By Liz Lamoste
Affirmations announced the termination of the program that essentially started the organization, its Helpline, near the end of 2015, offering reasons such as: “Affirmations is not a crisis agency,” “running a helpline can be fairly costly,” because the monthly calls dropped from over 100 to 80-100 calls, and because they suffered from prank calls. I’m confounded and disappointed by this decision for several reasons.
First, if we’re talking about an LGBTQIA* organization, a part of that organization’s mission is necessarily crisis-oriented. Because whether we like it or not, our community is still in crisis and no LGBTQIA* organization should ignore it. As far as cost is concerned, Affirmations had a grant to improve and promote the Helpline, and such a core program could easily be funded with a bit of effort. Even if the numbers were slightly declining, isn’t helping at least a few people in immediate crisis worth it? Or, couldn’t having the Helpline services be adapted instead, perhaps by providing chat services or exploring other alternatives?
Shortly before that announcement, the abrupt exit of former Executive Director Darrious Hilmon came to light, which was accompanied by high staff turnover both upon his arrival and departure. And instead of the announcement and onboarding of an engaging new executive director who is poised to provide Affirmations with new energy and forward momentum, Susan Erspamer is already embroiled in scandal as she has used a historically anti-gay tactic in her custody litigation just weeks on the job. While I understand that custody litigation is personal, the role of executive director for one of the region’s oldest LGBT community organizations carries a special social significance. What message does it send to have someone lead Affirmations who is willing to try to undermine the interests of the LGBT community as a whole for personal gain?
Each of these issues is concerning, and taken together, it’s fair to worry about the quality of leadership and decision-making in Affirmations and the organization’s sustainability. I’m a person who has longstanding, but highly intermittent, involvement with Affirmations. And as I’ve read the news articles in the past year I’ve often thought, “You know, that’s distressing I guess, but it’ll get sorted out and I have other things to do.” After more reflection, I realize now that this response is a mistake.
I first became involved in Affirmations in 2003 when I was doing Gay-Straight Alliance organizing work in high school, and Cass Varner had enough faith in me to allow me to build and run a Regional Gay-Straight Alliance. That experience gave me confidence and one of my first opportunities to hone my advocacy skills, and those are skills that I use every day as an attorney at work and an organizer in my spare time. I know that many others have had positive, formative and affirming experiences at Affirmations, and there are many more of these experiences yet to be had.
Affirmations “provides a welcoming space where people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and cultures can find support and unconditional acceptance; and can learn, grow, and have fun.” My past experiences are consistent with this mission. But, the recent developments I cite above suggest a lack of commitment to this mission.
So, again, why does this matter? It matters first because we have a collective responsibility to think about all of the members of our community, especially those most vulnerable. What about the local person who knew of Affirmations and the Helpline, but only felt comfortable enough to try to place a call into the Helpline after its needless discontinuation? What about a young person who would really benefit from additional youth empowerment programming that we don’t have right now, but could? Have we really committed enough resources to the most vulnerable members of our community? Will Affirmations be around to serve them, and even if it is, will it do so?
And, our community is broader than those who reside in Southeast Michigan. I’ve always viewed Affirmations as a symbol of LGBTQIA* pride and resilience, especially as we still face a political climate where members of our community are discriminated against and are oftentimes unsafe. We need to invest our best in Affirmations even as we get incremental civil rights victories, especially as our community still faces contentious policy challenges, including the ballot initiative spearheaded by Fair Michigan, to name but one example.
Now is an opportune time for reflection. What are the long-term goals of Affirmations? Is there a strategic plan already? Who gets to decide? How is community defined? Who does it include? How is that being communicated, and to whom? How can community members contribute to developing those goals?
The laws and policies governing LGBTQIA* lives continue to evolve and change, and Affirmations needs to provide the literal and metaphorical space for those discussions on how to handle those discussions, even if it doesn’t end up taking official policy positions.
The Board has the responsibility to take leadership to correct these problems, move towards well-defined goals, and to actively participate in the response to attacks against our community when they occur. But this isn’t just up to the Board, and the Board shouldn’t be expected to do it alone. Community members, myself included, have also disinvested our time and attention away from the Aff. And that has to change. We all have an opportunity to critically examine where our community is going and the challenges that Affirmations currently faces. But the dialogue needs to start now.
I respectfully request that the Board dedicate a portion of its upcoming meeting to community concerns and host the meeting in the Affirmations community room at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 27, and we strongly encourage that the Board invite any member of the community with a connection to Affirmations to come and participate.
I also request that the Board commit to increasing transparency into the organization and its operations, that they create and fully participate in community forums, and that they establish a community advisory board so that community feedback is systematically sought and synthesized. As the Board opens the door to this dialogue, we need to show up and engage and help how we can.
Affirmations, it’s time for the community to return to the center.