Community Conundrum

Board members at Wingspan say recent changes are part of needed restructuring while former employees say it damages the organization

About two weeks ago, calls from former and current Wingspan staff members painted a picture that trouble was brewing at Tucson's beloved 25-year-old LGBT community organization.

The stories centered on what was described as the abrupt firings of popular staff members, even after they handed in their resignations.

Wingspan executive director Carol Grimsby said what's going on at the organization is needed change to the organization's structure.

Until Grimsby was hired in December, Wingspan had been without an executive director since the departure in 2009 of Jason Cianciotto, who had been hired after a four-month search. He was with the organization for more than 15 months, but resigned after the recession turned the agency's funding sources upside down. Management of Wingspan was relegated to the board of directors and a program director for three years until Grimsby was hired.

As of press time, those remaining on staff include Della Hooks, Kevin Jackson, Rae Strozzo, Paco Velez, Sarah Bahnson and Ian Ellasante. Those who've left include Moureen Drury, who resigned; former programs director Casey Chimneystar Condit, who was fired; Amber "Squid" Salisbury-Bryan, who was fired; and former youth program director Zami Tinashe Hyemingway, who was fired after announcing his intention to resign.

"I just think it's important to be positive," Grimsby said, confirming the staff changes. "The staff changes are about structural changes that need to take place. The changes are challenging. But they are responsible and necessary."

Hyemingway, the popular coordinator for the Eon Youth Lounge, Wingspan's LGBT youth program, was fired after working for Wingspan for more than three years.

"I definitely am afraid that the work being done around social justice in the youth program will no longer exist, which is one of the core elements to the programming," he said. "I am also fearful that the service provision elements will go away because (Grimsby) has said on more than one occasion that Wingspan was not a service provision agency. Also, this is a very busy time for the youth program, and currently there is only one Wingspan youth program staff left. So how is one person going to run an entire program with the help of volunteers?"

Hyemingway said he was fired on Thursday, May 2, but had submitted his resignation on Monday, April 29, and planned to stay until the end of June so "I could finish a couple of really important grant projects, delegate duties so that remaining youth staff weren't overwhelmed and so that Wingspan wouldn't have to return large amounts of unpaid salary, which has been a reason why they've been defunded or have had funds reduced in the past."

Hyemingway said he decided in February that he would resign. "Things were never good for staff since Carol came on. But when we tried to advocate for ourselves and have conversations with Carol and the board, it didn't go anywhere. It was made very clear in my opinion that the only support we as staff had were one another."

Grimsby told the Weekly that the changes taking place at the organization do not mean an end to youth programming, but instead an increase. She said the organization's new strategic plan includes increased programming for all parts of the LGBT community, and doing more advocacy.

"The goal is to strengthen this agency and make organizational changes that create programs for all the LGBT community," Grimsby said.

Paul Guerrero, Wingspan board vice president, said most people don't know the organization has been struggling financially the past year. And the lack of an executive director for three years, he said, only intensified the challenges. "This organization is built on compassion and working with people," he said. "The last thing we'd want is for people inside to not feel welcome, and volunteers have also not been appreciated as much as they could have been.

"What was happening before was that people were surviving to make programs run and staff were not making decisions that were always in the organization's best interest."

On the positive side, Guerrero said the organization has seen an $80,000 increase in private donations and that Grimsby and the board are planning to raise more money.

Wingspan board president Matt Ehler, who has volunteered with the organization the past 10 years, is resigning his position soon to attend law school. When asked about how resignations and firings were handled two weeks ago, he said he couldn't comment on them, but added that the board is committed to making sure programs continue and the organization grows.

"We were close to having to shut our doors, but now we want to focus on the future and enhance and strengthen programs," he said. "I've seen Wingspan through its ups and downs, and it's exciting for me to see it back on its way up and to finally see an executive director again after not having one for a few years."

What's spurred more community reaction is a Monday, May 6 letter emailed to everyone on Wingspan's list explaining the situation in a glowing light, even though it was rumored Eon youth were thinking of protesting. In the letter from Grimsby, the executive director wrote, "Over the past 25 years Wingspan has faced challenges and changes but we are here, stronger than ever, thanks to you and valued staff. We are sorry to say goodbye to Casey Chimneystar Condit. She is a wonderful role-model for the EON youth and embodies the positive spirit of Wingspan. Casey has given selflessly of her time, energy and passion for our beloved community center. Wingspan celebrates Casey's contribution and wishes her well for the future. Casey and her accomplishments are woven into the rich history of Wingspan - they will never be lost or forgotten."

The issue was that Condit was the one rumored to have been fired and escorted off the property while the locks were changed. The Weekly emailed Condit for comment, but did not hear back from her as of press time.

Moureen Drury, former operations coordinator who said she resigned because of internal issues in the organization and is also Hyemingway's fiancè, said staff members were excited when Grimsby was hired, and looked forward to some of their burdens being lifted. Most staff members, she said, work more than 40 hours a week and put in extra time because they believe in the organization. Drury said the board briefly discussed the strategic plan with staff, but that changing the staff was not brought up.

Grimsby "was an incredible letdown for us," Drury said. "To say she is not the right fit is an understatement."

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