It was gut check time for Jeni Kolstad. There’d been a tragic loss, but the show, as they say, had to go on.
Thousands of people were counting on it. Desperate for it, actually. And Kolstad was the only one who could pull it off.
That tragic loss was the death of Jessica Flatequal, the beloved and unofficial leader of Mankato’s LGBTQ community. She died of liver disease in April. At that time, the show that needed to go on was Pridefest, which was coming up in just a few months.
Luckily, Jessica and Kolstad had for years formed an efficient partnership that that had gotten very good at putting on a successful event — Jess with the big personality and even bigger smile as the face of the organization, and Jen happily behind the scenes making sure bills got paid and venues booked.
After Jessica’s death, though, Kolstad’s approach had to change. She needed to take a more public role, be the face of the organization, move outside her comfort zone for the good of a following that needed a kick-butt Pridefest to maintain order in their rocked world.
Kolstad delivered. Pridefest 2019 had huge attendance, hundreds of hugs and gallons of tears. And she’s since been named Flatequal’s successor as the group’s executive director.
MANKATO MAGAZINE: Let’s jump right in with the emotional question of this Q&A — How hard has it been taking this job after working on the Pride Fest for so many years with Jessica?
Jeni Kolstad: When Jessica was first sick, I had a pit in my stomach that she would not have the energy to help with the festival this year. It became more real when we started discussions about having an interim director as she was just not recovering and we knew that she had a long haul ahead of her, medically speaking.
I remember shutting down at a Pride meeting and becoming tearful as these discussions took place. Her and I worked together on Pride festivals for many years and were at a point where we complemented each other so well. I respected her so much as a person and a leader that it felt very uncomfortable for me to be filling in for her while she worked on getting better.
Following her passing, I had to dig deep because a festival needed to happen as Jessica would want it to. It was grit and determination, along with the help of many committee members that got us through this festival season.
MM: Tell us a little bit about the most recent Pride Fest.
JK: This most recent PrideFest had a different feel for me. It was a celebration of life for a person that was integral in making South Central Minnesota Pride into reality. It was also a time to give the community hope that Pride was staying strong and that we will continue to do this work for the greater Mankato community.
I do believe that we were successful in sharing that message. This year was our biggest in regards to attendance, number of exhibitors, parade participants, and food vendors. We also saw an increase in sponsorships and donations. I think that what this shows is that the greater Mankato community needs this organization to continue and are willing to step up to make that happen.
MM: What are some of the challenges involved with running South Central MN Pride?
JK: The biggest challenge is that the organization is all volunteer run, even the executive director position. It makes communication and engagement with the community challenging as we may not get to emails, phone messages or Facebook comments in a timely fashion since we all have our day jobs.
I think we are moving to a time where the community might support a full time paid staff, but that would take quite a bit of leg work to get going.
MM: In addition to Pride Fest, what else does the organization do? Any outreach or advocacy work?
JK: Each month we host two different social events to meet new people, Queers and Beers and Queers and Coffee. Not only do these events help people meet one another, but it highlights businesses in the Mankato area that are LGBTQ friendly (we always ask this question before booking with a place).
We are working on putting together a group to help with organizing a youth event each month as we have heard feedback that this is where we need to focus some efforts. We have other events that happen occasionally, like an art show, bingo, Queeraoke, and dance parties. Our outreach and advocacy work is limited due to time constraints with having an all volunteer run organization.
MM: How much progress has the Mankato area made in terms of inclusion and acceptance of the LGBTQ community?
JK: I think that there has been much progress in regards to inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ people in greater Mankato. We can look around the community and see businesses displaying rainbow flags and marketing specifically to the LGBTQ community.
Organizations are intentional about gender neutral bathrooms. Slowly intake forms for services are adopting language for people to include their preferred name and gender. The media is not afraid to cover LGBTQ specific topics. I’m very proud of the Mankato community for the work that has been done to include and accept LGBTQ people.
MM: What do you do when you’re not busy advocating for the LGBTQ community?
JK: Well, I work a full-time job at Open Door Health Center as a behavioral health provider and I have an administrative position working to integrate behavioral health services into primary and dental care.
Outside of working, I love yoga, cooking, hanging out with my friends, and napping. Napping is my most favorite thing to do!
MM: Tell us something about yourself that would surprise even your friends.
JK: I’m a pretty open book, I’m cool with telling my life story to strangers! An interesting fact about myself though, is that I intentionally lived off the grid for 4 years of my life in a home that I helped build with my own hands. No running water, no electricity. I learned a lot about myself and my abilities.
MM: What’s on the “Recently Watched” tab on your Netflix app?
JK: I watch a lot more Hulu than Netflix, but the most recent show on Netflix is “Designated Survivor” and I recently finished “Wentworth” (think “Orange is the Black” but way grittier.) On Hulu it is “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Survivor.”
MM: Anything coming up in the new year that you’d like to plug?
JK: We are working on a “Gay-la” event. It is a fundraising and friend-raising event that we will have in spring of 2020. Think heavy apps, cash bar, and a fabulous drag show on a runway in a lively environment!