The challenges facing Tucson's LGBT community center this past year haven't been a secret, and at times they've probably only added to the frustration of its board of directors and former executive director as they worked to figure out how to turn things around—a challenge the agency has faced since the 2008 economic downturn.
But now survival mode has turned into keeping programs alive and an existing board tasked with the job of deciding Wingspan's future, what that looks like and maybe, ultimately, can Tucson support the community center it first formed more than 25 years ago.
News that this challenge was not just before the Wingspan board but the entire community began last week when the Tucson Weekly heard from former employees that on Tuesday, June 24, Wingspan's executive director had been terminated and employees were told that the organization was closing at the end of July and they would no longer be employed. We were also told that the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation was taking over programs—particularly Eon Youth and the Anti-Violence Prevention projects.
On Wednesday, June 25, Paul Guerrero, Wingspan's board president, confirmed that Executive Director Carol Grimsby was terminated on June 16 due to lack of funding, but he denied that the organization was closing and that employees laid off as a result.
Guerrero said the organization is working to prevent that from happening and to partner with other organizations to help the agency continue its programs and use the next month to figure out what Wingspan will look like since the lease on its 430 E. Seventh St. center ends July 31—will it have a physical space, etc.
The current board has spent the past weeks studying what to do next and has fielded dozens of phone calls from community members concerned about the organization's future, Guerrero said, adding that he anticipates the board will have a better idea of what happens next for Wingspan by next week.
A formal statement was released by Wingspan's board on Thursday, June 26, confirming some of what he explained the day before—that yes, a collaboration with SAAF is currently being discussed.
"The Board of Directors recognizes and understands the responsibility it has to maintain the legacy of Wingspan and her programs. Given the current economic and financial situation that Wingspan is experiencing, the Board voted to begin collaborations with the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation to discuss a transition that will allow for Wingspan's programs and mission to continue. Discussions with other non-profits are also occurring," the statement read.
"Several advantages of this collaboration and merger include a continuation of services and programs for the Tucson and southeastern Arizona LGBTQ communities, offering the ability to exist within a stronger financial and administrative infrastructure. The Board anticipates using the Wingspan name and reputation to promote and leverage for stronger LGBTQ programming, for fundraising and for continued support of the LGBT community. The Board is very concerned about the welfare of current employees and volunteers and will work to protect their interests and well-being."
Once news of the board's decision started to gather steam on social media, it was evident that Tucson's LGBT community reaction was not necessarily a surprise, but a mixed bag from disappointment in how the organization has been managed to a deep sadness that something the Tucson LGBT community worked hard to build could be in jeopardy.
That sadness wasn't lost on Guerrero, who shared the decisions taking place were difficult for the board, and that it remained difficult talking to the Weekly, questioning the information we received and labeling it as malicious gossip based on previous stories we've written the past year on problems brought up by fired employees and LGBT community members.
Although the Arizona Daily Star reported recently that SAGA would be part of the programs transitioning to SAAF as the Wingspan board figures out the organization's future, that isn't exactly true. According to Abby Louise Jensen, speaking on behalf of the SAGA Advisory Council, the transgender community organization is discussing if it should move forward as an independent entity or partner with a different organization.
"SAGA began as a grassroots, volunteer organization designed to serve the needs of the transgender community of Tucson and Southern Arizona. In light of the changes at Wingspan, the SAGA Advisory Council is discussing whether to return to its roots and move forward as an independent organization," Jensen said, "or find a larger organization to partner with, as it did with Wingspan. Either way, SAGA believes in the benefits of cooperation and will continue to work with other local, state and national organizations to improve the lives of LGBT people everywhere."
Jeffrey Scott Brown, curator at AIDS Ribbon Tucson, shared with the Weekly concerns of the organization's programming going under the SAAF umbrella—and while others in the LGBT community have sometimes accused now terminated Executive Director Grimsby of mismanaging Wingspan this past year, Brown has supported her work.
Brown said he's not sure of the move to SAAF, "especially with all the incredibly hard work we've put forth to make it explicitly clear to the public that AIDS is not a gay disease. Perhaps a multiple-group collaboration with other Southern Arizona LGBT-oriented groups would be a more logical and publicly accepted way to go." Brown suggested Tucson Pride, GLSEN Tucson, ASUA Pride Alliance, and the UA Institute for LGBT Studies, among many others.
He said he's disappointed more donations or in-kind contributions haven't come in to support Wingspan. Like many in the LGBT community right now, he's wondering what went wrong—why grants weren't better cared for in retrospect and why the community has focused on more internal fighting rather than supporting Grimsby.
"She got shafted," he said, adding that staff that was let go or demoted smeared her name. "She's a good person."
Michael Woodward, a former Wingspan programs director and former director of SAGA before it merged into Wingspan, said perhaps the next conversation people in the LGBT community need to have is if the level of funding and support Tucson is capable of can support a community center. The economy, he added, hasn't helped other community centers and LGBT programming across the country.
"This is not a completely random phenomenon," he said.
When the economy tanked in 2008, Woodward was one of the first staffers to be let go in 2009. The organization's first formal executive director, Kent Burbank, had left after more than seven years and it took the board about a year to hire a new director—Jason Cianciotto, who served as director from April 15, 2008 to June 30, 2009, resigning after helping the organization transition to a smaller building and slimmer staff.
