Equality California in Transition After Palencia Resigns
Karen Ocamb

It seems curiously ironic during LGBT History Month this October that the community recognizes individuals who made a difference in advancing LGBT liberation and civil rights but ignores the institutions that often helped nurture those activists and advanced the movement.

For instance, the NAACP just celebrated its 102nd anniversary, though few can name its directors. There seems to be a sense of stewardship, of protecting the legacy and work of the organization, of keeping an “eye on the prize” that supersedes individual egos. And yet, what is an organization without its leaders, staff, board and—most importantly—supporters? As NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous told radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson during the recent convention in Los Angeles, the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is struggling to make the organization relevant to today’s youth.

With the sudden resignation of Equality California Executive Director Roland Palencia on Monday, Oct. 10, EQCA as an organization (that to some has reached the status of an LGBT institution) is now facing similar questions: is the organization still relevant, and if so, why and for whom and to do what?

Palencia announced his resignation after a day celebrating Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of 10 out of 12 EQCA-sponsored bills over the year, and with a strong indication that the anti-gay Capitol Resource Institute had failed to gather enough signatures to quality a referendum for the 2012 ballot to overturn EQCA’s California FAIR Education Act.

So what happened? Why did Palencia resign after only three months, when many enthusiastically supported his vision of giving EQCA a new direction with a broader social and economic justice agenda? And what will happen to EQCA now?

Few remember that EQCA’s predecessor, LIFE Lobby (originally LIFE AIDS Lobby), crashed in the summer of 1998—having passed significant legislation despite vetoes and anti-gay attitudes from Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who started his tenure in office by vetoing the gay rights bill AB 101 in 1991. Just as happened with the furor over the passage of Prop. 8, there were “leaderless” marches in the streets for weeks in protest, and even presidential candidate Bill Clinton took notice. Eventually, tweaked versions of AB 101 were passed and signed into law with little fanfare. But try as they might—with many pleas to the LGBT community—then-board chair John Duran and Executive Director Laurie McBride couldn’t keep the organization financially afloat. Duran tried to launch GALE (Gay and Lesbian Equality) in advance of a new era under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, but was unsuccessful. Finally, just as the battle over anti-gay Prop. 22 was peaking, the California Alliance for Pride and Equality was created, run by two staffers (one of whom was Eric Astacaan who now works for the California LGBT Caucus) until Jean Harris took the reigns. But Harris wasn’t a good fit for a number of reasons, and the board asked fellow board member and attorney Geoff Kors to step in as Interim Executive Director.

CAPE was carrying a six-figure debt when Kors took over in 2002, eventually becoming executive director. He served for nine years before announcing in early December 2010 that he was stepping down on March 31, 2011. During his tenure, Kors raised the bar for an EQCA endorsement to a full requirement that candidates have a 100 percent record and support for full equality—including marriage equality. He wrote and helped pass scores of bills (including the two marriage bills authored by openly gay Assemblymember Mark Leno from San Francisco) that significantly impacted the LGBT community—25 pieces of legislation in the 2009-2010 session alone. When he left in March, EQCA had $1.2 million in net assets and what he described as the second largest number of members and donors of any LGBT organization in the nation.

As of the end of September, EQCA’s net assets were approximately $740,000, with $250,000 cash on hand, according to EQCA Communications Director Rebekah Orr, who consulted with EQCA Finance Director Steve Mele (who’s also departing). Many board members—including mega-fundraisers such as Gary Soto and Jeff Haber (Duran and longtime boardmember and PAC leader Diane Abbitt were termed out)—resigned after Kors left. In an interview with Frontiers, board member and longtime LGBT ally Rabbi Steven Jacobs said the board needed to “step up” and raise the money. He also acknowledged that the board had started taking more responsibility for decisions—though EQCA previously worked under the Carver Model of governance, empowering the director to make and carry out policy while they focused on fundraising.

During an hour-long interview with Frontiers, Palencia said the board had explained his fundraising duties as executive director during his interview for the job. Palencia also said he felt supported by the board.

But many in the community groused—though off the record—that the board seemed to have failed to develop a transition plan that would support Palencia in what could be foreseen as a “traditional” dip in financial and base support after the tenure of a successful executive director. Additionally, though specific targeted fundraising events were successful—and Palencia brought in a slew of new faces to the EQCA awards gala in Los Angeles—there seemed to be no plan to engage grassroots supporters and wrestle them out from under the heavy pall of apathy that has settled over the LGBT community since the end of the post-Prop. 8 protests.

That became very evident when the small, anti-gay Sacramento-based Capitol Resources Institute whipped up a massive campaign to pressure Gov. Brown not to sign the FAIR Education Act. A Sacramento-based ally sent out an urgent, albeit covert, message to please get the LGBT community to weigh in and urge Brown to sign the FAIR Act. LGBT community reporters and bloggers drew attention to the issue and EQCA eventually reacted.

