(Photo by Sabrina Vourvoulias)
What could have been an awkward moment at the LGBTQ State of the Union June 3, was instead a show of support for the Attic Youth Center — an LGBTQ youth-serving organization that earlier in the year was rocked by controversy.
In March of this year two former staffers made public allegations of racism, unfair pay, mismanagement of a sexual assault and other grievances against Attic Youth Center, singling out executive director Carrie Jacobs and director of programs Christina Santos.
Reaction from within the LGBTQ community soon split into two camps — exemplified by those who pointed to the organization’s 25-year history to counter the allegations, and those who focused on the allegations as emblematic of entrenched structural racism, transphobia and adultism within the community, as well as those who called for deeper self-examination and transparency from the leadership.
But when Shawnese Givens, the Attic Youth Center’s interim executive director, walked out on stage Monday night at the Kimmel Center, the applause from those attending the LGBTQ State of the Union was loud and enthusiastic.
The event was structured in such a way that the leaders of LGBTQ organizations giving presentations were allowed seven minutes to explain the mission, highlight the accomplishments of the past year, and speak of projects and plans in the works. Givens spoke very briefly about the Attic Center’s mission, then addressed the controversy head-on.
“This evening I want to speak explicitly about the ways in which we are now examining how white supremacy, transphobia and adultism manifest in our organization,” Givens said.
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The crowd broke into applause, and after a few moments, Givens continued: “These issues are pervasive in our larger society and it’s critical that we recognize how they impact us as well.”
“The majority of youth that we serve are of color,” Givens continued, “and to live up to the full potential and expression of our mission, we must approach our work through an intersectional lens that begins at the highest level of the organization. That means examining everything. Policies and procedures, pay structure, how power is distributed, and how we talk about power and privilege in the organization.”
Again, the crowd erupted in applause.
Givens went on to give a few specifics about the ongoing investigations prompted by the allegations — which she characterized as significant. The news about the investigations wasn’t new — the Attic’s board had issued statements about them prior to the LGBTQ State of the Union — but Givens reiterated that the investigations were ongoing and being treated with seriousness.
“Both investigations will include recommendations on policies and procedures that ensure a safe and inclusive environment for youth and staff,” Givens said. “That is our priority.”
Attic Youth Center wasn’t the only organization at the LGBTQ State of the Union that has been caught up in controversy. The Mazzoni Center‘s leadership was challenged in 2017 and again in 2018, something the board members in charge of the Center’s presentation referred to briefly during the event Monday night.
But the audience’s response to Mazzoni was far more tepid than what the Attic Youth Center received, and it is hard not to conclude that the difference in response stemmed precisely from the difference in approach.
By making its response to the controversy the core of its presentation, Attic Youth Center went a long way in reassuring the LGBTQ community that it is willing to confront organizational shortfalls in earnest — and in community.
Major props to @atticyouthcen for their presentation at the #PHLSOTU — open, honest conversation about struggles they’re facing and what they’re doing to address them.
— Steve Preston (@StevePrest) June 3, 2019
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