LGBT Community Center and Diverse & Resilient in merger talks

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The Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, 252 E. Highland Ave., holds a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 26 to discuss the center’s future. The public is invited to attend.

Representatives from the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center and the organization Diverse and Resilient are negotiating a possible merger, according to a statement released on Jan. 20.

“While it is too early to speculate on the outcome, a positive working relationship has been established and a single committee representing both organizations is working diligently on the many issues involved,” the statement said.

The committee’s membership is comprised of four representatives from each organization, including D&R executive director Gary Hollander and the center’s interim executive director Sheldon Walker.

The announcement came less than a week before a planned Jan. 26 meeting between the center’s board and the city’s LGBT community at large to discuss the organization’s future. The center is reeling from the abrupt departure of executive director Maggi Cage and a financial crisis apparently created by expiring grants combined with dwindling membership and individual contributions.

“If we’re going to keep the doors open, the center needs cash,” Walker said during a recent interview. “The center needs donations to support its operational budget … to protect its clients, partners (tenants) and members.”

Walker, who resigned as board co-chair to serve in his current position, said he’s making a “much lower” salary than Cage in order to cut costs. Other positions have been cut altogether, he said.

In addition to cutting costs and raising revenue, Walker said he’s focusing on rebuilding relations with community members, donors and other organizations – relations that grew frayed under Cage’s five-year tenure. He described the center’s current process as one of “re-engagement.”

“We have to bring the community back to the community center,” he said.

Walker described his first weeks as interim executive director as “literally shock and awe.”

“There are things that as board members we were unaware of,” he said. “We made decisions based on information that was presented to us, and it turned out not to be the best choice.”

“It’s not like the center had gone to hell in a hand basket, but there were things that needed to be addressed,” he continued. “The level of (community) alienation was beyond anything that I imagined. We have to apologize to the community. We weren’t out in the community. We were not engaged with membership. There was an air of alienation that escalated without being properly addressed.”

Walker said he believes the center is vital to the community but Cage’s personality overshadowed its mission. “There are some people who saw the center as one person,” he said. “But the message I receive now more than anything is that (the community) does want the center.”

Walker said steps are being taken to make the center more engaged with the community, as well as more responsive and transparent. For one, he submits weekly reports to the board detailing his activities.

“I firmly believe in getting people the information they need, in getting transparency,” he said.

That’s a very different approach than his predecessor’s. Under Cage’s direction, there was a virtual gag order forbidding employees to speak about the center’s operations. When WiG refused to publish the center’s press releases, either Cage or her staff removed the publication from the center’s press list and stopped e-mailing WiG its newsletter. Visitors to the center complained that the doors were often locked during operating hours.

But Walker said those days are over. He said one of his primary goals is to create committees focused on communication and community relations. He’s in the process of developing a grant specifically supporting those activities.

In the transparency department, Walker is off to a good start: According to the statement announcing merger negotiations with D&R, the minutes from each merger meeting are available to all “interested stakeholders.”

Members of the merger negotiation committee are:

Gerry Coon, director of Diverse & Resilient’s board

Fai DeMark, vice chair of Diverse & Resilient’s board

Andrew Hohensee, chair of Milwaukee LGBT Community Center’s board

Gary Hollander, CEO of Diverse & Resilient

Peter Larson, treasurer of Milwaukee LGBT Community Center’s board

Halanna Lathon, secretary of Milwaukee LGBT Community Center’s board

Sarah Morgan, chair of Diverse & Resilient’s board

Sheldon Walker, interim executive director of Milwaukee LGBT Community Center

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