By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
FERNDALE – Protests are planned this week outside Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center after two of the center’s employees say racism played a part in their departure.
Kimya Ayodele, who served as the center’s community outreach coordinator for two years, said that she was fired on Oct. 2 after giving notice the week before. Upon Ayodele’s departure, the center’s community engagement coordinator Vanessa Marr resigned in protest.
The series of protests, beginning Oct. 11 during Come Out and Laugh, an Affirmations fundraiser in Royal Oak, will continue through the weekend outside Affirmations in Ferndale. Black lesbian organization SPICE cancelled its planned Oct. 6 meeting at the center in response to the departures.
Affirmations Executive Director Leslie Thompson acknowledged that her organization is working on diversity issues.
“In the past two years Affirmations has actively engaged in cultural competency and diversity training at the board and staff levels,” she said. “We’ve proactively worked on changing our staffing patterns and are committed to changing the face of Affirmations at all the different levels of the organization. We have actively sought funding for outreach and community building programs and activities.”
The employment shakeup is “A story that’s been repeated a few times about people from our community involved with Affirmations,” said Johnny Jenkins, co-founder and director of the Detroit Black Pride Society. “Even with hearing just one side of the story, it signifies that there’s a cultural problem at Affirmations that needs to be dealt with if they intend to get the African-American community involved in their center.”
The problem isn’t “a lack of outreach into our community – just an internal cultural thing that they need to deal with,” he added.
Affirmations currently employs two people who are African-American, Thompson said, and 25 percent of the members of the board of directors are people of color.
Thompson said that she was aware of the planned protests and is in communication with the board of Hotter Than July! Additionally, she is actively pursuing dialogue with metro Detroit LGBT and same-gender loving organizations. Alicia Skillman, the founder and president of PFLAG Family Reunion, confirmed that a meeting between black LGBT leaders and Affirmations’ board was “in the works.”
Termination in dispute
Kimya Ayodele, who served as the center’s community outreach coordinator for two years, said that she was fired on Oct. 2. The week before, Ayodele said she gave notice to Thompson and the two agreed that she would be leaving in December for a position with the Leaven Center.
Instead, Ayodele said, on Oct. 2 she was told that her position was going to be restructured, and supervisors asked if she was willing to train two part-time people to fill the new positions. In addition, Ayodele was told that her employment with Affirmations would end Oct. 31.
After asking for a day to think about it, Ayodele went to lunch. Upon her return, she found that someone had changed the password on her computer, locking her out of it.
“So I sat at my desk and within five minutes the executive director (Leslie Thompson) and the operations director came in and they had a box,” Ayodele said. “The executive director … said we didn’t think you would be able to stay here for four weeks and be gracious and you didn’t seem grateful for the offer we made you so here’s your box and you need to pack up now.”
According to Thompson, however, the restructuring of Ayodele’s position was part of a reorganization that had been taking place for months.
“She was not terminated – we actually had made the end date Oct. 31 so she would have additional time to find other work, and she chose not to take that offer,” Thompson said.
Ayodele disputes the claim that she left her job willingly.
“She’s [Thompson] telling the staff it was my decision, that I quit – but I would never quit. I had told her the Tuesday before that I would never quit. I’m too dedicated to the community I serve,” Ayodele said.
In response to Ayodele’s departure, Vanessa Marr quit her job as the center’s community engagement coordinator in protest.
Both women claim that their work experience at Affirmations was tainted by experiences of racism.
Marr said that Ayodele’s departure was a last straw. After being on the job for four months, she said, she was told in July that she had to provide more visibility for her program even though she said she had been participating in outreach programs in the black community. In September, in conjunction with the ACLU of Michigan, Marr produced a Town Hall on Affirmative Action, which was addressed by Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the Arcus Foundation. Despite this, two weeks before quitting, Marr said she received a “lackluster” performance review.
When Ayodele left, “I felt like it was either stay and get dumped eventually or make a stand and say enough’s enough,” Marr said.
Thompson acknowledges racism is an issue that Affirmations struggles with. “(Racism) exists, and it exists at an institutional level across the country, and we’re a product of that like all institutions,” she said. “We’re really actively working to stop it at Affirmations.”
“We open the door – we continue to open our door, and I guess we’ll open it wider now, and we want to invite suggestions to make Affirmations the place for everyone.”
In response to the recent events, Affirmations Youth Services Coordinator Cassandra Varner posted a message Oct. 6 on the Hotter Than July! listserve affirming a commitment to “reach out to all lesbian, bisexual, transgender and same gender loving people in Southeastern Michigan.” The message restates Affirmations’ position that Ayodele was not fired, and ends with a list of contact information for Thompson and Kathleen LaTosch, Affirmations’ communications director. In addition, the message acknowledges that the center has struggled to reach its goal to “change the face of Affirmations.”
“We have taken steps we’ve never taken before and it has admittedly not been easy,” says the message. “We have had some significant hurdles and issues to resolve through this process. Clearly we have more work to do…”
In addition to the message, Affirmations is seeking outside funding to pay for outside mediation in the hopes of scheduling a series of meetings of LGBT leaders on race issues in the metro Detroit gay community, according to LaTosch. LaTosch said that the idea for the meetings came from Karen Williams, the featured performer at Laugh Out Loud, who offered to mediate such a session between Affirmations and the protesters. However, time and funding did not come together in time to schedule such a meeting, LaTosch said.