by Jessica Carreras
Big changes are underway at Michigan Equality that could result in surprising announcements in 2009. Following in the footsteps of the Ruth Ellis Center and the Triangle Foundation, another local LGBT leader is on his way out: Executive Director Derek Smiertka. Coinciding with his departure is the announcement of a period of strategic planning for the organization, funded by the Arcus Foundation.
Board President Doug Meeks says the corresponding moves are to ensure the future of the organization, as well as to hone its focus in the coming years. “There are so many things going on in the state currently and so many organizations that are doing different type of work,” Meeks explained. “The strategic planning is how we’re looking at 2009 and the next five years and how we plan on proceeding with our relationships with the other organizations…(it’s) a reorganization as to where we want to move forward and to make sure that we’re not overlapping with other organizations in the state.”
Indeed, much of the work of Michigan Equality has been similar to that of the Triangle Foundation, although the two organizations remain entirely separate. In regard to the November elections, both organizations released separate Political Action Committee statements endorsing pro-LGBT candidates, and both worked on several initiatives together, including the Hamtramck human rights ordinance.
Still, Meeks claimed that Michigan Equality will continue to remain a separate organization and will continue to focus on working to get pro-LGBT candidates elected. “I don’t foresee us changing too much,” he said. “We might move more toward a more specific issue-oriented movement, but at this point, we still plan on moving forward with our political action committee and the fact that we have been helping to get LGBT friendly people elected as more of a majority.”
The Triangle Foundation’s work, though also political, has also focused on hate crimes and victim advocacy. Though Michigan Equality has, in the past, done lobbying on such issues as hate crimes, adoption laws and marriage equality as well, its development in those areas has become somewhat stagnant as of late.
The new strategic plan will address where they want their focus to be – albeit without their executive director.
The decision for Smiertka to leave comes in the same year as the exit of the Triangle Foundation’s Interim Executive Director, Kate Runyon, as well as Director of Policy Sean Kosofsky and Director of Development Kevin McAlpine. The Ruth Ellis Center also saw the departure of its Executive Director, Grace McClelland, earlier this year.
According to Smiertka, the decision was primarily a financial one. “The reality is that we’re in a tough marketplace,” he said. “There is no one in Michigan – a very good friend of mine said ‘there’s nobody singing in Motown.’ The fact is that’s where we’re at.”
Smiertka added that Michigan Equality will remain a volunteer-based organization.
“Obviously if we’re going to go into a more strategic planning process, having an employee out there without the strategic plan in place, it just was the right time,” Meeks said. “It was the right time for this to take place with the economic condition being the way it is in the state. So we’re pulling back to have the proper time to do the strategic planning that’s necessary in order to move forward.”
However, Meeks said that activity at the organization will not cease in the upcoming years, and that the last paid employee – Development Director Julie Powers – will remain on board. “Julie Powers is still here at Michigan Equality. She will be handling some of that…anything that needs to be taken care of or any action that needs to be moved on will continue to take place. Just because Derek’s not here doesn’t mean we won’t be doing stuff.”
Michigan Equality is keeping mum on the subject of hiring a new executive director in the near future. “It’s the holiday season currently,” Meeks said. “There will be announcements in probably January regarding how we plan to move forward with an executive director position.”
As to whether there were any candidates in the running, Meeks was unwilling to comment. “We’ll begin looking at that in the January period,” he said.
As for Smiertka, he insisted that the split was amicable. “It’s just a natural progression,” he stressed. “In about an hour, I’m going to be hanging out with one of my former board chairs. He has to buy the beer though. That’s the new caveat. There’s no hard feelings. There’s no problems whatsoever.”