Since Burbank's departure, Woodward said Wingspan has had a hard time, although past program directors like Casey Condit and Linda Thomas have done a good job. But there also hasn't been much direction and it's been about keeping the organization's head above water.
Does Tucson still need an LGBT community center? Woodward said yes—"It's not safe to be trans, there's no healthcare without suing someone and kids are still getting kicked out of their homes for coming out or just being suspected. Hate crimes are still happening. It's seems like for every win a handful of people die."
Woodward, who is a transgender man, recalled that he moved to Tucson from Indiana specifically because of Wingspan and SAGA. "I came to visit Tucson and stumbled upon a SAGA meeting. That night I knew I was moving here.
"The whole situation is just unfortunate and it's a perfect storm—donations down in the community and uneven and inconsistent management. It's just really sad to see Wingspan in this condition."
And while others, like Brown are concerned about Wingspan programming going under SAAF, Woodward understands, but to him SAAF is an organization with an exceptional staff and leadership. "I don't know if we will see another physical community center, but hopefully this is a bit of a wake-up call. We still need these programs, but nobody is helping."
One immediate concern Woodward does have in this transition is the lack of advocacy work that needs to happen at a state level. Who will pick that up or help organize the community, he wondered.
Burbank told the Weekly he's remained a donor and supporter of Wingspan since he left, but as a former executive director he's purposefully kept his distance and he's careful today in what he says about the organization and its current challenges.
"I think that this has been a conversation that's been part of Wingspan's history from the beginning," on what kind of community center is the agency and what services are really needed. "We were talking about these same issues when I was there and they were talking about them before I was there. I think a good LGBT community center is always talking about the role of the center in what the community needs. That has continually shifted as our movement has shifted and grown and the needs have shifted over time."
In the organization's early history, volunteers came together because they recognized a need and back then it was to offer support for youth coming out and a place for people to get information. Over time, perhaps that has changed, Burbank offered.
"When I was there we started Senior Pride. It was tiny and there was not a lot of funding. And yes, there is a growing recognition that people in our community who are aging need support, especially when it comes to housing," he said.
But perhaps what's going on now is that mainstream organizations are now recognizing the need to offer LGBT services, something he sees happening with the Pima Council on Aging and local programs that serve homeless youth.
"I know there's a lot of fear out there, but I think I am focused on the fact that we have a community partner potentially willing to step up and help us through a very delicate situation. ... SAAF has been a long-term partner that has been consistent and reliable and shares our same values as a community and side by side in the struggle for equality," Burbank said.
The former director said this is an opportunity for the LGBT community and straight allies to get behind and encourage the board to move on very quickly.
"I say that not to tap down dissension. I get that there are concerns. But there are people who have invested almost 30 years in Wingspan before it was founded ... who've poured their lives and money into it and for me this isn't the time to reflect on what went wrong but do what we need to do to keep those programs alive and to provide those services."
Once those programs are fully under SAAF's care, then Burbank said the community can start to come together to figure out the future of the community center and what that means. "We don't have that luxury. I am not blaming, but I am afraid if we have too much navel gazing it's not going to helpful."
Jason Cianciotto said when he came on board April of 2008, Wingspan didn't have enough money in the bank to cover operating expenses for more than one month and had been without a development staff person for a year and without a programs director for six months.
"For nonprofits that rely on reimbursement from government grants for provision of services, there needs to be enough cash flow to cover expenses until those reimbursements are received, especially in case of emergency or unexpected changes," he said. "Wingspan did not have an emergency reserve that could carry the organization through unexpected challenges. In practical terms, we were living paycheck to paycheck."
A grant from the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona was given to Wingspan, SAAF and TIHAN to help address the challenges they were facing when the economy tanked. The advice helped and when he left he said he knew funding was extended, but he doesn't know what happened next.
"I am hopeful that this situation will enable another opportunity to take a look at what needs to happen next, like rather than duplicating services perhaps pooling resources," he said.
Maybe there is a different way to look at what Wingspan is in a new context. Cianciotto offered this scenario—it's 1995 and he walked through Wingspan's doors for the first time as a 19-year-old just coming out. Back then that physical space on Fourth Avenue was important to him and probably thousands of other youth in Tucson, but society has changed since then—there are more social connections and Internet resources available for youth coming out today. Places that were previously unfriendly, are now recognizing the need to be LGBT inclusive. What LGBT organizations often do now is work with people and youth who are further in the margins, dealing with homelessness, substance abuse issues and more.
"If I were 19 again today in Tucson, would I have needed to go to Wingspan? I don't know, but I think it would have been different for me," he said.
Cianciotto said he does feel for the former director and the current board and recognizes that leadership can be a very lonely place and there are many "arm-chair" directors that would do everything differently.
"But look, the more personal thing that comes to mind for me in a real and honest way when I think of Wingspan and its future is this: It was what I needed it to be as a kid and Wingspan lives on in me," he said.
"This is how I hope the community can take the change that is happening. Wingspan touched our hearts and it prompted us to live a certain way. And in that, Wingspan lives on."