Karen Ocamb

Equality California's New Executive Director Gets to Work

Filed By Karen Ocamb | January 31, 2013 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: EqCa, Equality California, John O'Connor, new executive director, organizational history


One month after officially assuming his position on Dec. 3 as the new executive director of the beleaguered statewide LGBT lobbying group Equality California, John O'Connor seems focused, a gay man on a mission. He is mindful of the pitfalls and the hefty responsibility of restoring luster to the tarnished organization, but he is confident in his own executive experience and dedication to achieving full equality.

"When there is a long-term executive director like Geoff Kors, it's never an easy transition after their departure, and I think we all know that Equality California had a particularly difficult time," O'Connor said in a phone interview with Frontiers on Jan. 3. "But rather than dwelling on what mistakes were made, I want to talk about the vision for the organization moving forward."

That vision includes a rapid response to breaking news - and perhaps making some news in the process.

On Tuesday, Jan. 22, O'Connor used the occasion of President Obama's historic Inaugural address to send out an email urging EQCA supporters to ask Obama to weigh in on the Prop 8 case the US Supreme Court will hear on March 26:

eqca-obama-alert.jpgWhen the President acknowledges your love during his inaugural address, when he makes your equality a benchmark of America's promise, when he draws commonality from our struggle for dignity and justice to Seneca Falls and Selma, it is impossible not to surge with gratitude and wonder at the progress we have made within the span of a generation.

But, as President Obama said, our journey is not complete. We cannot yet enjoy the freedoms promised; while we can see the hill, we can't yet rest there.

For all of us who heard those powerful words yesterday, thankful and hopeful, we can now help President Obama take the next step on our journey, a journey that is incomplete until all Americans can marry the person that they love.

Please, take a moment and urge President Obama to file an amicus brief in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Proposition 8 case. He knows that this is the path the country must take to achieve the promise of equality; take a moment to encourage his hand to follow his heart.

You can amplify your voice by sharing this with friends on Facebook or Twitter and making sure they urge the President to support the freedom to marry too. With your help, we can send 25,000 letters!

Make sure the President knows you want full equality and that his support is crucial in this historic case.

As Chris Geidner at Buzzfeed reports, the White House has not responded to repeated questions about whether President Obama believes Prop 8 is unconstitutional, as he has similarly expressed his and the administration's view that DOMA is unconstitutional. Geidner reports that, "The deadline for submitting amicus curiae briefs supporting the couples challenging Proposition 8 in the Supreme Court is Feb. 28. Amicus briefs supporting the Proposition 8 proponents or supporting neither side are due Jan. 29."

Apart from breaking news, most of O'Connor's focus is on rebuilding EQCA. O'Connor said he has been meeting with community leaders and donors and working on a strategy to rebuild the organization, the "heart and soul" of which is the 90-plus pieces of legislation EQCA passed over the last decade.

"The actual agenda, in terms of pieces of new legislation we are going to propose, is not ready for public announcement yet," O'Connor said. "I am brand-new on the job as of December, so we are playing a little bit of catch-up--but I'm getting fully up to speed."

But he has been busy, renewing the contract with respected legislative whiz Alice Kessler, with whom he has an existing friendship. "The continuity that Alice brings to the organization and her legislative expertise is extraordinary, and that is one of the great assets this organization has for 2013, moving forward," O'Connor said.

jo-michael.jpg(EQCA Legislative Fellow Jo Michael. Photo courtesy EQCA)

Additionally, O'Connor hired transgender EQCA Legislative Fellow Jo Michael to serve as the public face of the organization and do the leg-work in Sacramento. "His work is exemplary," O'Connor said. "I called Alice and asked for a reference, and Alice referred to Jo as, 'Well, he kind of reminds me of a young Alice Kessler when I first came to Sacramento--all fresh-faced and eager and committed to the mission and wanting to work hard and do good.'"

O'Connor also hired Jack Lorenz as the Deputy Director for Programs and Development. "He's an extraordinary talent, and we're lucky to have him," O'Connor said. And he brought back Steve Mele as Finance Director. "The continuity and history of the organization that he brings--his reputation and relationship-wise," O'Connor said. "He was able to walk in the door on day one and be effective, which was good, because we really had a bit of cleanup to do with the absence of a finance director throughout 2012."