Though he was hired in May and marched with EQCA in the Christopher Street West Pride parade in June, this was the first issue that hit Palencia when he officially started his job in July. Palencia was steeped in his vision of changing the organization and seemed caught off guard and totally unprepared for the criticism or the fight. Eventually, as CRI announced they were mounting a signature-gathering campaign to place a referendum on the 2012 ballot to overturn the FAIR Education Act, Palencia found himself basically working several jobs all at once—executive director, COO (the job Jim Carroll held as Geoff Kors’ ‘number two’ man), de facto campaign director for a hastily formed coalition to try to prevent Stop SB 48 from collecting signatures, coming up with the perfect “sound bite” message to counter Stop SB 48 that was acceptable to everyone on what is a “core” issue about LGBT people and kids—and trying to raise money for the organization and the nascent campaign.

Realizing he needed help, Palencia turned to Kors and Carroll for discreet advice—which was given often and freely—as well as reaching out to anyone else he thought could help. Like those NAACP leaders, he placed running the organization over his own ego. Others jumped in as well, including the Courage Campaign, which launched their own attempts to stir the grassroots out of their settled apathy.

During the interview, Palencia was incredibly diplomatic and would not speak to community allegations about board or other failures. Indeed, he started by giving the same response to Frontiers about the reason he’s leaving as he gave to the San Francisco Chronicle and the Bay Area Reporter—and repeatedly stressed the importance of supporting Equality California.

“I made a personal decision to leave, and I want to move on and it’s as simple as that,” Palencia said. “I want to open a new chapter in my personal and professional life.”

Pressed, Palencia seemed to indicate the intense pressure he was under contributed to his decision to resign.

“Clearly these are very complex times and complex issues, and there were a lot of things for the movement and the organization to manage and to lead. I got a chance be on the inside of the organization, and I have so much more appreciation for what it does and I want to continue to support Equality California and would urge the community to do so, as well,” he said. “The fact that the whole [Stop] SB 48 happened on my first week on the job really complicated a lot of things. All of a sudden we had to be in a campaign mode and at the same time we—the organization—was trying to decide on a new course.

“But I think I was very effective in putting the [oppose Stop SB 48] coalition together with obviously all of our partners and handled that matter in the best way we could,” Palencia continued. “In the process of that, we educated literally tens of thousands of people. So I think my skill set in terms of that—bringing the community together on such a short notice and on an issue that was probably one of the biggest crises we had—I mean, that gets to the core of that fundamental issue [about LGBT people and children]. And it was very challenging to try to find the right messaging, the right approach, putting the right coalition together. So that really pressured me and the organization in a way that hasn’t been challenged.

“Even with the whole marriage equality/Prop. 8 situation, that whole issue has been in development for many years,” he continued. “And that was extremely hard. And then something like this [battling Stop SB 48]—which is more of a core conversation—that was very challenging.”

Palencia said there was “a lot of skepticism that was inherited” at first when the coalition to oppose Stop SB 48 first came together. Orr, who sat in on the phone interview, said she was impressed by how the coalition evolved and engaged with more people and organizations, “stepping up and taking on pieces of work and taking leadership on pieces of work.” Such work will continue, she said. Among the groups mentioned as coalition members, Palencia specifically noted the Courage Campaign. “They’ve put a lot of stuff out there,” he said.

Palencia also countered the question of whether coalition members stepped up financially, and if he did enough in the fundraising arena, saying he brought in some new funding. “We got that Haas Jr. Fund money. Some of the fundraising—the events—have been successful. But I think this is a symptom of a larger problem in terms of our movement being really underfunded. You know there was that Movement Advance Project report where it said that less than five percent of our LGBT people give to their own nonprofits. So, given the resources that coalition members have, I think it’s amazing what we do with so little.”

Steven Goldstein, Executive Director of Garden State Equality, agrees. “Equality California is not alone. This is part of a bigger structural problem in our movement. Many state organizations are in deep financial trouble, not only because of the economy, but because many national donors view state organizations as temporary campaigns, rather than permanent organizations, to pull in and out of, in and out of, as the ebbs and flows of imminent victory or defeat warrant,” Goldstein told Frontiers. “Am I saying there’s something wrong with that philosophy? Yes and no—I think it’s a nuanced dynamic, just like I think many subjects of discussion are more nuanced than a polarized debate would indicate. But this I am sure of—the rollercoaster funding dynamic causes havoc on organizations beyond their losing funding for dormant campaigns. The dynamic affects everything, including ebbs in the roller coaster that threaten the most basic advocacy and services vital to our community’s health.”

