Rick Garcia, the influential activist who has served the LGBT community for almost three decades, is moving on to work with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and address the issues of the mentally ill in prisons.
Garcia, who had previously served as policy director at The Civil Rights Agenda since 2012, is now the community outreach coordinator for the Cook County jail.
Garcia, who was acrimoniously fired from Equality Illinois in 2010, left The Civil Rights Agenda on good terms.
Executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda, Anthony Martinez, called Garcia’s efforts “instrumental in ensuring protections of the LGBT community.I personally am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to work with someone who is so well respected,” Martinez said.
“Some people have seen him as a controversial figure, but in my hundreds of hours traveling across the state with him, Rick is one of the most compassionate and caring people I’ve ever met,” Martinez said.
“He’s one who’s not afraid to confront those in power to help a marginalized community.”
“Frankly, I’m worn out being a lobbyist,” Garcia jokingly said when asked about his career transition. “I’ve been offered positions with other gay rights organizations throughout the country, but my answer was always ‘hell no.’”
Garcia has been a Chicago devotee since 1985 when he came on a whim for a summer from Manhattan. He never expected to leave New York, but he became involved working with Mayor Harold Washington on a gay rights ordinance and fell in love with the city.
Though Garcia is primarily known as an advocate for LGBT rights, he has long admired Sheriff Tom Dart’s views towards the issues of incarceration and mental illness. Garcia has been involved with nearly every piece of state and citywide gay rights legislation of the past three decades. Garcia has known Sheriff Dart since Dart’s time as an Illinois state representative in the 1990s. “He was one of the guys I always went to,” Garcia said.
He initially became close with Dart when they worked together on a non-discrimination bill. “Dart threw himself into our effort, he played a very significant role in garnering support for LGBT community statewide,” Garcia said. “We’re on the same page with so many things, I’m ready to do something new, and who better to do this with than him.”
Dart has spoken publicly about the mistreatment of incarcerated individuals who have mental illness and finding proper care for those who need it. “What he has recognized is that our jails throughout the country have become mental asylums,” Garcia said. “We have people who need medication, we have people who are in jail because of mental illness, we have people in jail because they’re poor.”
Garcia said prisons are sometimes the only place where our mentally ill can receive medication or get psychiatric help. Garcia pointed to this year’s earlier decision to close six of the 12 mental health centers in Chicago as evidence of the issues of marginalization of those with mental illness.
Garcia’s new role will be to find community resources that can help detainees when they end their sentence. He wants to build a foundation for helping the mentally ill understand their conditions and create better outreach.
“The work that I’ve done for the last 30 years has always been very specific,” Garcia said. “This is very different, it’s asking myself how I can help affect change for some of the most vulnerable in the community?”
Garcia sees Dart at the forefront of what’s to come in the justice system. “I am really grateful for this opportunity to do something new, I’ve already accomplished more than I could ever dream of doing,” Garcia said.