Yet another shakeup in the leadership of Mazzoni Center raises questions about the organization’s future direction as it grapples with developing a new management model.
On Monday, CEO Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino announced her resignation after seven months. COO Ron Powers also resigned after more than 20 years in his position. He declined a request for comment.
Gonzalez Sciarrino was hired after a five-month nationwide process involving an executive-search firm at the behest of the board of directors, now consisting of 12 members (at the time of Gonzalez Sciarrino’s hiring, there were 17 members.) She offered her resignation on Oct. 23. It was accepted by the board “after we heard her reasons for leaving,” Chris Pope, the head of the board of directors, told PGN.
“She was clear with us that Mazzoni Center needed new leadership to be able to move forward,” he added.
Gonzalez Sciarrino is the third CEO in under two years. At the time her hiring was announced in March, she was attacked on social media by Mazzoni Center employees and others demanding her resignation, at least partly due to her non-LGBT status.
The Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (BBWC), who say they represent nearly 400 workers in Philadelphia, told PGN in a statement in early April, just days after Gonzalez Sciarrino took over as CEO: “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. “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.”
Pope responded to the social-media campaigns, telling PGN at the time that Gonzalez Sciarrino “is committed to the LGBT community and she’s fully aligned with the mission of Mazzoni Center.”
Seven months later, the board has determined that no single individual can lead Mazzoni Center, Pope said. “I think we needed to go through this process to learn that.”
A new leadership committee, led by co-chairs David Davis and Nu'Rodney Prad, both current board members, will make decisions around the search process and serve in an advisory role around the new collaborative-leadership model.
A replacement search is not yet underway because the search process will be revamped and at the moment, it’s not clear what will definitively come next, Pope said, adding that the collaborative-leadership model buys the time to accomplish those goals.
“Because we’re not going to be looking for a specific CEO leader, we might be looking for one or multiple positions — or none at all, because we may find that the folks who are leading now really do fit what we need to do.”
The three new leaders are Medical Director Dr. Nancy Brisbon, Care Services Director Alicia Manley and Chief Financial Officer Racquel Assaye.
In a joint statement to PGN, the Interim Leadership Team said changes “will be made to Mazzoni Center’s organizational structure that will clearly delineate roles and reporting relationships, making this transition easier.”
The statement noted that Mazzoni Center continues to meet or exceed “our contract goals and outcomes relating to federal, state and city funding,” citing “a sound financial environment.”
But the resignation of Gonzalez Sciarrino represents yet another setback as the organization tries to stabilize following a series of scandals.
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. CEO Nurit Shein was asked by the board of directors to resign later that month, following accusations of delayed action on Winn’s alleged misconduct.
Stephen Glassman stepped in to fill the interim CEO job in July 2017. During his tenure until March, he hired consultants with far-right ties to discourage employees from unionizing, which sparked another controversy. Last September, Mazzoni Center employees nevertheless voted 51-34 to unionize, organizing under the Service Employees International Union (the SEIU).
The wave of crisis is preventing Mazzoni Center from moving forward, Gonzalez Sciarrino told PGN in an exclusive interview — one that was conducted with no pre-conditions.
“We are spending so much time addressing the crises that we haven’t had a chance to sit back, put the blueprint on the table, and say, ‘OK, these are the chips that are moving to create the final product,’” she said.
Gonzalez Sciarrino said she resigned because she does not want her presence to detract from the vital mission of Mazzoni Center.
“The very reason I took this job eight months ago is the reason I feel I need to step aside today,” she said. “Mazzoni Center saves lives. People in this community depend on Mazzoni Center’s stability, on it being a safe place. If others will not step aside and let progress happen, then I have to because at some point in time, somebody has to, because I cannot imagine a future without Mazzoni Center.”
The outgoing CEO expressed concern about how the tumult affects the organization in ways not immediately visible.
“As CEO, I am looking at the bigger picture. I am concerned about those people in the community who have supported us for years — and whose financial and community support we need in years to come — and those are the individuals who are paying close attention to what is happening in the organization. They are, little by little, without anybody noticing, walking away — they are starting to back off.”
Right now, the turmoil within the organization “makes people with the means to contribute to us rethink that, and I don’t want them to go,” she said.
A Facebook post from Nefertari Sloan, Senior Health and Sexuality Educator at Mazzoni Center
In April, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, cofounder of BBWC and a former Mazzoni Center staffer, 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.
The BBWC did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Gonzalez Sciarrino denied that social-media pressure forced her to resign, citing an incident that happened Aug. 20, the same day she fired Kay Martinez, Mazzoni Center’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion. An estimated 50 people participated in a walk-out to protest the firing, including Amber Hikes, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs.
That evening, Gonzalez Sciarrino got in her car and almost immediately saw a message that she had low pressure in her tires. She stopped at a gas station and found one of the caps had been removed from a back tire. She filled it and began driving again. A subsequent message inside her vehicle indicated that all the tires had “very low pressure.” After taking the car back to the dealership, Gonzalez Sciarrino was told that the air was manually removed from the tires.
A PGN reporter read a copy of the internal incident report detailing the events and corroborated the account with a witness. Gonzalez Sciarrino stopped driving to work and started walking, changing her route every day.
She expressed concern for her own personal safety, and said Nov. 14 would be her last day at the office. She will work remotely until Dec. 28, she told PGN.
“By bringing this to light, I am hoping that if anyone thought to cause harm at Mazzoni Center, think about it — don’t.”
Hikes expressed cautious optimism about the new leadership structure at Mazzoni Center, adding that “lived experience” qualifies a leader for an organization that deals with marginalized communities.
“I think that personal, lived experience with those communities is essential to be able to serve them appropriately,” she told PGN. “In the same way that I think it is appropriate for a black person to lead Black Lives Matter, it is appropriate for a woman to lead the National Organization of Women, I think it’s appropriate for an LGBT person to lead an LGBTQ center.”
Mayor Jim Kenney weighed in on Tuesday, telling KYW the joint leadership taking over Mazzoni Center means “more oversight and more to carry the workload.”
Mazzoni Center, which turns 40 next year, is a comprehensive LGBT-focused health center based in South Philadelphia. The center has 35,000 clients 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.
Gonzalez Sciarrino said Mazzoni Center needs a plan — not just for three months down the line, or even three years. “There needs to be a strategic, long-term plan for this organization,” she said.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”