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Breaking: Equality California Board Announces John O’Connor as New Executive Director

Breaking: Equality California Board Announces John O’Connor as New Executive Director

by Karen Ocamb on October 24, 2012

(New Equality California Executive Director John O’Connor. Photo courtesy EQCA)

It’s been over a year since Roland Palencia resigned as executive director for Equality California.  In February, the Board brought on Laurie Hasencamp to stabilize and run the organization but it wasn’t until three months later that the Board decided to renew their search for a new ED in earnest.   Today, the EQCA Board announced they’ve selected John O’Connor to be their new ED. Here’s an excerpt from their press release (see the full release below): 

Equality California and its Board of Directors announced today that John O’Connor, a seasoned nonprofit executive with deep ties in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, will serve as the new executive director of Equality California and Equality California Institute. O’Connor will begin his tenure on December 3.

“I am honored to lead Equality California forward as the statewide voice on LGBT equality.  The message will be that we are for full equality and nothing less,” said O’Connor, who currently serves as the executive director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert. “That means enacting, implementing and enforcing legislation that expands the protections and freedoms afforded to LGBT Californians, supporting and electing pro-LGBT legislators, and winning the hearts and minds of Californians through effective education. I won’t just be speaking — I’ll be listening too, to our coalition partners, to the needs of LGBT Californians, and to everyone involved in building a state of equality.”

In assuming the mantle, O’Connor instantly faces both intense skeptics and well-wishers. After an extensive interview with Board chairs Clarissa Filgioun and Cary Davidson, it became clear that there is a chasm between how the Board sees itself and its relationship to the LGBT community and how the disappointed and disgruntled community sees the Board and the organization.  A recent email insult by Filgioun towards former Board member and PAC chair Diane Abbitt, an icon in the LGBT movement, during an exchange about a Freedom to Marry fundraiser also angered many longterm donors and friends.  Abbitt later said Filgioun apologized.

Hasencamp says she will stay on part-time to help with the organizational transition. But O’Connor has two immediate situations to deal with: 1) will he insist on the traditional use of the Carver Model of governing, which rests considerable decision-making power with the ED or will he acquiesce to the Board, which Davidson says wants to play a more significant role in decision-making? And 2) will he continue to hire outside consultants to do the work or hire staff to build a traditional organization? It is worth noting that in the year and a half he’s been executive director at The LGBT Community Center of the Desert, he changed the name from the Golden Rainbow Senior Center last October  to reflect the expansion in services, increased the budget 70% to almost a million dollars, raised visibility, instituted free healthcare screenings  and mental health services and started an anti-bullying program with Palm Springs Unified School District at local high schools – all of which portend well for his understanding of the LGBT needs in the state.

Additionally, while O’Connor, who graduated from Georgetown University in 1993, apparently has great donor contacts from his time working as Deputy Director of the California Museum, Program Director for The David Geffen Foundation, Manager of DreamWorks SKG charitable giving program and National Director of The Gill Foundation, EQCA covers a wide range of LGBT regional interests – including the sprawling LA County with its active and demanding diversity. How O’Connor reaches out to LGBT people of color and people of faith will greatly impact the reception he gets on the ground.

The timing of O’Connor’s transition to EQCA is important, too, since he can develop next year’s legislative lobbying package with an eye to how the Nov. 6 elections turn out. Already in the hopper is the bill authored by EQCAI Boardmember Assemblymember Betsy Butler and Assemblymember Ricardo Lara that would audit LGBT school bills already signed into law to check for compliance – as well as figuring out how best to actually implement the California FAIR Act. Plus, EQCA is now the client of the National Center for Lesbian Rights seeking to intervene in the NARTH lawsuit challenging State Sen. Ted Lieu’s SB 1172, the bill prohibiting licensed therapists from using junk science to pretend to “cure” young people of their sexual orientation or gender identity. NCLR’s Geoff Kors, former EQCA executive director for 9 years, is now working with organizations such as Garden State Equality to “export” the bill to other states and undermine once and for all the Religious Right’s ugly argument that psychological abuse of children to make them straight is OK.

One insight into new EQCA ED John O’Connor is how he talked about The Center’s new anti-bullying, suicide prevent program with the Palm Springs Unified School District:

“This partnership will feature classroom instruction for more than 2,000 high school students. In this era of bullying, violence and youth suicide, the urgency of this program cannot be overstated. We aim to save lives.”