"With regard to communications, John's intention - consistent with his overall staffing approach - is to recruit a full time in-house bilingual Spanish speaking communications director. The timeline and specifics for that are still being worked out but he hopes to post the job by the end of the month," says Stephan A. Roth, Principal at OutThink Partners which has a PR/communications contract with EQCA. "In the meantime, John and I have an agreement for us to continue working with EQCA to ensure a smooth transition until a full time person is recruited and on board."

O'Connor said he is still in the process of developing a work plan and budget for 2013 that he will present to the board next month. "There are a couple of co-factors for me to evaluate. What are the organization's needs--and there are many competing priorities," he said. "As the executive director and prudent manager, I need to move with caution before we start committing to a whole host of salaries."

O'Connor estimates that rebuilding the organization will take the entire year. However, he will operate under the Carver model of governance. "The board is giving me all the deference and authority I need to do my job, while at the same time being engaged in a really great leadership kind of way," with a board transition committee helping with "the massive amount of outreach" he needs to do to stakeholders statewide. "The dynamic between me and the board is strong and healthy," he said. "I am running the joint, without question, with a great amount of support and deference."

O'Connor says he wants the community to be engaged in EQCA's work and is open to doing town hall meetings on a regular basis throughout the year, whenever the schedule allows. For instance, the first of several town halls was held on Thursday, Jan. 17, in San Bernardino, to discuss a recently released two-year study conducted by the Equality California Institute and Mental Health America of Northern California, with 19 statewide members of the California LGBT HHS Network, into the efficacy of and access to mental health care for LGBT Californians. Some of the recommendations from "First Do No Harm: Reducing Disparities for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning Populations in California" include:

  • The development of standard sexual orientation and gender identity measures for data collection at state and county levels, and collecting sexual orientation and gender identity data on clients when they access public health services -- making sure the LGBTQ community counts.
  • A requirement for statewide workforce training and education in order to increase culturally competent mental, behavioral and physical health care.
  • Training of service providers focused on the distinctiveness of each sector of the LGBTQ population within an overarching approach to mental health throughout the lifespan for the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of LGBTQ communities.
  • Development and implementation of effective anti-bullying and anti-harassment programs for all California public schools.
  • All locations where physical, behavioral or mental health care is provided should be required to be safe, affirming spaces for LGBTQ people of all races, ethnicities, cultures and ages.
  • An environment of safety and affirmation for LGBTQ employees at state and county mental/behavioral health and physical health care departments

"We know that LGBTQ people face the constant stress of unequal treatment before the law and in society, and that manifests as increased need for mental health care as a community," O'Connor said in a press release. "While we remain committed to fixing those larger inequities, making sure we have effective and accessible mental health care will have an immediate and lifesaving effect for the LGBTQ community."

john-oconnor-2.jpg(EQCA's John O'Connor near LA office in West Hollywood. Photo by Karen Ocamb)

The Princeton, New Jersey-born O'Connor has experience working as a top executive at the California Hall of Fame, the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts, the Gill Foundation, the David Geffen Foundation and, most recently, he served as executive director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs, where he turned the organization around. But it was during his college years at Georgetown University from 1990-1994 that O'Connor became "a mission-driving kind of guy."

"I came out when I was 18 years old in Washington, D.C., and while many of my peers at Georgetown were going to business school and were going to the school for foreign service and thinking about careers like that--my personal life, at a time when so much politically was happening in AIDS, where I could see my gay peers getting sick and dying..." O'Connor said. "And Georgetown, just prior to my arrival, after many years of a legal fight, won the right to organize a gay and lesbian student group on campus--so these personal concerns were more front-and-center for me at that time. And I got involved in ACT UP, and I met some of the people who were leading it, and I participated in some of the direct action. And I was inspired that the group of people, presumably with no political power, could come together and claim some political power. I saw how direct action changed the world. ... I was really inspired that the world could be changed for the better--for me, for the other people that I loved and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people throughout the country."

(Please note: this is an expanded version of an earlier report for Frontiers magazine.)

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