Wingspan 'splain

It's been a tough year for Tucson's LGBT community center, but not everyone is giving up

Going through a staff turn-around twice in one year has been challenging enough for Tucson's 25-year-old LGBT community center, but now the agency is working hard to make sure that a long-time support group for transgender people remains part of the Wingspan family.

In May, the Tucson Weekly talked to Wingspan's current executive director Carol Grimsby, who was hired in December 2012 (see "Community Conundrum," May 16, 2013). Grimsby told us that the firings of several popular Wingspan staffers were part of needed structural changes and that it was important to remain positive.

According to other former staffers and community members, the organization has recently gone through close to a 130 percent staff turn-around that's caused further challenges, such as the Anti-Violence Prevention crisis line not being run properly at different intervals, lack of proper training for new staff and the use of transphobic language, which has caused a strain between Wingspan and some in the transgender community that the organization is currently working to repair. There are also accusations of lack of transparency and loss of funding.

We called Grimsby for an update, but she made it clear she wasn't comfortable talking to the Weekly because of the last story we wrote because we interviewed former staff. But she adamantly denied there were any transphobic issues within the organization and more specifically that the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance was remaining with Wingspan. The issues were just coming from disgruntled former staff, she said.

We contacted Wingspan board president Paul Guerrero who also made it clear that any information we had was false and coming from disgruntled staff only interested in bringing down the organization.

"I think Wingspan has gone through a turnover of staff which has led to a change in personality from what it used to be," Guerrero said, adding that the board remains committed to Wingspan remaining an LGBT community center.

The issues surrounding SAGA are being addressed, he said. The issue was brought to SAGA's attention and a community forum, organized by a now former Wingspan staffer, was held with SAGA members and Wingspan board members.

"We met with SAGA leaders and we are working to address the issues," Guerrero said.

In response to addressing transphobic concerns within the organization and working with SAGA, SAGA member and former director Michael Woodward will be providing trainings to new employees, Guerrero said.

Abby Jensen, a member of the SAGA advisory council, talked to the Weekly about what transpired and the ongoing discussion between Wingspan and her organization, and confirmed that SAGA's advisory council has been meeting the past several weeks discussing concerns about the ongoing developments at Wingspan and how it effects the delivery of services to the Southern Arizona transgender community.

"We are working with the Wingspan board to resolve those concerns. The general consensus is that SAGA wants to remain part of Wingspan," she said.

There were discussions about SAGA leaving Wingspan, but Jensen said it isn't anyone's desire at this point.

"We have started regular meetings with (Guerrero) to open up lines of communication. He is very supportive of the trans community and wants Wingspan to continue to provide services to that community and he has a very good heart," Jensen said.

But Jensen added that there remains a defensiveness about what occurred and a feeling that the board did not know about the community's concerns and others, which is why SAGA invited them to participate in a community forum. SAGA has demanded that the entire Wingspan staff and board participate in an all-day training on trans issues. "That's going to happen after the first of the year," Jensen said, and there's going to be another meeting with the SAGA advisory council and the Wingspan board in mid-January.

No matter what, SAGA continues to provide weekly support groups for those transitioning, their partners and family of transgender youth. Currently there is no one on staff at Wingspan, as there was previously, to work on these programs.

"But the primary message from me is yes, we are still part of Wingspan and we are working with them on the concerns so that the relationship continues to be successful and resolving the concerns so Wingspan can be a better organization," Jensen said.

On loss of funding, more specifically a state STOP grant and issues with a Verizon Foundation technology grant, Guerrero said those are false, albeit there was an issue with Verizon, but it is now being taken care of, in terms of reporting how the dollars are spent on technology.

Guerrero provided contact information on administrators for the STOP and Verizon grants. We called Leah Meyers with the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families, but she referred us to a public information officer, who did not return our calls as of press time. We emailed Joyce Masamitsu with the Verizon Foundation, but she was out of town.

Regarding the crisis line not been managed properly during staff turnover, Guerrero said not true and that all voicemails have been returned. Plus, he said, "It's a common practice to wait an hour before a phone call is returned."

Wingspan, according to Guerrero, has a strategic retreat scheduled for Jan. 11 and 12 with Terry Stone, CenterLink, "a national LGBTQ community center that exists to help other GLBTQ community centers. It is during this time that we will strategically assess what has happened over the last year and what we can accomplish in the next year. Then we will distribute this plan to the community for additional feedback."

According to 19-year-old Jude Lucas, a member of Wingspan's EON Youth Project, the number of staff changes has been an obvious challenge for the organization, as well as a change in how things are done at the organization. Lack of training has been an obvious issue, Lucas said.

One positive is that EON has become mostly youth run, but for a while rules weren't respected or followed for a long time during the transition. However, that's changed, Lucas said.

Youth members have asked the board and Grimsby to add a youth member to the current board. Lucas said they are still waiting for an answer.

What would help right now? Lucas said the community getting more behind Wingspan. "It doesn't really feel like they are behind us, like they used to be. It they can't or won't, then why are we here?"

[Correction: Information we received from sources we consider reliable was disputed with regards to a specific claim made in this piece. Due to that dispute, we have removed that claim.]
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