Kern County Department of Public Health had some case management services, only for the sickest people. Our needs assessment showed that we really needed something. Public Health wanted us to give them the money so they could add another part time case manager, because of their salaries and benefits and all of that, and that would have allowed them to have 4 additional clients.
Community Health Centers developed a plan that would allow them to add an additional 60 cases, with two case managers, based on a social work model instead of a medical model. And we started that program. I'm not sure if it's still going on at Clinica. Mike Gonzales used to lead that program before he came to work at The Center. They have been restructuring that program; as far as I know that program is still continuing, but very different now of course.
So I'm going to ask about your own personal mission here. What first drew you to The Center?
An old friend who was on the board of the Bakersfield AIDs Foundation back in the day worked for Dignity Health. I had lunch with her one day and she asked if I was in the market for a job, I said, "What do you have?" And I went to work with her department at the hospital, the community benefit department. I was the director of community wellness programs there with about 10 different programs. I was responsible for about 30 employees.
We created programs and developed them, everything from having a health insurance plan for undocumented children who cannot qualify for Medi-Cal or Healthy Families to a homemaker care program that provides in-home care to seniors and disabled adults. My dad is now using their services.
And then we had community wellness programs - diabetes management, chronic disease management, youth education. I found that I was a good grant writer. Those programs involved a lot of grants that allowed us to do the things we did.
I wrote a lot of grants and felt the same kind of passion for helping marginalized communities there that I had in working in the AIDs field. It was something I was good at. I think I'm an effective manager because I can find people with passion for the work, they're not just there for a paycheck.
That's what I get excited about, because then as a group with everyone working toward a common goal but bringing their own unique talents and skills to the table, it's such a high.
How long have you been with the Center?
I've been involved since Spring of 2011, I believe. It was before the Center actually opened but after the original group had started meeting. And I actually became involved because my friends Cindy Smith and Jan Dunlap were involved.
It was my understanding they had met David Trujillo who was the instigator of the project at church. They're members of St. Paul's Episcopal. So they started meeting with the group to say "Can we do this? What would it look like, what do you think?"
And Cindy contacted me because I had been in a business networking group with her years before that. We had been good friends and so she said, “You know marketing, and we could use some marketing help, what do you think?" I said, "I can't right now, but after this thing is over, I probably can." And so I got involved, and then we got the Center opened.
I originally resisted joining the Board, because I was worried about time but that didn't last long. We opened in November and I think I joined in January.
So that's how I got involved, and then I was on the Board, and I became President of the Board probably in 2014, 2015. And that's it - we've got this grant, and I became Executive Director.
What are some of the things you find rewarding in your work in the Center?
Anne called me yesterday all excited because one of the things we started looking for early - she's the head of our advocacy services and counseling protocols - we needed an electronic system to help manage clients. In her exploration, she found something called TherapyNotes, an online portal that's completely HIPAA compliant.
Early on in TherapyNotes she was learning how to use it and communicating with the developers, and asked if they could add fields for gender and sexual orientation, preferred name and pronouns.
She said they said "You're the first ones to ask for that, we'll put it on our list but we don't know." She called me excited yesterday because they added it.
Are we going to take sole credit for that? Probably not. But we know that the awareness we're bringing to institutions, even software developers, is making a difference.
Plus the advocating and educating work we do, and the providing of safe spaces and support services. It's incredibly satisfying.
How awesome! It must feel great to have that kind of impact for your community.
This is one of the recent comments we received from one of our client surveys, talking about how counseling changed their life. [Reads] "It was incredibly enlightening. I went from feeling like a danger to myself and barely functioning to feeling like a real normal human without the need to change who I am."
With the requirement of this state grant, we're doing surveys all the time. The comment I just read to you was one that an actual client gave to us in what is called a post-survey. We do pre-surveys and post-surveys. After six months, if they've been in sessions, they do a post-survey. Those are giving us such rich comments to be able to get a sense of how we're doing.
My favorite thing is doing something that can help other people find their best selves. Find some comfort in their own skin, go through the process of self-forgiveness that I've certainly gone through, which is to say "Yeah, I'm not perfect, but this is who I am."
It's very rewarding from that standpoint, and I like it.
About Jan Hefner
Jan Hefner is a Bakersfield native and has held a variety of management positions in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. She was the founding chairperson of the Kern County Ryan White HIV/AIDS Consortium in 1991 and served as president of the board of the Bakersfield AIDS Foundation from 1993 to 2000. From 2007 to 2015, Jan was Director of Community Wellness Programs at Dignity Health Hospitals in Bakersfield, overseeing ten programs providing education/support to 100,000 of the county’s most marginalized residents each year. She is a past president of The Center’s board of directors and became its first Executive Director in 2016. She was honored to receive the Wendy Wayne Lifetime Achievement Award for Exemplary Ethical Behavior from CSU Bakersfield’s Kegley Institute of Ethics in 2015. Jan is passionate about creating system change that empowers marginalized and underserved populations and is especially grateful to be working to help strengthen her own LGBTQ+ community.
Jan has been involved in local community theater since 1973 as an actor and director. She serves as the volunteer Executive Director of Bakersfield Community Theatre.
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