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EQCA’s Rebuilding, ED Says

by Seth Hemmelgarn
Friday Dec 21, 2012

The new executive director of the statewide LGBT lobbying group Equality California acknowledged this week that the nonprofit has problems but said it's "rebuilding."

"My vision for Equality California is to be the statewide voice on LGBT equality," John O'Connor, 41, said in an interview Monday, December 10, exactly one week after he started the job.

The stature that he's hoping for may seem like a given, but in recent years the nonprofit has lost some of its luster. O'Connor, who's gay, appears to be well aware of that.

"We're rebuilding the plane while flying it at the same time," he said.

"I think there's enormous change ahead of us," including stabilizing the nonprofit "financially, reputationally, and communications-wise," he said.

EQCA has seemed to flounder somewhat since former executive director Geoff Kors left in March 2011. Roland Palencia, the group's next leader, quit just over three months after joining the organization.

Like many other nonprofits, EQCA saw a drop in contributions in recent years, though O'Connor said the financial picture has improved.

EQCA and its educational affiliate the Equality California Institute have a budget of $3 million. There are over 40 paid staff, including about 25 field staff and two part time employees. The nonprofit also engages consultants in several areas.

Before joining EQCA, O'Connor, who just moved to Los Angeles where EQCA will have its base of operations, was the executive director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs. He declined to state his salary at EQCA. Palencia's salary had been $170,000.

Looking ahead

O'Connor said there's now "an opportunity for us to heal" relationships. Articulating where the agency is going in 2013 is part of that, he said.

EQCA will see "a little bit of a shift" in at least one way - helping to ensure that state laws are adequately implemented. Over the years, the group has successfully backed bills that promote everything from housing rights to school safety. But there are cases "where [state] departments haven't issued regulations yet, and laws effectively just kind of sit on the books collecting dust," O'Connor said.

"Administrative advocacy for laws that have already been passed" is one area for EQCA to work, he said. He pointed to Senate Bill 1729, a law that went into effect in 2009 and was meant to train licensed health care professionals about the unique needs of LGBT seniors, as one example.

O'Connor also wants to expand outreach efforts such as the Breakthrough Conversation, a campaign started last year designed to educate people about LGBT issues, in 2013.

"We can legislate until we're blue in the face," O'Connor said, but until people in communities across the state are won over, "we will never achieve full, lasting equality."

He said EQCA's work in 2012 has been "really robust." The nonprofit backed several pieces of legislation that Governor Jerry Brown signed into law. Those bills include Senate Bill 1172, which outlaws so-called reparative therapy designed to turn gay people straight. Anti-gay groups are suing over the law, which is set to go into effect January 1.

On Friday, December 7 the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review a federal appeal court's ruling that Proposition 8, California's same-sex marriage ban, is unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court lets Prop 8 stand, O'Connor believes EQCA would need to take a lead role if there's an effort to undo the anti-gay law at the ballot box in two years. However, he said the group would need to work collaboratively with others.

It was EQCA's work on the No on 8 campaign four years ago that created a rift in the community, as the campaign was criticized for largely ignoring minority voters. Kors had served on the campaign's executive committee.

O'Connor said, "I've got my work cut out for me" to rebuild the organization's infrastructure, which will be needed especially if the agency becomes heavily involved in another marriage equality ballot fight.

The biggest weak spot at EQCA is "there was a pretty serious wave of layoffs" at the agency and "rebuilding the capacity of the organization and a senior management team, that's probably the biggest challenge, while simultaneously keeping all the work moving forward," he said.

Community leaders said that the statewide group is needed.

Rick Jacobs, founder and chair of the progressive Courage Campaign, said he wants to see O'Connor and EQCA succeed.

In a state California's size, it's "really important" to have "an organization that focuses on LGBT equality," Jacobs, who's gay, said.

LGBT activist Gloria Nieto said she'd like to see EQCA involved in more "cross-pollination" on issues including immigration and aging.

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