Most people know Barry Mandel as the head honcho at Discovery Green. With more than 600 activities per year taking place in the 12 acres of green space, it's hard to find someone who hasn't attended or at least knows about the plethora of things to do at the park.
What many might not know, though, is the circuitous journey that lead him to the park. It started in a very different place, but is has always been rooted in doing good for the community. It began when Mandel came out as gay. He was in his early 20s, and it was a time in the early '80s shortly before the onset of the AIDS epidemic.
But as soon as HIV started killing waves of people in the gay community, Mandel knew he had to take action. He recounted the magazine This Week In Texas, where the bad news of the AIDS epidemic couldn't have been more tangible.
"You would pick one up, skip to the back, and read the obituaries. You could watch...as the epidemic increased, the number of pages in that section would increase," he recalled. "You would go see friends at a bar one night, and three weeks later, you’d think, 'Where is he? I haven’t seem him lately,' and it's because they had passed."
"I couldn’t sit still while this new community to me was dying. I got involved with what is now known as AIDS Foundation Houston," he recounted. "I ended up getting involved in healthcare with HIV patients because I lost a partner in 1990."
"All the sudden, these men and women we saw in our practice who were dying all the sudden weren’t. They thought they were at the end of their life, and all the sudden, they had more time," he recalled.
His experience with these projects left an impact on Mandel. That's when it occurred to him that he should pivot his involvement strategy to continue his work in the community but in a different way.
"I got very focused around the education component of AIDS. I saw what moving and motivating a community in to action had accomplished, and also I saw the healing of a community that had been really hurt," he said.
One project he fondly remembered was bringing The AIDS Memorial Quilt to the George R. Brown Convention Center. The quilt's origin was in San Francisco to remember the names and lives of loved ones who had passed away from HIV/AIDS. It was a chance to create awareness as well as create dialogue about the disease.
Before too long, the HIV/AIDS - and LGBTQ+ life, for that matter - was less of a taboo topic and started taking a role in mainstream life.
"The Alley Theatre started bringing in plays around the LGBT community, and all of that has continued to grow with other organizations. Now you have 'Out' nights at these organizations where they get to celebrate us as an affinity group. And, they are a blast!," Mandel shared. "Having grown up and realizing my sexuality in the late-'70s/early-'80s, this amazes me."
Even though the scales had tipped for LGBTQ people, Mandel still felt the desire to serve.
"Legacy Community Health came calling, and I though I needed to go back. I wanted to go back to healthcare now that there were treatments and a concentration on medicine...not just for gay men with AIDS or for the GLBT community but for all the people we were now able to help," he added.
As with any successful person, his actions and efforts caught the attention of other community leaders, and it was only a matter of time when the founders of Discovery Green would tap him to take a role as the leader of the new park that was being constructed in Houston's downtown area.
"If you look at our mission, it really is built around the concept of a village green. That was what the park was founded on and that is the mission that continues to motivate us every day," he said.
With so many previously-existing organizations in Houston possessing a mission of community outreach, having access to the spaces available at the park make it instantly attractive to them. And as the saying goes, if you build it, they will come. People flocked to the area, and Discovery Green boomed. The park welcomes more than an estimated 1.5 million visitors each year.
"As it grew, the concept of a village green expanded to include all the richness and color and communities of Houston," he said. "Still today, we continue to monitor that by surveying our audience twice a year, both online and in person to make sure they are seeing themselves up in those stages and in those concerts and that we’re able to continue to bring communities together for entertainment and conversation and understanding."
Just like he wanted to see all walks of the city's people represented in the programming, he wanted to see his own community reflected too.
"I had the beauty of not having to answer a survey to see my desires come to fruition. I could just make it happen," he laughed.
What Mandel has started has now caught on with his staff members, too.
"So many of the younger people I work with want that type of programming. They’re pushing for it. Having come from where I came from to that, which is now the standard, makes my heart happy," he said.
He added, "From my personal standpoint, when I look at this chronological development that I’ve been through on a spectrum, it’s from bar raids to a disease that was killing everyone to achievement in preventing people from dying as quickly as they were from HIV, to political success stories like the defeat of the sodomy laws, to gays in every level of government, to gays on TV, to marriage being approved, to myself in my own marriage. It’s been this wild ride of ups and downs during my 61 years."
To learn more about Discovery Green, visit discoverygreen.com. To learn more about Pride Houston, visit PrideHouston.org.