Jabari Lyles is a teacher, the outreach specialist at FreeState Legal Project and co-chair and education manager at GLSEN-Baltimore. Busy as he is, he has recently taken on an additional role: President of the Board of Directors for the Gay, Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB).
In doing so, Lyles becomes the fourth person to hold that position in the last 10 months. He graciously agreed to be interviewed so that the community would be more acquainted with him and to allow him to address the rate of turnover at the GLCCB, the center’s purpose, its finances as well his vision for the center.
What motivated you to join the GLCCB Board and ultimately agree to be its president?
I joined the GLCCB Board to work towards reifying its potential. After working in the local nonprofit and LGBTQ advocacy scene for some time, I became curious as to why, besides Pride, the GLCCB seemed nonexistent and hidden. It was particularly confusing, as a young, black, gay person in Baltimore, that I didn’t feel a connection to this center. I certainly knew this absence was not for lack of need.
Eventually, I learned about parts of the center’s history, the community concern it generated, and perhaps the reason why the GLCCB seemed to exist in the shadows. Instead of continuing to condemn the organization, I saw an opportunity to make change from within. To me, continuing to neglect the center was continuing to neglect the people it could represent. I decided to apply to join the Board, with a specific focus on the GLCCB’s transparency and inclusion, work with people of color, youth and the transgender community.
I immediately took an active role on the Board and became heavily involved in the center’s operations and direction. I became impassioned with the idea of a community center that is truly community held, community-serving and community-building—supported by an organization that has the trust and buy-in from the people we serve. To me, this is what a community center should always be. I agreed to be Board President because I believe in what the GLCCB can be, I believe in my community and I believe that I can lead with hope, love, knowledge and courage.
You have been working with several successful non-profits, such as GLSEN and FreeState Legal. What has been your experience at these organizations that you can bring to the GLCCB?
I have worked with GLSEN Baltimore for nearly 10 years now, and for several years under the tutelage of the late, great Kay Halle, longtime social justice advocate and community servant. There was a bit of love in everything that she did, and though small in stature, she was a force to be reckoned with. Although I am quite large, those who know me would agree that I approach my work with a nice balance of tenderness and intensity.
GLSEN is a fantastic organization that continues to show me the importance and impact of investing in young people, speaking up for the victimized and refusing to negotiate safety and respect for all people. FreeState expanded my understanding of LGBTQ issues and encouraged a more intersectional approach to my work. From my work with FreeState, I learned how race, gender and class, all come into play as one navigates systems: education, legal, or health care. Both organizations are well run, consistent and have a high sense of integrity and accountability to the community. All decisions are tied to the mission. Routines and expectations are firmly in place. I will bring all of these things, my approach and experiences to my work at the GLCCB.
What do you see as your number one priority and why?
My number one priority is identifying appropriate, reliable and stable leadership at all levels. Effective leadership will add value and credibility to our organization, has been sorely needed, and will begin the process of mending the GLCCB’s relationship with the community. This includes assembling a dynamic and well-resourced board that reflects the diversity of our community, hiring an Executive Director who has strong executive chops with an authentic understanding of the needs and interests of the entire community, and reviving a Community Advisory Board to look to the people we serve for direction.
Over the course of the past 16 months there have been four different executive directors or interim directors serving in that capacity and four board presidents since November. How can you reduce the frequent turnover and create stability and thus, generate more confidence in the GLCCB?
We need to be much better at setting our leaders up for success so they are best poised to lead. That looks like: proper on-boarding and orientation, a reliable directory of resources, and open communication between board and staff leaders. I feel the first step is stepping back and clarifying and perhaps recalibrating our mission and purpose. It’s time for us to reboot.
The GLCCB is due to ask itself: Why are we here and what do we do? Who do we serve? How do we serve? We will surely find stability in this renewed sense of purpose. What will be most important is how we listen to the community to answer these questions. At this critical junction in the center’s history, we are presented with an opportunity to recreate our organization in the community’s image.
My job will be to unify the right group of people who identify strongly with this mission who will realign and recommit, and who will move forward together with passion and cohesion. As your current President, I don’t intend on going anywhere so long as the people I serve will have me. I have a hands-on, bear-through-the-storm approach to this position; I don’t scare easily, and have advised a similar approach to my fellow board members.
