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After years of turmoil, the Mazzoni Center wants to look forward

March 21, 2022 Category: FeatureFeaturedLong

Sultan Shakir is a queer Black Muslim man who grew up near Broad and Erie in North Philadelphia. The first place he saw out, proud gay black men was as a teenager in the Gayborhood. His path of self-discovery went south on the Broad Street Line.

The last seven years he’s been the Executive Director of SMYAL, a youth LGBTQ advocacy group in Washington D.C. In January, he started as the newest president of the Mazzoni Center, one of the country’s oldest and largest LGBTQ health services nonprofits. In 2017, the organization consolidated its operations into a 45,000 square foot community space at 13th and Bainbridge — not far from where Shakir began his own path of discovery.

“The Mazzoni Center and other institutions that serve these communities mean a lot to me,” Shakir said. Its impact aside, Mazzoni, which was founded as Lavender Health in 1979, has spent most of the last five years spiraling from one crisis to another.

  • In 2017, then-CEO Nurit Shein resigned following the suspension of medical director Dr. Robert Winn for sexual assault charges and a staff walkout related to accusations of racial discrimination;
  • In 2018, short-lived executive director Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino and longtime COO Ron Powers both resigned amid declining support among staff;
  • In 2019, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations extended a review of the organization’s workplace practices;
  • In 2020, a third of its staff was furloughed and leadership took drastic pay cuts at the very outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With two CEO departures, allegations of sexual assault, accusations of racial discrimination and bruising staff turnover over five years, it’s easy to remain skeptical of a turnaround. As one nonprofit observer told Generocity: “it’s a tall order to come back from.”

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After a year-long search, one Mazzoni insider said the search committee called Shakir their “unicorn.” For his part, Shakir readily admits this wasn’t an easy career decision. “I was hesitant all the way through to walking into the office on the first day,” he said.

But, as Shakir told Generocity as part of a new interview series, he was reminded why he took the job by the LGBTQ clients Mazzoni serves. “When I stand in the lobby, people tell you how great the care is, the care is culturally competent and comprehensive,” he said. 

That won’t make his work any less daunting. This month Shakir begins a “listening tour,” which includes a series of meetings with current and former staff and clients, among other stakeholders.

“The first step is to find out how people are feeling about what happened and what is left resolved about what happened or what didn’t happen,” Shakir said. “ From there you can chart the path.”

One big lesson Shakir has already learned is the difference between personal and organizational responsibility. Nearly all of Mazzoni’s leadership has turned over from its damning cycle of turmoil. That means he can remind his team of an important point: “We did not commit this harm, but it’s our duty to make sure the organization takes responsibility for it.” 

It won’t happen again, he promises. Shakir pledges a more comprehensive report on what has changed at Mazzoni since its abuses. One important early example Shakir cites is a clearer and better-vetted method for staff and clients to report concerns. 

He also pledges to be the most communicative leader Mazzoni has had — an indirect swipe at past execs who lost the support of much of their staff through festering workplace toxicity. Shakir says he shares his email and phone number directly with stakeholders — and responds. For now, his work is to address the fact that the nonprofit he now helms had become one “traumatized community serving another traumatized community.”

Shakir hasn’t settled on where he’ll permanently live upon moving back home to Philadelphia. He’s not sure how much distance he needs between work and home. He cited at least one challenge that any nonprofit professional might recognize: “You have to end every day knowing you didn’t meet the full needs of your community.”

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