LGBTQIA+ resource centre aims to be more inclusive

Outlink Calgary, a local resource centre dedicated to gender and sexual diversity, is taking steps to rebuild as a more inclusive organization after an upheaval over allegations of racism.

The organization has been established in Calgary for almost 30 years and has offered services that include transgender counseling, shelter for LGBTQIA+ homeless youth, and information on how to report hate crimes.

Kelly Ernst, new interim executive director of the non-profit, said the organization’s new leadership is “taking a much broader perspective of the entire organization, and we’re looking at why the entire organization fumbled when there seems to be so much goodwill in the community for it.”

Outlink faced accusations in mid-2015 that the organization’s executive director discriminated against people of colour who sought Outlink’s services. The whole board of directors subsequently resigned, and the organization stopped many of its programs.

A newly formed board of six directors was created, and its members said they are working to create a new organization that will include every member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

The organization also recently hired Ernst, as well as a media relations representative, and said it is investigating the cause of the 2015 upheaval.

Ernst said human resources, leadership, finances and various policies are all issues that need to be looked at. While he said he believes the claims of racism were not the only factor contributing to the downfall of Outlink, he said he does recognize those claims need to be addressed.Outlink office rules make sure individuals feel safe while here. Some of the rules aim to create a more inclusive organization, like forbidding oppressive behaviour and allowing everyone to speak. Photo by Amber McLinden

“It would be very inappropriate to comment on any allegations and use names, but what I can say is it’s not being ignored, but it is also being approached in a very analytical and critical way.”

Ernst said he plans to address these issues with a multi-pronged approach, including strategic development based around interviews, focus groups and online surveys, as well as a risk assessment.

“Interviews are showing that there is an amazing goodwill in the community about Outlink,” he said. “I am hearing over and over again that there is a definite need in the community for an organization like this.”

The incidences of racism first surfaced mid-last year when a letter was written to the organization and posted on Outlink Calgary’s Facebook page.

The letter claimed several incidents in which an employee of Outlink responded negatively or not at all to situations involving persons of colour. The letter came from several individuals involved with Beyond Borders, a program meant to offer support to immigrant members of the community.

The Calgary Journal contacted Beyond Borders, but they declined to comment.

The letter was addressed in a community meeting on Aug. 2, 2015, prior to the new board being elected, and the meeting minutes were shared with the public.

“In June there was a major conflict between the volunteers of (Beyond Borders) and Outlink as an organization…” the meeting minutes stated. “This conflict led to the volunteers resigning from their positions.”

During the community meeting, several community members walked out, and the facilitator stated that “members of colour don’t feel safe, and so have the right to walk out.”

While the new board and Ernst want to move forward, some community members still want accountability for the alleged acts of racism.

Stasha Huntingford was doing contractual research work for Outlink at the time the letter was written, and resigned from the job because of the organizations lack of accountability.

Outlink provides various brochures and information on different topics. The resources include information on STI’s, how to clean sex toys and sexual health for gay and bisexual individuals. Photo by Amber McLinden“I had concerns about how the organization was functioning. I found out about (the letter) and that the board had the letter for more than a month and had made no response,” Huntingford said.

She tried approaching the previous executive director, as well as the old board, but neither responded to her concerns. No longer working for Outlink, Huntingford still sees the problems the organization will face going forward.

“The changes the organization is making now are making it worse, because what they’re demonstrating is that they’re not accountable. Non-profits first need to be accountable to the people they serve, not funders, not the government, but to the actual people who are accessing services.”

While the claims of racism have yet to be publicly addressed, Marc Power, the new president of the board of directors at Outlink, said in an interview he realizes the impact it has had on the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole.

“Ultimately, if it’s not a safe place to be, it shouldn’t exist. That is the reason Outlink is there, that is our sole purpose. I think right now, we have a responsibility to do it right,” Power said.

All previous board members resigned and a new board was formed as of Oct. 2, 2015. The new board includes president Marc Power, vice president KaRynn Li, secretary Heather Johnson, treasurer Kevin Allen, and board members Lex Fortozo and Ari Agha.

The newly elected members are assessing the situation that happened prior to their involvement in Outlink. Power said Outlink needs to include everyone.

“Basically we want to be a welcoming community, and unfortunately it didn’t feel that way for some people and we don’t want that to be the feeling going forward.”

Outlink is not a new organization, established in 1988, and Power said he realizes that it won’t be easy to start over when the organization has such a long history.The Calgary Outlink sign hangs Kelly Ernst’s small office located in downtown Calgary. The organization is currently operating out of Ernst’s office while they work to rebuild. Photo by Amber McLinden

“What we are trying to do is a little like new home owners trying to figure out why the previous owners burned down the house. It’s a very difficult process.”

Power said that Outlink’s new leadership wants to make sure the centre gets back on its feet, but they also want to bring that about through the correct process. They are in no rush to put programs out just yet because their priority is to have effective programs that run efficiently.

“We’re literally starting from scratch, but we’re starting from scratch with baggage, so we’re in the process of trying to dig out of that hole we’re currently in, so that when we put out the programs, we’ve addressed the underlying issue,” Power said.

“I think it’s really important to do this well and get the services in place that are sound and running well and not necessarily quickly, too broad, too fast so that we repeat mistakes of the past. We’re not interested in doing that.” Ersnt added.

Huntingford believes that moving forward is important, but accountability for the past is vital.

“Saying ‘we just want to go forward’ means that they’re going to ignore this, and business as usual means they’re going to be just as racist as they were when people filed a complaint.”

While the organization is still in the early stages of its redevelopment, Ernst invites community members to follow them on Facebook, as well as to participate in focus groups and an upcoming community survey to help the organization in this process.

amclinden@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this story is Zoe Choy, zchoy@cjournal.ca