Equality Ohio starts off with a paid director and a goal to change the state so GLBT people can feel at home
Columbus--A new statewide education and political action group is set to debut August 15 with a paid executive director, $100,000 in the bank and a goal of making Ohio more friendly to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender� people.
Equality Ohio began forming last winter in response to the Ohio marriage ban constitutional amendment passed last fall as Issue1.
The new organization differs from previous attempts to set up statewide GLBT advocacy groups in Ohio in its structure, how it came together, and its commitment to a full-time, paid executive director.
Lynne Bowman of Columbus has been named the director, and has been given a one year contract for $50,000 and a modest benefit package. Bowman was an early framer of the organization.
Equality Ohio began by conducting a survey of the community to determine the groups priorities. The April survey, conducted over the Internet, was answered by more than 1,100 respondents.
Previous statewide groups were dominated by people from Ohio�s three major population centers, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, and tended to be organized top-down by well-heeled professionals. The new group�s design has been more open. It organizes the state into five regions outside the three big cities: Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Central, plus individual regions for Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton counties.
Each region handles fundraising efforts and political action activities unique to that region, led by its own volunteer coordinators and supported by local, established GLBT organizations and community centers. The regions are held together with the central organization through advances in communication, software, and a commitment to statewide objectives.
Equality Ohio began as a natural joining of individuals and established organizations concerned with the marriage ban amendment and the animosity toward the GLBT community it fostered. But the evolution of the new group went further, creating its own independent core design team of people from each region, none representing established organizations.
This team had professional development assistance from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal, the Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, the Human Rights Campaign and the Equality Federation. The Federation is a national alliance of similar statewide groups.
Equality Ohio hopes to change the political environment in the state.
�People can no longer use the gay community as a whipping boy because we are perceived to be easy,� said Bowman. �This is a viable organization to take action to change the hearts and minds of Ohioans so the political climate can change.�
According to Bowman, Equality Ohio plans to address state and local legislation that affects GLBT people, conduct high-visibility public awareness campaigns, and eventually make non-partisan endorsements of candidates for public office.
Ultimately, the group hopes to lead a campaign to repeal the marriage ban amendment, though Bowman said the culture in the state is not ripe to do that yet.
�We plan to make ourselves known in this state,� said Bowman.
Two separate entities
Equality Ohio is divided into two separate entities, in a way similar to the HRC. One, the Equality Ohio Education Fund, is a charitable non-profit corporation which will conduct the educational activities. It is chaired by Tom Grote of Columbus and contributions to it are tax-deductible.
The other, called Equality Ohio, is a political non-profit corporation which can lobby and do issue advocacy. It is headed by Jeannette Birkhoff of Columbus. Contributions to it are not tax-deductible. At present, it is less developed than the charitable division.
Both have drafted bylaws and are trying to establish permanent boards of directors by the end of 2005. Over time, the political arm will develop into the larger of the two.
Bowman said the group will be campaigning �a lot like what Heights Families for Equality did in Cleveland Heights and Citizens to Restore Fairness did in Cincinnati--going door to door, identifying voters and making people feel comfortable with us as neighbors.�
According to Bowman, the group will be totally non-partisan. She and Grote are registered Republicans; other core team members are active Democrats. Bowman acknowledges that there may be times when Equality Ohio objectives conflict with those of Republicans.
�Equality Ohio�s agenda is first, said Bowman. We are not for the agenda of any political party.�
Initial funding for the project totaling $80,000 came from NGLTF and HRC. According to Bowman, an additional $20,000 has been pledged. A grant from the Legacy Foundation of Columbus will follow if an additional $100,000 is raised by August 15.
Bowman expects the project to be budgeted at $300,000 to 400,000 the first year, which will pay for her salary as well as technology, communications, to start an educational campaign and perhaps to rent office space.
Legacy has also awarded $1,000 to develop a pilot LGBT-themed radio show.
Homecoming weekend in the fall
The group is organizing a statewide event called Homecoming for Equality for the weekend of October 1. Following pep rallies throughout the state, participants will caravan to the Statehouse for a large demonstration. The rest of the weekend will be devoted to fundraising activities, training sessions, and an ecumenical worship service.
Bowman said people will add their signatures to an Equality Declaration that will be delivered the following Monday to the governor and state legislators, then to the commissions of all 88 counties and many municipalities.
A second lobbying opportunity is being developed around National Adoption Day, November 19.
Equality Ohio is on the Internet� at http://www.equalityohio.org.
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