Members of the Community Raise Concerns About Search for New Executive Director
FERNDALE – Members of the community were invited to Affirmations on May 11 to discuss changes at the LGBT community center and to get input and ideas from the organization’s supporters. The public town hall was held following the resignation of the executive director, Susan Erspamer, in late March; the board president, Brad Bell, last November; and the treasurer, Jon Beasley, last July.
The community conversation addressed questions about the Center’s finances, the election of new board members, and what the future holds for Interim Executive Director Liliana Reyes, who hosted the meeting along with Interim Board President Michael Flores.
A small crowd of about 20 attended, and they were all passionate about the Center. Reyes made the effort to alleviate any doubt and speak to concerns.
She said Affirmations sees about 30,000 guests annually, offers 25 different support and discussion groups, has 150 active volunteers and is conducting more LGBTQ sensitivity trainings than ever before.
“From January 1 till today, we’ve trained about 750 individuals, and that’s a two-hour training,” said Reyes. “Including last year, we’ve trained over 2,000 professionals.”
Affirmations does this with a small staff of nine that includes Katie Koch, Development Director; Kyle Taylor, Development Coordinator; Becca Budde, Educating and Training Manager; Heather Aymer, Community Resource Coordinator; Ian Unger, Youth Coordinator; Ryan Fowler, Facilities Coordinator; Angela Sawyers, Finance Director; and Shelly McCallister, Counseling Supervisor.
Reyes spoke enthusiastically about reaching out and taking the center in new directions.
“We’re actively working with almost every major LGBT community center in Michigan,” she said. “We need to be everywhere. Part of what I’m doing is expanding the borders of Affirmations. We believe and I believe in real partnerships.”
Reyes pointed to the Human Rights Campaign and the Trans Sistas of Color Project, both of which have office space at the Center now.
“This is the very first time Trans Sistas of Color Project has met outside of the city of Detroit. And they’re not only renting space here, they’ve given us a grant to do Trans Sistas of Color Project work,” said Reyes.
Reyes discussed her plan to reach further outside the realm of traditional LGBTQ work. This month, Affirmations staff and volunteers will deliver water to Flint.
“Water has nothing to do with LGBT, but if water is supporting life, [then] life is supporting LGBT,” said Reyes. “So it’s thinking outside of just the gay sphere and pushing it … We’re thinking of unique ways to push the LGBT agenda that isn’t the historical way of just going to other LGBT communities.”
To Search or Not to Search
As far as the search for a new executive director is concerned, at the meeting, Flores said, “We are going to go through a process where we’re going to evaluate one – are we going to conduct a national search, and two – are we going to solicit the services of a third party or are we going to do that internally? And we’re obviously going to go through the process of interviewing any potential candidates.”
But for some in the crowd, the talk of another national search was not encouraging. The board conducted a national search to find executive director, Darrius D. Hilmon. When he left the Center, the board went back to their original search to hire Erspamer, their number two on the list. Both had brief tenures at the Center.
“You’ve gone through two search processes and they both dudded out,” said Michelle Fox-Phillips, founder and executive director of the Gender Identity Network Alliance.
Flores deflected somewhat, stating that no one currently on the board had been involved in the previous search.
“I do hear the concern that the previous two searches did not yield [good] results,” said Flores. “I don’t think anyone [on the board] was there to give us details on what happened. However, we need to evaluate everything and determine what the most effective way to move forward with selecting a new ED is. We need to outline all the available avenues to the board. Then the board needs to select the best avenue and then proceed forward with that avenue.”
Flores, who has been nominated for board president, said input is needed from everyone.
“I’m leaning toward having some sort of cross-functional committee that involves the board and staff and the community to be able to look at different candidates and select the right candidate.”
However, members of the community said the search should already be over as they voiced confidence in Reyes and her leadership ability.
“We don’t want to bring an outsider in who doesn’t know Detroit’s LGBT community because every LGBT community is different,” said Jamesion King, LGBT Detroit’s social media coordinator. “We need someone who’s already here to continue to make it better.”
Fox-Phillips continued, “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve found our executive director. I’m going to give her a vote of confidence.”
A former Affirmations board member, Michelle Brown, concurred.
“I want to second what Michelle said about moving forward,” she said. “We have been waiting. You went on a search and found an executive director who didn’t have knowledge not only of the LGBT community but of this community. And we all held our breath. Then you got the next person and we were all holding our breath to see when Affirmations would get it together. We don’t have time. I would say we are in a unique position right now. We have someone with a connection to the community and the qualifications. We don’t have the money to spend on another search.”
Reyes also received a vote of approval from the staff at the center.
“On behalf of the staff we want to 100 percent back Liliana,” said Koch. “We support her. We believe in her. And we’re committed in Affirmations succeeding and for Affirmations to succeed we want Liliana to succeed.”
When asked if she were interested in the position, Reyes, who has worked at the Center for almost four years, and served under three different executive directors, beamed.
“Of course I am,” she said. “Of course I am. I really love Affirmations and I mean really love it.”
Flores spoke about the Center’s budget and expenses as well.
“In terms of finances, I sit down with Liliana on a weekly basis. We are basically to budget. Moving forward we do see some gaps. But as a whole over these next couple of months, we are in the black,” he said. “It’s something that’s new to Affirmations to be in the black but we’re confident that we’re going to end the year in the black again.”
One key to that is development, said Reyes.
“Katie and I have met with every staff member and board member to talk about what development looks like. So every single staff member is doing development. Every single member of staff is thinking about their costs and expenses,” she said.
An audit of the center was recently completed though the auditor’s findings have not yet been submitted. Flores said the board will review the budget after the first half of the fiscal year is over.
“The plan is not to make a change but if we need to we will,” he said. “Moving forward our income projections have to be realistic and based on facts and probability.”
Affirmations will host a second public town hall on June 21 at 11 a.m. Visit facebook.com/Affirmations/ for more information.