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April 20. 2012

Cleveland LGBT Center hires Phyllis Harris as new director

Facility will likely move to Gordon Square’s ground level

Cleveland--The Cleveland LGBT Center announced on April 10 its new executive director will be Phyllis Harris.

The role has been filled by interim executive director Cindy Yu since the end of August, about a week after former director Jan Cline returned to Virginia.

Harris, a 46-year old Cleveland native, has been involved with the center for two decades, having worked as a volunteer and, last year, being approached to be on the board of directors.

She comes with a heavy background in nonprofit organizations, including a master’s degree in nonprofit management from Case Western Reserve University, tenures at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cleveland and work at the Cleveland Sight Center. She is also on the boards of Spaces and Community Shares.

Board chair Bob Sferra was excited about the announcement.

“I’m elated,” he said. “I feel like she’s a great fit for the job. She’s been somebody that’s always been in a role right below the leadership role, and now is the time for her to make the leap and take charge. It’s the right time for the right person.”

He noted that she was selected after a community panel and many positive references.

Many in the community know Harris as “Seven,” and the announcement listed her as Phyllis “Seven” Harris.

When asked about it, she explained, “I never had a nickname, and Phyllis is such an old-school name, so I decided six or seven years ago to claim a nickname.”

While a lot of her friends call her Seven, however, her mother still calls her Phyllis, and professionally she tends to go by her given name.

Harris was approached to join the center’s board last November; she was hesitant, since she had just committed to the Spaces board and Community Shares, but after attending a volunteer recognition event and board orientation, she had her first official board meeting in January.

“After that meeting, I decided I like the opportunity to put my name in the ring for the [executive director] position,” she said.

Her first priority when she assumes the role on April 23 will be to keep her ears open and listen to members of the community, allies and partners. She also wants to look at other organizations who might want to collaborate with the center on programming.

“There was a new class of board members when I came on the board who are just ready to work and really excited,” Harris said.

While she maneuvers the hazards of running an LGBT nonprofit organization, she also will have to deal with the burden placed on her as the first African American executive director of the Cleveland LGBT Center.

“It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, unfortunately, in terms of being the first African American in a role,” she said. “I do think it’s interesting. I’m glad people ask the question and point it out. My first reaction was, this is a bold move, seeing someone who has some leadership capabilities, this is what is needed, and moving forward.”

While she will ensure that the center is culturally competent and conscious of the role it should play in fighting all forms of oppression, it will not be her primary focus.

“I’m very proud to be African American, but it’s not the issue,” she said. “Racism exists. I don’t think any of our institutions are exempted if they’re not making a concerted effort to look at the big picture, asking what are the ways we might be supporting this and not looking at the big picture.”

“I’m not afraid of the conversation, but I don’t want to lead with that,” she concluded. “It’s who I am, it’s part of what I bring, but it’s not the highlight of my being offered the position of executive director of the center.”

At various points in the past, the center has been accused of institutionalized or individual racism, often unjustified accusations.

In addition to the executive director hire, the board has been busy working through a nearly half-million-dollar bequest and examining options for the future location of the center.

“We have used some of the money,” Sferra noted. “We paid off a line of credit using $50,000. We have the rest of it in a fluid account and we are taking the ED salary out of that bequest. That was something, going into the search, the board committed to.”

He said that grant-giving organizations balked at the idea of an extended period without a permanent executive director in the position, so the search itself helped secure some funding.

“We received some good grants this year . . . and we hope to have one more staff member fully grant-funded,” he said.

As for the location of the center, they examined partnering with other organizations to share space, as well as staying in their basement location at 6600 Detroit Avenue.

As it stands, it looks like they will move into a ground-floor space in the Gordon Square building, upstairs from their current location.

Sferra said that they had gotten a very good offer from Gordon Square. A meeting with local architects who are offering their services pro bono to design plans for renovating the space was set for April 18.

Related stories:

Center likely to remain in Cleveland, but may be smaller January 27, 2012

Cindy Yu is named center’s interim director August 26, 2011

Jan Cline leaves LGBT Center helm August 12, 2011

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