Philly’s LGBTQ Health Center In Crisis After Firing Diversity Director

· Updated on August 28, 2018

It’s been more than a year since employees at Philadelphia’s Mazzoni Center walked out over sexual assault allegations made against its now former medical director, Dr. Robert WinnBut the turmoil that toppled former CEO Nurit Shein and Board President Jimmy Ruiz appears to be just the start of the LGBTQ clinic’s troubles. After months of trying to rebuild community trust, the organization is staring down a new crisis.

Last Monday, more than 50 employees walked out after the organization fired its first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Kay Martinez.

Martinez, who relocated from Tufts University to take the role five months ago, claims they were fired without any prior write-ups or warning.

“I was abruptly and unexpectedly terminated on Monday,” Martinez told INTO. “I felt like I was well-qualified for the position given my professional experience and my identities, and also given my activism.”  

Martinez’s termination comes alongside the reported dismissal of another anonymous employee and a termination threat sent to senior health and sexuality educator Nefertari Sloan.

The fallout risks a boiling point for the nearly 40-year old organization. Mazzoni’s reported failure to investigate sexual assault allegations in a timely manner rocked Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community almost two years ago and led to the ouster of six board members in addition to Winn and Shein. The allegations came alongside complaints that the organization was hostile to employees of color.

Vows to rebuild community confidence were quickly met with skepticism when Mazzoni announced last spring that its new CEO was a straight Latinx woman, Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino.

The Black and Brown Workers Cooperative echoed many in the community in calling for Sciarrino’s resignation at the time of her installment.

“Why is a straight Latinx woman running an LGBTQ-specific health center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania?” asked former Mazzoni HIV prevention counselor and BBWC member Abdul-Aliy Muhammad in a Facebook video. “She’s from Florida. She’s white passing. Why? That is my question. Why did the board make that decision? The board made that decision because the board is a problem.”

Mazzoni board members shot back that the organization does not discriminate in hiring based on identity. In a statement released on its website, the organization defended Sciarrino as eminently qualified for the position.

“We are disappointed members of the community—our community—chose to judge Lydia without first meeting her, based on their perceptions of her race, gender identity and orientation, and not her qualifications,” the board said, in a statement. “She is a great leader and is prepared to lead Mazzoni Center forward. We are excited for her to meet staff, and the community.”

But Martinez alleges that Sciarrino displayed a deep lack of basic knowledge of the queer community from the outset.

“She did misgender me my first day,” said Martinez. “She referred to me using she/her pronouns. She misgendered me in one-on-one settings with her. She walked me around the agency and introduced me to staff and misgendered me while introducing me to staff to the point where other staff had actually corrected her. I did talk to her. I explained my pronouns. It was evident she didn’t have a lot of experience using they/ them or nonbinary pronouns.”

Five weeks into the job, Sciarrino presented Martinez with a new job description, Martinez claims.

“I felt like it was a significant stripping of responsibility, of purview of authority. I told her I would not agree to that job description,” Martinez said. “I never would have applied for that position if it had been posted.”

Martinez further claims that Latinx men in the organization reported that they were asked to provide bilingual services outside their job description and that when a transgender employee quit over the organization’s health care plan, Sciarrino declined Martinez’s offer to convene a transgender task force to examine Mazzoni’s benefits.

“I just felt like I was never able to do my job,” said Martinez.

Larry Benjamin, director of communications for Mazzoni, said Mazzoni was not able to answer detailed questions about the fallout by press deadline. Benjamin did not respond to an offer to hold publication for an interview with Sciarrino.

The inciting incident for Mazzoni staff, however, came at a staff meeting earlier this month when Sloan, charged with recognizing employee anniversaries, polled the room on whether or not staff felt valued at Mazzoni.

“I want to take this opportunity to highlight the gravity of the impact that morale has on staff’s ability to work successfully, especially in an environment where they don’t feel valued,” Sloan said. “Events that have occurred at this organization, at least since I’ve started working here have solidified my belief that I am not valued outside of my department.”

“When Lydia [Sciarrino] heard me saying this, she interjected, said my name like I was a child. ‘Tari,’ said Sloan. “She instructed someone behind me to turn off the microphone.”

The following day, Martinez invited staff to gather in support of Sloan’s right to speak at the meeting, Sloan said. They made shirts that read “disperse.” Approximately 30 attended the protest.

Martinez’s single page termination came in the wake of gathering. The letter ends their employment effective immediately.

“It is apparent you do not agree with how management has decided to effectively accomplish the mission of Mazzoni Center and your conduct has not been professional and inconsistent with the role you fulfill within the organization,” Sciarrino wrote.

Martinez’s termination has sent shockwaves throughout Mazzoni and Philadelphia’s queer community, which relies on Mazzoni for critical health services. Last week state Representative Brian Sims and Senator Larry Farnese condemned the organization in a scathing statement and demanded Martinez’s reinstatement.

“To say we are frustrated and angered by these reports would be an understatement,” the lawmakers said.  “After witnessing the shameful events that unfolded over the past two years and what has come to light since, we are fed up with this organization’s inability to live up to the promises of transparency, accountability, and engagement made to us and members of our community.”

Mazzoni spokesperson Benjamin said in a statement that the organization plans to hire a third-party consultant to develop strategies around the area of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Mazzoni Center has historically had an unusual structure and way of operating,” Benjamin said in a statement.  “As staff have rightly pointed out, this has led to staffing challenges which must—and will be—addressed so that we may increase operational efficiencies, deliver superior customer service, and create a more professional place of employment—all of which are crucial to our ability to effectively run our organization and provide high-quality services to the community we serve.

Benjamin says Mazzoni will hire a replacement to fill Martinez’s role, in an ongoing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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