The EQCA board told Palencia “that part and parcel of my job duties, in partnership with the board and staff was to fundraise at various levels—corporate and individual, as well as through events and foundations and so forth,” Palencia said. “Three months is not a long time to make a huge dent in that, but nonetheless, I was able to bring some new foundation money, I contributed to bringing people to event sponsorships and that kind of stuff.”

Palencia also said rumors that he didn’t like the fundraising part of his job and didn’t call some important donors were not true. “I made phone calls” to donors and “got involved at all levels in the fundraising aspect of the organization. But then again, it takes a while to nurture and get those relationships.”

Palencia also countered the contention that EQCA is in trouble. “The organization has traditionally expanded and contracted,” he said. “This is a political organization—we have issues like Prop. 8 or issues that resonate with our constituents like Prop. 8, and the organization expands. When it doesn’t have those issues, then the organization contracts. It wasn’t too long ago that the organization was five or six people—that was right before Prop. 8. That’s just the ebb and flow of political organizations. Geoff can tell you that. He can vouch for that. Equality California has gone through those cycles where there’s a lot of staff and then, within months, they have to pare down because the issue and the people who fund those issues are no longer funding that work.

“These are definitely challenging times for a lot of nonprofit organizations that are having a hard time finding a message and issue that resonates with supporters. Those things really kind of create a situation that is financially challenging,” he said. “But I trust we’ll be able to overcome that and pare down to a level that is sustainable, and that the organization will be able to build up from there.”

Orr added, “There are financial challenges. And as Roland mentioned, very few LGBT people and fewer people who are even supportive of equality make financial contributions to organizations like ours. I think there is a very misguided belief we have money to go around for days, and that‘s just not true—partially because we’re a nonprofit organization, and partially because we’re going to do the most we absolutely can with the money that we have, so we’re never going to be flush. So there is a call and a need for people to think about what kind of Equality California they want to have. If they want to have a big, robust fighting Equality California, then we need to have big, robust fighting support at every level. Having said that, I think it’s also important to look at the assets of the organization—we have a tremendous grassroots base. We have experienced staff and experienced board members with experience and relationships and partnerships and things that live within Equality California that are incredibly valuable to this movement, and in our state and nationally. And I think it would be a big mistake to discount how valuable that really is in California.”

Despite the board resignations and the staff firings and departures, Palencia remains optimistic. “In spite of these hard times, our donors and supporters have really stuck with supporting Equality California,” Palencia said. “I just want to send the message that that’s very commendable for them to continue to do that, because think about what it was like 12 years ago before this organization came onto the scene, and how it is now. It’s a remarkable revolution, and there’s so much more work to do.”

Of that decision not to lead an effort to repeal Prop. 8 in 2012, Palencia would only say, “The decision about going or not going back to the ballot to overturn Proposition 8 was a gut-wrenching one. Ultimately, I believed that initiating a signature drive could ignite something powerful in our movement here in California. This needs to be balanced with the responsibility of raising close to $2 million by December 2011 for the signature gathering alone; and maybe over $40 million to win this campaign by November 2012. Not a small task. Given the pending federal lawsuit, the economy, critical support among the base and a number of other factors, not winning this campaign could be a very disempowering experience.”

The board of Equality California promised to come up with a transition plan by Oct. 14, as Frontiers goes to press. (Frontiers will post the notice about the plan on Palencia and Orr said they had no idea what that plan might look like or who might take over as interim executive director while the board conducts another national search to replace him. One name that kept popping up as a possible interim ED is Toni Broaddus, a longtime lesbian feminist who has good relationships with many organizations and leaders. Broaddus was head of the national Equality Federation of all state LGBT groups, was deputy campaign manager under Mike Marshall during the Prop. 22 fight in 2000 and worked at EQCA under Kors as a program director—all of which suggests to many that she has the vast experience required to run the organization and lead a campaign.

But while grassroots organizations such as Love Honor Cherish (which submitted language to the Attorney General for a ballot initiative to repeal Prop. 8) hope the EQCA board reverses its decision, many politicos across the country hope they do not.

“From a national view, if California takes Prop. 8 to the ballot, there will be no way to raise the money it needs—period,” political strategist Andy Szekeres told Frontiers. “It will be facing Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, Minnesota and maybe Washington and Oregon. This will doom the other marriage fights—there is no way the community can fund the $40-plus million for a marriage fight and the $30-ish million we need for the rest of the national fight. The multimillion dollar checks will not be there this time, and the Obama turnout will not be nearly as strong as it was in 2008.”

Palencia says he is now joining the ranks of the unemployed, though he will still contribute and volunteer for Equality California.

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