Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ancient History

A couple of people have written to me in recent days asking for my thoughts on the recent announcement that HRC President, Joe Solmonese, will be stepping down when his contract ends in early 2012.  I don't really have anything to say because I don't really think it matters at this point.  But now that he's leaving the process for finding a replacement begins.

I'll share a story.  I share it because there are very few people who know it, and I don't want it to get lost.  I haven't written anything very political lately and I really don't want to get pulled back there.  But I think this is a story worth sharing given Joe's upcoming departure.  I want to go back and start at the beginning....

Back in late 2004 I was on the HRC Business Council, but at that point there were still no trans people on HRC's board.  HRC ED Sheryl Jacques had just ended her bumpy 11-month tenure with the organization and they found themselves in a similar position of needing to find a new ED.  The process to do this is typically to put together an internal "ED Search" team entrusted with bringing forth a recommendation to the rest of the board.  That team usually has a small group of core members, and a larger group of board members representing different interests in the organization.

Despite the fact that I wat not a board member I was asked to be on that team.   We set in motion a national search with the goal of casting as wide a net as possible, narrowing the field to a select few, and then bringing the entire team to Washington DC to interview each of the finalists before making a decision.  At the time we were facing a number of very real time pressures.  One was that our annual Leadership event that brings HRC people from all over the country to DC for a couple of days of training, rah-rah, and organizing was happening in early March and we wanted to be able to make the announcement there.  Secondly, the organization was putting the finishing touches on its 5-year plan and wanted at least some level of input from the new ED before finalizing it.

So, the search process started.  The larger team convened on a phone conference every couple of weeks to get a status update on how many candidates there were, who might be seriously considered, and people who had declined to be considered for some reason.  As we moved into February the core team had whittled the field down to what they described as 4 "strong" finalists.  They didn't share the identity of the finalists with us, but we all made travel plans to come to DC for the final round of interviews.

Well, one of the finalists withdrew early that week which reduced the number of finalists to three.  And, when we all arrived in DC and convened to interview the 3 remaining candidates we were dismayed to learn that two of those three had similarly withdrawn their names from consideration.  So, in fact, there was only one candidate left.

This posed no end of potential problems for us.  One was the real possibility of having to start all over again and having to explain why.  Another concern was why had these supposedly "strong" candidates withdrawn at the 11th hour?  What weren't we doing right?  So, rather than having a choice to make between several candidates our choice was to pick the one finalist who hadn't withdrawn, or to start again.

At the time Joe was the President of Emily's List, a large national women's organization.  We brought him in to interview him and I'll admit it was one of the most unique interviews I've ever seen.  There were specific situational questions, role-playing scenarios, and a round-table where each of us was given the opportunity to ask a question.  He did a good job and despite we didn't have other options we voted unanimously to recommend hiring Joe to the Board.  The rest is history.

Until the end of 2007 my own relationship with Joe was a good one.  In late 2005 there had been an "incident" with diversity so the board had asked myself and David Wilson to take on the roles of national co-chairs of Diversity.  It was more than coincidence that the only trans-person and the only African-American on the board were asked to manage diversity, and we were both justifiably concerned that we were being used as symbolic figure-heads with no real power.

Before accepting the position we met with Joe to outline our vision for the Diversity organization inside of HRC which up to that point was comprised of 2 staffers who reported to the Director of the Foundation.  David and I envisioned a structured Diversity organization that followed the lead of corporate America.  We envisioned a leader (Chief Diversity Officer), a reporting structure where that leader reported directly to the ED (not to the Foundation), a staff of diversity specialists, and an organizational commitment to include Diversity in everything we did. 

As of mid-2007 we were well on our way to achiving that and our results were not merely symbolic - they were tangible.  The role of CDO was created and after a number of interviews we hired someone that Joe had recommended.  She did a great job.  We started to hire a diverse staff to support her.  We built Diversity training that was required for every board member.  And we re-shaped the relationship between HRC National and our various Steering Committees across the country.  A highlight was arranging for Joe to come to speak at SCC.  That was a big deal, and it could have been something truly special.

That's partly why the events of late 2007 and early 2008 were such a bitter pill to swallow.  Because it effectively unmasked the organization as simply another political animal where the day-to-day touchy-feely trappings of the Foundation were proven to be merely window dressing.  And regardless of how many press-releases HRC issues about his accomplishments while at the helm, I firmly believe that Joe's most significant legacy will be as a divider, not a uniter, and was forged over the character-defining decisions surrounding ENDA.  And nothing he's done in the meantime has done anything to change that.

I'm in no position to judge - the tribunal of Time will do that. 

1 comment:

Deena said...

Donna you have chosen your words carefully and I respect that. My question to you is simple. Do you think HRC will alter its course from divisive to truly focusing on human rights? The question is not can they, but will they?