Mazzoni Center is standing by incoming CEO Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino amid demands by the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative that she resign, at least partly due to her non-LGBT status.
“We stand with Lydia. She’s the right choice for us,” Mazzoni Center communications director Larry Benjamin told PGN. “We don’t discriminate against people because of who they are.”
Mazzoni board president Christopher Pope noted that Gonzalez Sciarrino ran a health center of similar size in her previous position and that she also impressed the board because of “her ability to work with people from different backgrounds and her ability to institute processes for better efficiency of the organization. She “is committed to the LGBT community and she’s fully aligned with the mission of Mazzoni Center,” Pope told PGN.
But the co-founders of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (BBWC), who say they represent nearly 400 workers in Philadelphia, aren’t budging.“The days of people who are not from our communities coming in to take up a considerable amount of power in our communities is over,” said BBWC cofounder Shani Akilah. “That is non-negotiable. There’s nothing she can say to make her presence acceptable at all.”
Akilah said a community-rooted organization such as Mazzoni Center must have leadership reflecting those it serves.“A white, straight cis woman is not fit to lead Mazzoni, no matter how much experience she claims to have,” said Akilah. “The one thing she does not have and will never be able to have is lived experience.”
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, cofounder of BBWC and a former Mazzoni Center staffer, said the board of directors doesn’t have the best interests of clients at heart. The board “has been failing us for years. That’s partly the reason why the cooperative exists — because of the board’s failure.”
Both Muhammad and Akilah threatened further action until Mazzoni Center meets their conditions.
“We expect to engage in escalating actions against Mazzoni leadership until our demands are met,” said Muhammad.
If Gonzalez Sciarrino carries on as CEO of Mazzoni Center, she “will not be made comfortable,” said Akilah. “If for some reason she is put in this position, then she will not have any rest — because every moment she takes in this position is a disservice to our communities.”
BBWC recently posted a petition calling for the departure of Gonzalez Sciarrino along with the resignation of key Mazzoni officials, among other demands. Muhammad also called for the dissolution of Mazzoni Center’s entire board of directors.
“The entire 16-member board should be dissolved,” Muhammad said. “If there’s a legal way to do that with minimal impact on services, that board should be dissolved, absolutely.”
Gonzalez Sciarrino’s first day on the job was April 2, but off-site until April 4, said Benjamin.
He said Gonzalez Sciarrino will remain as the agency’s CEO despite criticism from the BBWC. Mazzoni Center’s 16-member board of directors remains steadfast in its decision to hire her, he added.
“Lydia has a history of championing many causes, including the cause for LGBT equality,” he said.
Benjamin declined to comment specifically on the BBWC’s demands.
Muhammad said a new “democratic” search should be conducted for a Mazzoni Center CEO, adding that non-managerial staffers should decide who gets the job.
“The union staff should go to the ballot box and vote. The management need not engage in that process at all,” Muhammad told PGN.
Benjamin defended the CEO search process, which was conducted nationally between October 2017 and March 2018. He said some changes due to unanticipated confidentiality needs of some candidates resulted in less transparency than originally expected.
“We don’t believe that any misunderstanding or changes in the search process affected the overall integrity of the process,” he said. “It was always our intention to have as many voices as possible involved in the process, from the beginning.”
Benjamin acknowledged that a March 29 statement released by the board inaccurately asserted that a non-managerial Mazzoni staffer served on the executive search committee for a new CEO. Instead, he said, it was a managerial staffer who served on the committee.
The five-member executive-search committee interviewed candidates and subsequently presented its selection to the full board of directors for a vote, he said.
Board president Pope also defended the process.
“We followed a very strict and comprehensive search process. It took into account all of the nuances of the CEO position,” Pope told PGN on March 30. “During the search process, about 100,000 executive directors and/or CEOs in the nonprofit field from across the country were contacted about the CEO opportunity at Mazzoni Center.”
Mazzoni Center has 35,000 clients and patients and an annual budget of $16.5 million, $6 million of which is comprised of federal grants. The balance comes from revenue generated through the health center and private-development funding.
An estimated 20-25 percent of Mazzoni’s clientele is non-LGBT, Benjamin said.
Last year, Mazzoni Center was plagued by published reports of systemic racism, mismanagement and dysfunction. In April 2017, Robert Winn resigned as medical director amid charges of sexual misconduct. Later that month, then-CEO Nurit Shein was asked by the board of directors to resign, following accusations of delayed action on Winn’s alleged misconduct.
Prior to her departure, Shein, an out lesbian, served as Mazzoni’s CEO for 22 years. The agency, which turns 40 next year, never had a non-LGBT person lead it prior to the hiring of Gonzalez Scirrino.
Gonzalez Sciarrino, 50, has worked at six nonprofits prior to leading Mazzoni Center. Most recently, she served as CEO of Whole Family Health Center based in Ft. Pierce, Fla. The agency began as a small HIV clinic and under her leadership expanded into a much larger comprehensive health center. n