Tough Conversations, Deep Commitments Come Out at Affirmations Board Meeting
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Jan. 27, 2016)
Ferndale, MI – It’s no big secret that Affirmations, the LGBTQ community center in Downtown Ferndale, has some issues. But it also has a mix of people who care enough to continue being part of discussions and solutions, even when they have personally been hurt or disappointed.
This coming together happened Wednesday evening as part of the Affirmation’s Board of Directors meeting. Word got out that people would be attending to share their concerns during public comment. Knowing this was coming, Board President Frank Aiello said “We’ve thought of this as a preview of the strategic planning process.”
The main challenges have been leadership, programming and transparency. All three were part of the discussion Wednesday night.
Executive Director Susan Erspamer has been on the job for just two months and has already gotten her first taste of scandal. Between the Lines, a weekly LGBT focused publication, ran a story about Erspamer’s child custody battle. The article focused on how Erspamer was using laws that do not recognize parental rights for same-sex partners as an argument in her child custody case. This did not sit well with many in the community who fight for equality in the justice system, and raised questions about whether a person who uses such tactics should be running an LGBT community center. She is sticking with it though.
On Jan. 25, Espamer released a statement about her decision and announcing that she was changing council and moving forward in a fairer manner.
“As many of you are aware I have been involved in a very personal matter being played out in a public forum. Custody proceedings relative to my children, my beloved and adored children are pending in the Oakland County Circuit Court. My first reaction to the case was as a parent, a mom doing everything and anything in the best interest of her children. The stance I took, along with my wife of three years, was informed by deep personal feelings, without a full picture of policy ramifications and what our legal actions meant to the LGBT community, my community, the community I belong to and represent as the Executive Director of Affirmations. Based on this new understanding, I am using this very public forum to release a statement and share how we are proceeding from here forward,” the statement said. The full statement can be read here.
Between the Lines Publisher Jan Stevenson, who had been the Executive Director of Affirmations in its earlier days, addressed Espamer at the meeting. “I know the organization has gone through a lot…It’s a very public place to be. I walked around feeling like I had a target on me… I really appreciate that you took note and made the change you did,” she said.
Espamer came to Affirmations following the brief tenure of Darrious Hilmon, who announced he was leaving after only seven months on the job. “Hilmon felt that the time was right to move on from the organization,” was the only explanation given, and the organization refused to share any details of Hilmon’s salary, the terms of his contract, or any information about if there is a severance package or not. Several staff members and volunteers left under his administration, though there has been no clear reason given as to why.
Hilmon is currently working as Senior Vice President and Chief Development Officer of Chicago Urban League, a position similar to one he held there in 2013-2014.
At the time, Aiello said questions about Hilmon could not be answered due to personnel privacy rights. Other issues of transparency came up at Wednesday’s meeting.
Liz Lamoste, who has volunteered at Affirmations and gone to programs through the years, gave suggestions for improving openness between the organization and the community it serves. She asked them to consider a series of community forums and recommended they add a section to the website to include financial documents and information about board meetings. She also called for an annual report, desiring ‘statistical information to inspire and engage in the future,” she said. “Hopefully more people will be inspired to do what they can to help Affirmations going forward.”
George Westerman formerly worked with Affirmations on a capital campaign. “It feels like the organization has become less transparent… I don’t hear anything anymore… I don’t know what’s happening with donor resources anymore.” He noted that in 2013 Affirmations got a grant to expand the helpline program, and that instead resources were cut back. The helpline was not advertised like it had been in the past, and it was moved from room to room before finally being put at the front desk and the staffing cut back. There was also a big fundraising push to start an anti-bullying program. “What happened to that money?” he asked.
Affirmations has gone from a bustling community center to a place that is often quiet and empty. The front of the building once housed a café, run by a woman who grew vegetables on the roof. And the stage area was the regular scene for open mic nights, game nights and political activism. During big events the community room would hold screenings of news coverage, and there were many groups for people to get involved in. A lot of that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.
“There’s no activities in the center like there used to be,” said volunteer Jeffrey Oliver. “We haven’t had that in over a year now.”
Cindy Clardy said she read about Affirmations in Lesbian Connection even before she moved to Michigan. She remembered there being “lots of groups, movie nights. It was a wonderful way to learn the beat of the community, a way to meet friends when you didn’t know anybody.”
One recent change that caused a push-back was the elimination of the Helpline program. Affirmations started out as a helpline that grew into a community center. The 1-800 number was a way for people to get resources and to talk to a caring and compassionate expert in times of depression or crisis. Affirmations eliminated the line, let the trained counseling staff go, and began routing calls to the main desk. This change became public when oc115 broke the story, and the response was generally disappointment and frustration.
At the meeting Wednesday Director of Programs Lydia Hanson explained the rationale behind the move. She said that the hotline averaged 20 calls per week, 25% of which were hang ups, 15% were repeat callers and 10% were from outside the state. The calls dealt with coming out, depression and anxiety. But there were also callers who tried to engage staff in “sexy talk.”
“A lot of that speaks to what 1-800 calls have become in 2016,” Hanson said. She was unable to say how many calls like that the hotline received because they were not tracked.
For 2016 callers to the 1-800 number will have the option of reaching the front desk, or given a list of national hotlines to call. The front desk is now the “Welcome and Resource Desk,” and volunteers and staff have a binder for local and national resources, training on giving referrals, and quarterly training on crisis management.
Front desk volunteer Bill Hackhook shared a sentiment felt by a few people about the change. “When I first learned they were closing the helpline, I thought ‘oh no, this is how we started.’ …Given the info presented I think it is an extremely wise decision. As a front desk person I can tell you how much joy I get out of being able to take calls and help people,” he said. “I know we’re losing the helpline but we’re not losing the essence of who we are.”
RESPONSE BY LEADERSHIP
In regard to the helpline, Hanson said that “in all the transition of the last year, we’ve had a hard time trying to get the word out.”
“There have been challenges facing the center,” Aiello said. “We really are all trying to make this the best place we can make it.” He also stated “I take to heart the issues of transparency… We ask for a little bit of patience to maintain stability.”
Espamer announced that an annual report would start this year and that soon they would be beginning a three-year strategic plan, along with a branding plan to be completed by students from the Center for Creative Studies. One goal is to have one brochure that lists what Affirmations has to offer for all members of the community.
She also touted a LEAD youth program that had 45 applicants, and currently serves 8 people in Ferndale and 7 people at St. Peter’s Episcopal in Detroit.
The mix of people in the audience included former staff and former volunteers, which showed a rare kind of commitment by people to want to see the center succeed, in spite of whatever caused them to distance themselves in the first place. Aiello urged people to sign up to volunteer and to stick around to be part of the strategic planning process.
To learn more about Affirmations, visit their website www.goaffirmations.org.
Tough Conversations, Deep Commitments Come Out at Affirmations Board Meeting