Hear that deafening silence? That's the sound of Equality California, the once highly regarded and legislatively active state LGBT lobbying organization, thinking about its next move. And thinking, and thinking, and thinking: the organization has become so inert, so ineffectual with only an interim executive director, Laurie Hasencamp, administratively holding down the fort that EQCA has become the hollow org - and no one seems to care.
The Hollow EQCA
On Thursday, Aug. 2, the Bay Area Reporter broke a story confirming that EQCA spokesperson and senior staffer Rebekah Orr is leaving next week. Orr has been the behind-the-scene voice of EQCA since joining the flailing organization on July 11, 2011 under then Executive Director Roland Palencia, who officially started his job six days earlier, on July 5. She served as the intermediary between Palencia and the LGBT press when serious questions were raised about the ED's messaging skills as the California FAIR Act came under attack from the Religious Right. Since Palencia's resignation effective Oct. 14, 2011, Orr has been the primary public face of EQCA, though Hasencamp did present a thank you on June 1 to the LA City Council for passing a Resolution supporting the EQCA-sponsored "ex-gay therapy" bill SB 1172, authored by State Sen. Ted Lieu.
This is pure speculation - but I can't help but wonder if EQCA had seriously promoted SB 1172 - and worked with other state LGBT organizations similar bills in their areas - perhaps gays stymied during the Chick-fil-A controversy might have been able to point to this bill as something that helps repair the harm done by "ex-gay" organizations that the Chick-fil-A foundation WinShape funds.
Orr, who is joining Goodwin-Simon Strategic Research, told BAR that the organization's board is no closer to naming a new, permanent ED. "The board is in the same position it has been in," she told BAR, and is "going to take whatever time it needs to make the right choice."
Orr also said she is "not in a position to say how many people are being interviewed." But candidates are being vetted "on a rolling basis as applications come in."
Orr sent an email saying she was not available for an interview until next week.
Last January, Orr was optimistic about the organization:
The result of that is that our projected budget for 2012 is shaping up to be much bigger than we anticipated just several weeks ago-to the tune of about a half million or so, which will allow us to put a lot more resources into our work and the Breakthrough Conversation Project, in particular. Between EQCA and support for partner organizations across the country, [the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund] has decided to invest ALL of its California resources for 2012 into the project.
But BAR reports that "Orr has recently said that EQCA's finances are improving, but the group appears to have struggled to find direction after the 2011 departure of longtime Executive Director Geoff Kors."
No kidding. In my estimation, there was a shift in who actually ran the organization after Kors left and the board hired Palencia, quietly adopting the board-run versus ED-run organizational model. I confirmed this with board members Betty Yee and Rabbi Stephen Jacobs at an event when asking about EQCA's finances and the brouhaha over endorsing in the 50th Assembly District.
But a real sense of secrecy and opaqueness seemed to descend over EQCA when Palencia abruptly resigned and the board promised a "transition plan" that it never delivered. The search for a new, permanent ED has been going on since then, using the same search team that brought candidate Palencia to the board.
Perhaps it's time for the board to take a hard look at itself. In my opinion, too many board members sat silent when a small group of loud and aggressive activists blasted Kors in the wake of Prop 8 passing. (It is interesting to note that such blistering personal attacks did not occur in Maine or other states when similar antigay initiatives passed.) Nor was there much public praise when EQCA membership picked up the following year, in large part because of recognition of Kors' leadership. But stung by the post-Prop 8 attacks, many on the board looked at Palencia as a symbol of “we heard you” change to the activists. He was supposed to signal and spearhead a new direction for EQCA. When it became evident that he was in over his head, however, it appeared to me (and others) that the board left Palencia to fend for himself.
The LGBT community didn't need big red flares to see the turmoil EQCA was in and any potential ED candidate who did his or her homework on the organization would surely question whether the board would back them if there was a noisy controversy and how much actual power they would have to exercise policy-making decisions without constant board interference.
That the board is still searching for an ED suggests that the board, especially the board leadership, has not tackled its own operational ethos to figure out how to effect a meaningful change that would re-create, rejuvenate and sustain the once-proud Equality California. Remember, EQCA grew out of the failed group CAPE, which itself grew out of the collapsed LIFE Lobby - so there are no guarantees that EQCA will survive without a radical reconstruction.
Asked why EQCA doesn't just shut down, Orr laughed and said, "Really? Isn't there work to do? Isn't there work to do for the LGBT community in California? I mean, the organization has been experiencing a lot of challenges, but the reality is it's considerably more stable today than it was a year ago."
More stable, thanks to Hasencamp, no doubt, who's been on the job since early February. But look at EQCA's staff. Very smart and experienced Alice Kessler is serving as a Legislative Advocate on contract through her firm. There's no Development Director, no COO, no one with political savvy and moxy, just mostly field staff - probably hired through the Haas Jr fund.
Orr is right - there IS a lot of work to do. And yet, in the deafening silence, I can't help but wonder if we're not witnessing a version of the last lines of T.S. Elliot's poem The Hollow Man:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.