Uniting Pride of Champaign County kicks off its biggest annual event, CU Pride Fest, this Saturday. A one day event at Lincoln Square Mall has grown to a nine day extravanganza, all through the hard work and dedication of the team from Uniting Pride. I spoke to one of the folks at the core of that team — Nicole Frydman — about this year's celebration. 


Smile Politely: Who are you, and how did you become involved with Uniting Pride?

Nicole Frydman: I'm Nicole Frydman, my pronouns are she/they, and I am the Director of Operations for Uniting Pride, coming up on almost exactly my one year anniversary in that position. Prior to that, I was a volunteer with the organization. I started volunteering in the height of COVID. I saw, actually, a Smile Politely call-out for volunteers to try to put on a virtual Pride Fest. I needed things to do, and to feel positive about, so I stepped in and the rest, as they say, is history. 

SP: When does the work start for Pride Fest? 

Frydman: If I'm being real, it's always going on. This year, I'm thinking about what I could be doing differently for next year. But we do give ourselves a bit of a rest. We can't do a parade when there's an Illini home game, so after the Illini announce their schedule, usually in February, we’ll pick a date and then we begin the brainstorm. It's a little bit of a slow trickle in the spring and then it kicks in mostly in the summer, in a real way.

SP: Every year, there's more of a breadth of activities and opportunities. What is new at this year’s Pride Fest that you are excited about?

Frydman: I’ve done a ton of non-profit work over the years. What I’ve found over my twenty- something years of work in this is teaming up is the way to go  partnering and and building coalitions and utilizing each other's strengths, and leaning into what folks and organizations already do best. That was my key for last year, and it is my key again this year, and will be going forward. Through that, it's been able to become a week of events. In fact, even longer than that. We've got 17 unique programs over nine days and almost entirely because these other community organizations and groups have said “I would like to help do this or even create an event entirely on our own.” There's plenty of stuff that's coming back and those things are valuable and wonderful and people should check those things out, but there are some things that are brand spankin’ new. The UIUC Queer BIPOC Block Party, which kicks the Pride Fest week off — this was a group of folks at UIUC responding to a community need. A need for this particular group of folks, this particular intersectional and marginalized community, to have a space that centers them and their experience. They reached out to see if this is something we'd be interested in and of course I was just thrilled at the idea. I wanted to do whatever I could to make things happen and I'm very excited about it.

Another really big thing I'm excited about, and I need help getting the word out into the community about, is our Youth and Family Party on Friday at the Y. We've often had youth and family-focused stuff happening at the fair, but we haven't taken it and made a separate space for this group. We kind of got a little crazy, I’m not gonna lie. We have free Kona Ice, free face painting, a free balloon artist, free games, and a DJ. Now we just hope that we can get the word out and people show up.

Another one that I think is very cool is the Community Crawl in Downtown Champaign. This is an experiment, but I think it has potential to be super fun and to connect people to the businesses that are affirming, but that also deserve our support because they're great businesses.

SP: It seems like it's been a good year for Uniting Pride. You have a new space at the University YMCA, there's more programming, and I feel like you’re everywhere. Can you talk a bit about how things are going for the organization?

Frydman: I am over the moon about where things are for the organization right now. The creation of my position was sort of the culmination of a three-year strategic plan the board built, and it was all about building up organizational and financial stability, so that they could move into a space of growth. The sad part about this is that growth is important because there's so much need. 2021 was the worst year in the history of the United States for the most anti-LGBTQ+  legislation ever passed, and this year is on track to shatter that record.

We have been on an aggressive growth plan, and that stability has kicked things into the next phase and we are just thrilled. Like I said, all the organizations that want to partner, lots of wonderful community members who donate their time or their money to help us do this work, and a part of that has very much been about doing more programming. We’re getting out more into the community and creating more space. We know that people are pretty desperate for safe and affirming spaces, where they feel free to be entirely who they are, but the threat of violence, the online attacks and the in personal attacks are increasing. We need this as an LGBTQ+ community, so we're finding a way to make more things happen. In addition to direct service like support groups or free pantry or all that other stuff, it’s creating a community. The creating of events. It seems fun, and it is fun, but it’s also about the emotional well-being of our community members.

SP: To follow that up, a lot of these events and Pride Fest in particular draw a ton of people from the community, including a lot of friends and allies of the LGBTQ+ community. How can allies best support what you all are doing, while also making sure that your community is at the center?

Frydman: We are desperately seeking volunteers to help make the Pride Fest happen. This is an incredible opportunity for allyship. Let LGBTQ+ folks have the fun, and if allies and friends and family members can step up to do the work, I mean talk about walking the walk, right? I have amazing core volunteers who are members of our LGBTQ+ communities, who want to be a part of this and want to help. But Pride Fest...this is kind of our time. It would be amazing if our allies, friends, and family might step in to take some of the work off our shoulders, especially around the parade, because obviously our folks are going to be in it. You can still watch it if you volunteer for the parade, because there are two jobs available. One is to help with the setup, and once the parade steps off, you're done. And then the other is to stand at an intersection and provide some safety, which means you get a beautiful view of the whole parade.

That would be a big thing that we could ask of our community, as well as spreading the word…let others know that this stuff is happening. It's important to show up and show your support. We will always be a minority. Now, our numbers are increasing like crazy, our numbers have doubled over the last ten years. That's not because we’re suddenly having more queer babies, it's because people feel safe to be out. But we’re still only at a little above 7% of the population in the United States, so we do need our friends, our family, our loved ones, and our allies to stand up on our behalf and show support. It matters more than ever that we take a moment to be out and proud on the streets of the communities in which we live, and it matters that the people who love and support us come and do that with us.

Find the full schedule of Pride Fest events at the Uniting Pride website. If you are able to volunteer, sign up here

Top photo from Uniting Pride website.