The GLCCB has often been criticized for virtually disappearing once Pride is over. What can you and the board do to change that reputation? In other words, please explain how the GLCCB can serve the community year round.
Honestly, before joining the board, I was probably one of those community members that wondered what the GLCCB did when Pride wasn’t happening. I now know of the many amazing, wonderful services and opportunities that the GLCCB offers year round, that many people take advantage of, but are not well-known by the community.
One of our longest running and most well-attended groups, Sistahs of Pride (formerly Women of Color), meets nearly weekly. During this past summer, we hosted 20 Youth Works hires who developed their very own homelessness support program called Helping Hands, which attracts regular patrons. We are hoping to expand our programs and outreach strategies to better support the community’s needs and to keep the community better informed. For more information on current programming, visit www.glccb.org/programs.
During the past few years board members have assumed more of an oversight role rather than rolling up their sleeves to help in the operations of the center. Will you encourage a more hands-on role for the board?
Taking into account how much work has yet to be done, we simply cannot have it any other way. Willingness to get hands dirty is a requirement to join this board, and I’ve mentioned this during each interview with every new board member. We are certainly a working board in many respects; however, being a working board certainly does not absolve us of our governing duties.
Strategic delegation of tasks is how we will ensure strong action as a governing body, such as hiring a new executive director, and ways we act as individual working members, such as staffing an event. It is also important to note that I expect the duties and expectations of board members to vary as the needs of the organization change.
Money problems continue to beset the Center. What do you see as the best strategy to put the GLCCB on a better financial footing?
The money problems that beset the Center are multifaceted, are the result of missteps of many people, and thus require a multifaceted, multi-person solution. We must strengthen our financial oversight. This includes taking a concentrated look at who spends, how much is spent and why, and, how records are kept. We must (re)establish the Finance and Audit committees on our Board, and enlist the help of financial professionals to improve our accounting practices.
We must empower the Board, as chief fundraisers of the organization, to work closely with our development coordinator on a fundraising plan. We must always consider financial decisions ethically, legally, and with the community’s best interests in mind. Most importantly, we must prove ourselves worthy of support from the community if we ever want individual giving to be a thing.
One of the biggest criticisms of the GLCCB has been its perceived lack of inclusivity of minorities and transgender folks in its governance. How will you change that perception?
This entire year, I have observed the GLCCB making strides towards becoming an organization that authentically represents people of color mostly in its programming and outreach decisions. We will continue to move in this direction. As an outspoken, strong ally of the transgender community, I will say that the we have a bit more work to do on trans* inclusivity and representation.
As current chair of the Programs and Outreach committee, I plan to work diligently on how the center works with and for these communities. I am specifically interested in transgender representation on our Board and staff and investigating how we can work with existing trans-focused organizations, such as Sistas of the T, Baltimore Trans Alliance, and Black Trans Men, Inc.
As the first African-American in decades to hold the position of GLCCB board president, how will you go about trying to improve race relations within the LGBT community?
I firmly believe that my status as an African-American Board President offers nothing different or extra to improve race relations within the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ racists will not learn or believe anything different by this positioning, I cannot tell them anything that hasn’t already been said, and in the end it will be up to them to work towards changing their damaging mindsets.
Minorities in positions of leadership do not an anti-racist society make. President Obama is ending his second term in office, yet black churches are being targeted by terrorists and unarmed black people are being killed by police. What I will do, as a Board President that condemns racism and approaches all work with a social justice lens, is lead this organization in a direction that visibly recognizes and works against racism in all its forms, intentionally works to uplift those who are most marginalized, encourages and eventually leads conversations about oppression, intersectionality, and authentically serving communities of color.
What would you like the community to know about Jabari Lyles?
I am a passionate public servant who finds true happiness and endless energy in working for positive change. I have over ten years of combined experience as an educator, program manager, outreach specialist, and LGBTQ activist. My interests include STEM education, urban education, queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, and educational technology.
I am a proud Maryland native, and I currently live in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore City. When I’m not working, I’m usually cooking, dancing, or spending time with those I love. I am outgoing, extroverted and approachable. I believe in my city, my community, and the great things that come out of working together. I am excited to work and grow with the GLCCB.
Gay Life September 2015