MasterMarc: Hello Demetri. Some days ago the board of Folsom Street Events has announced that you’re leaving the organization after 11 years working for it. Today is your last day in office as Executive Director. I know the Folsom Street Fair has become like a child for you and that you really love the events and the team you’re working with. Why have you resigned?
Demetri: After 11 years of working with the organization, I feel like I’m leaving things in a good position and I feel like I’ve done as much as I can do here, working to improve the standing of the agency. We’re in a strong financial and organizational position so I’d like to challenge myself at a new role. Also, my entire career prior to Folsom Street Events was working in HIV/AIDS, so I’m returning to that field as the Managing Director of Strategic Partnerships for Positive Resource Center here in San Francisco.
MasterMarc: To work 11 years for the same organization is of course remarkable and I understand how important it is to campaign and to work for such an important object as HIV/AIDS is. But I think it will be a more serious and traditional enviroment than in the fetish world. Will you not miss the crazy people you have had to work with in the last few years?
Demetri: I will always have a love for the community and I will find ways to stay involved and support Folsom Street Events (FSE). In fact, part of my new job at Positive Resource Center (PRC) will be to work with organizations like FSE. FSE actually relies on volunteers from organizations like PRC; so it’s entirely likely that I may return in a different volunteer capacity. That said, the work of producing nine major leather/fetish events annually can take its toll on you, physically. I’m happy to take more of a cerebral desk job for a while, too.
MasterMarc: Hehe, we are becoming older. 🙂 I understand you totally as I know how exhausting it can be to organize big events. Before we take a look on your new working field let us look back. Eleven years are a long time. What would you say have been the biggest changes if you compare your last year with the first year you’ve been working for Folsom?
Demetri: The FOLSOM organization has become bigger and much more complex. When I started, our budget was under $700,000 USD; we are now more than double that amount. When I started, we were producing three events; we now produce nine events annually. When I started, we only had a working Board of Directors and a handful of high-level volunteers, called Associates; we now have close to 20 Associates volunteering with us. When I started, we only had a core group of departments – e.g. Gates & Signage, Beverages, Operations; we now have almost 15 departments, including Artists’ Area, Green Team, and The Playground (our women and trans-inclusive space). These are just a few examples.
MasterMarc: Wow that’s impressive. I am sure you’re leaving Folsom with a backpack full of good experiences and memories. Could you tell us a little about your personal highlights with Folsom?
Demetri: My fondest memories were when we did a particularly strong poster image; it felt like the community really responded with additional enthusiasm. Certain examples include the Leather Last Supper (2007), Fetish Family (2009), and Leather Cable Car (2015). At least two of those posters were directed by my co-worker and friend, Patrick Finger. Those images seemed to have resonated within San Francisco and across the international leather/fetish communities. That feeling of our community coming together is what has brought me the most joy. It’s a similar feeling I got when our exhibitors set up at Folsom Street Fair. It always felt like a little leather village coming to life; there’s always been something very comforting to me about that.
MasterMarc: However, where there is light, there is also shadow. What have been the low-points and frustration during the last 11 years?
Demetri: I think the biggest challenge was leading the organization through the severe economic recession. Sponsorships fell, and we really had to figure out how to make ends meet. We figured out how to rely on other revenue streams, and we made it through the worst of times just fine. This was when other grant-making organizations here in San Francisco were defaulting on their payments. We never did that, and I’m really proud of that. But, it was difficult to get through those lean years. We’ve never been a particularly dramatic group, though. Our Board of Directors attracts very well grounded, hardworking individuals. They are the unsung heroes of the organization!
MasterMarc: It are the bad moments in which you see best how good your team is . It seems that you have a real good team. But every good team also needs a competent leader. What do you think are the skills of yours your team appriciates most?
Demetri: Probably the ability to respond calmly in a crisis. Producing large scale events means that there is amply opportunity for things to go awry. You have to be able to assess a situation quickly and respond with a positive, feasible solution in real time. But, I’m not the only one on our team with the ability to do that which is why we’ve been such a high functioning organization.
MasterMarc: I know you’ll talk directly to your team and tell them, how important they have been for you. Would you like to tell us a little about your team?
Demetri: We have a working Board of Directors of anywhere from 10-13 people on average. These folks volunteer all of their time to make sure that our organization operates year round. They are reviewing and approving budgets, making governance decisions, and ensuring that we are in compliance in every respect. Also, they spend hours upon hours making sure that our various fair departments are running smoothly. So, instead of a Board member raising tons of money or donating directly, they spend lots of time helping to make sure that our organization runs well – and, when our organization runs well, we make money at our events. Each Board member runs a different department – we have 15 different departments. A Board member is usually paired up with an Associate or two. Now, keep in mind that all of these people have full time jobs so this is a labor of love for them, donating so much time to make sure we succeed.
MasterMarc: It is the work of volunteers which is the heartbeat of organisations like Folsom and many others. But now it’s time to look forward. The last 11 years have also changed a lot in the field of HIV/Aids prevention. Why do you think it is still important to campaign for it?
Demetri: Because people are still dying. We can see the end of this epidemic if we dedicate our passion and resources to ending it. Who knew that PrEP would so radically transform our HIV prevention response, for example? I believe that we can move HIV/AIDS from a manageable, chronic disease to one in which there is a functional cure. We have to rededicate ourselves to that effort. Too many people have died for this cause along the way, and I hope to do my part.
MasterMarc: Some weeks ago some great news in the UK have been published which are giving a hope that HIV/Aids can be healed, but at the same time also a study has been published in which guys have become positive although they have made a PrEP therapy. Do you think that the HIV/Aids problem can be solved soon?
Demetri: I honestly wouldn’t get caught up in any particular HIV case. Each person is different and the circumstance of each infection can vary tremendously. That said, I don’t think it will be solved “soon” but I do hope within my lifetime.
MasterMarc: In a way you have also worked for HIV prevention during your Folsom time. Folsom is not only a great party but also a charity event and your team and you have collected a lot of money for many projects. How much money has Folsom Street Events collected and what have you done with it?
Demetri Sparks: Each year, we donate over $300,000 USD to local and national charities. The lion’s share goes to local groups, though. These are charities working in public health, human services or the arts. They apply to us, tell us how they’re going to use the money as well as how many volunteers they can provide for our events, and then we make our decisions on annual beneficiaries. To date, we have donated over $6.5 million USD to charity. And I think I’ve been responsible for about half of that amount in the last decade.
MasterMarc: Wow that’s just amazing. Well, I think it is time to say good bye and thank you, Demetri, for all the work you have done the last 11 years for Folsom Street Events and the fetish community. There are many people all over the world who have enjoyed your events in San Francisco. It will be different without you but that doesn’t mean it will be less attractive. Last but not least, how do you think that Folsom Street Fair will look like in 11 years?
Demetri: Our community and the fairs in general have been trending toward a lot more role play in the last decade. Whether it’s the explosion in popularity of pup play or age and gender play or even cosplay, most of what I’ve seen is geared in that direction. I mean…who knew that our scene would look like this 40 years ago? To some, it might look and feel unrecognizable. I do believe there will ALWAYS be a place for the classic leatherman, though. It’s just too iconic. That said, I’m sure our events will continue to improve and get bigger and better over time. Everyone should come and experience it! Thanks for everything.
MasterMarc: As always it was great to talk to you, Demetri. We wish you all the best for your future. To close this interview we have asked two of your next Folsom colleagues what they think about you: