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Equality Illinois looks ahead with more diverse board
by Matt Simonette

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LGBT-rights advocacy Equality Illinois recently began its new fiscal year with a board of directors organization officials say better reflects the diversity of the constituency it serves.

There are 20 persons serving on the Equality Illinois Board, with 50 percent identifying as people of color; 50 percent identifying as women; 25 percent identifying as allies; and 10 percent identifying as transgender, according to CEO Brian C. Johnson.

"It's really important to us that not only do we engage a diverse cross section of our community, but that a diverse cross section of our community is represented in leadership, staff and the board," said Johnson, who added that the organization's reasoning was twofold.

"One, it enables us to make better decisions," he added. "We are able to focus on the right issues and we're able to support the best policies because we have so many different voices from so many communities represented.

"Also, it's important because we want many members of our community to be able to look at Equality Illinois and and see their identity reflected in decision-making roles, and therefore deepen their confidence that we can be strong advocates for them."

Many non-profit organizations fall back on boards of directors made up of individuals brought in because of business or political connections, fundraising abilities or generous contributions; quite often, that leads to initiatives that aren't especially informed when engaging an organization's signature issues, said Board Member and Equality Illinois Institute Board Chair Butch Trusty.

With a more diverse board, Trusty added, "We can really engage and bring personal experiences, knowledge and expertise to help staff think about the strategies of the organization, the positions that we take on particular issues, and what issues we should be elevating, rather than being about a board that is just about raising money, seeking contributions or adding things to our resume. Having life experiences or professional experiences matters for board engagement."

Board member Reyna Ortiz, a transgender woman who is beginning her third year, said that she generally prefers the "gritty work" of activism and had turned down previous offers to join various boards—offers, she noted, that usually came via emails or text messages.

But such was not the case with Johnson's overtures to join, Ortiz said. She praised the CEO for speaking with her on several occasions about her work, experiences and concerns, adding, "He was really trying to get a feel for where I was at."

Johnson "felt that my connections to the community were important to the board—my connections to trans women and the ground work that I have done, all the things that I have done in the community," Ortiz said. "He wanted to bring that ideology and the work to the board, which I thought was super-important. So often, trans women, especially trans women of color, have been left behind and sort of abandoned by the rest of the LGBT community."

Board member Lynne Perryman said that having board members who are relatable to their constituency "helps holistically."

"I'm a lesbian, biracial woman in the community," she added. "It always feels like the donors and the Capital Club members have a higher level of comfort with our decision-making when the board represents diversity that exists within your communities as well. If our communities see a diverse board, they're going to be more inclined to donate, come to our events and support Equality's mission."

Johnson has been with Equality Illinois for three years, and said that diversifying the board "has been a key priority for myself and the board the entire time I've been here. When I came on, the board was only 25 percent people of color and 17 percent female-identified. No trans board members."

When Johnson began his tenure, he participated in numerous fact-finding conversations across the state. He recalled that he was repeatedly told by community members and stakeholders that they didn't think Equality Illinois could adequately represent their viewpoints.

"I can't point to a single-issue that was impeded by a lack of diversity [previously], but I can say that there were communities—communities of color, the trans community, women—who said, 'This is not a place where we feel as represented and that we can really trust that the best decisions are being made for us,'" Johnson said.

Trusty added, "There are other organizations, not just in Illinois, but elsewhere, that want to have legitimacy and credibility on issues … that don't have those groups reflected in their leadership. For me, as a person of color, it is difficult for me to buy into their legitimacy on those issues."

But with this shift, Equality Illinois "is really making a conscious effort to include the voices that are at the center of the arguments we are trying to fight for," said Myles Brady Davis, the organization's director of communications.

Johnson admitted that he'd like to see more extensive representation from persons in other parts of Illinois; the organization has long grappled with challenges of extending its influence and advocacy to areas outside of Cook County.

Several staffers are originally from other parts of Illinois but, "We have a lot more work to make sure that our staff and our board reflect a more diverse cross-section of the state," Johnson said. "Lifting up a diverse cross-section of a community is never done. I'm proud of the leadership that we've assembled, but we have not 'arrived.' We will always have to be working on this."

Ortiz said that she has nonetheless been energized by her time on the Equality Illinois board, and views her tenure not just as beneficial to the organization but a chance to give more to the communities she serves through her community work.

"Part of the trans community benefits when there is a trans woman who is a social service worker fighting for issues in the trans community," she explained. "I'm getting an opportunity to learn about policies and procedures that are important to my community that I would have never really given so much thought to before."

Board member Channyn Lynne Parker, whose tenure began July 2019, concurred with Ortiz.

"Many individuals outside the realm of service provision and politics don't know the inner workings of how things go on," Parker said. " … For me this is about providing an educational lens to communities to let them know, 'Hey, this is why boards are important. This is the process that happens before decisions are actually made.' This is better, in the long run, for communities and organizational heads."

Fahrenheit award

reception Aug. 23

Fahrenheit Chicago and Equality Illinois will co-host the Fahrenheit Chicago Honors Reception on Friday, Aug. 23, 7-10 p.m., at Connect Gallery, 1520 E. Harper Ct.

Howard Brown Health and The Reva & David Logan Foundation are presenting the event.

Among the honors being distributed are:

—the Civic Leadership Award, to Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx and Illinois Deputy Gov. Sol Flores;

—the Lifetime Achievement Award, to Charles Nelson III, of Adodi and the South Side Help Center, as well as Pat McComb and Vera Washington, of Executive Sweet;

—the Rising Leader Award, to Rae Chardonnay and Nick Alder, of Party Noire; and

—the Community Service Award, to Tatyana Moatan and Joel D. Jackson, of House of Balmain and the University of Chicago.

This event is part of a Fahrenheit Chicago 3 weekend that will include the Aug. 24 talk "Beyond The Rhetoric Forum" at Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. ( including state Rep. Lamont J. Robinson, Charlene Carruthers, Channyn Parker, Ty Cratic, Myles Brady Davis and others ); a Fahrenheit Chicago Day part at 5-9 p.m.; and "Bronzeville Is Burning" on Sunday, Aug. 25, 1-8 p.m., at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl., which will include a mini-ball, museum tour and more.

See "Fahrenheit Chicago Honors Reception" on Facebook as well as .

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