Born on December 31, 1970 , O’Connor has a canine companion named Olive.

Here’s EQCA’s full press release:

Equality California and its Board of Directors announced today that John O’Connor, a seasoned nonprofit executive with deep ties in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, will serve as the new executive director of Equality California and Equality California Institute. O’Connor will begin his tenure on December 3.

“I am honored to lead Equality California forward as the statewide voice on LGBT equality.  The message will be that we are for full equality and nothing less,” said O’Connor, who currently serves as the executive director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert. “That means enacting, implementing and enforcing legislation that expands the protections and freedoms afforded to LGBT Californians, supporting and electing pro-LGBT legislators, and winning the hearts and minds of Californians through effective education. I won’t just be speaking — I’ll be listening too, to our coalition partners, to the needs of LGBT Californians, and to everyone involved in building a state of equality.”

O’Connor has extensive experience leading non-profits through transition and into solvency and stability. Most recently, through his work at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, he brought in new staff, established a new counseling center — which was fully staffed and operational within a year — and forged important partnerships with area schools in order to bring anti-bullying and suicide prevention workshops into every 9th grade and first year continuation class. From 2006 through 2010, O’Connor worked directly under former California First Lady Maria Shriver to establish the California Hall of Fame at the California Museum, and he played a key role in stabilizing the museum and leading fundraising and program development that brought the organization statewide visibility and acclaim.

O’Connor brings important national and foundation experience to his new role. From 2002 to 2004, O’Connor was national director of the Gill Foundation, a $220 million foundation dedicated to advancing LGBT equality. He also served as program director of The David Geffen Foundation, where he worked closely with charities and issues of importance to the LGBT community.

“On behalf of the boards of directors, we are very pleased to welcome John aboard, knowing that his background and experience will be valuable as we chart our future,” said Clarissa Filgioun and Cary Davidson, board presidents of EQCA and EQCA Institute respectively. “John is a bold leader with a history of leading nonprofits into the next phase of their journeys. He will enable EQCA and EQCA Institute to broaden our work and move forward on our path to achieve LGBT equality in California.”

O’Connor was selected by the Boards of Directors of Equality California and Equality California Institute after an extensive, national search conducted by executive search firm Morris & Berger.

Leaders both inside and outside of the LGBT movement have reacted enthusiastically to O’Connor’s appointment:

 ”John’s dedication to The California Museum, which represents all of the breadth and diversity of California, was key to the turnaround it experienced and the success it achieved during the years I was California’s First Lady. I know that he will bring that same passion, commitment and skill to making sure that the voices of all LGBT Californians are heard. Congratulations, John, and congratulations Equality California.” Maria Shriver, award-winning journalist, best-selling author and former First Lady of California

“Equality California made a terrific choice in John O’Connor.  I am confident John will provide strong leadership and look forward to the opportunity for EQCA to be a powerful advocate for LGBT health as part of the organization’s overarching efforts to advance the well being of LGBT people throughout California.” Daniel Zingale, Senior Vice President, Healthy California, California Endowment

“We congratulate John on being selected as the Executive Director of Equality California.  His accomplishments at The LGBT Community Center of the Desert have been tremendous and we are certain he will remain fully committed to the success of our organization as he moves into a larger role. While we will miss John at The Center, he will be carrying on the mission of enriching the lives of the LGBT community on a state-wide basis affecting a much larger community with national implications.  We support John in his new role and wish him the very best.” – Randy Lowe, Chairman, LGBT Community Center of the Desert

“I’ve known John for more than a dozen years and couldn’t be happier with EQCA’s selection of him as their next Executive Director.  Whether in his role as a foundation manager or non-profit director, John has always been a passionate advocate for, and a great partner in, so many of the causes and concerns that we all share.  I look forward to working with John as he takes on this great challenge.” – Michael Fleming, Executive Director, David Bohnett Foundation

“Equality California has thoughtfully selected an executive director who has a solid track record of growing LGBT organizations. I look forward to collaborating with John and EQCA as we build a stronger movement for LGBT equality in California.” Masen Davis, Executive Director, Transgender Law Center

“John O’Connor is a great choice to lead EQCA.  He has grassroots, organizing and fundraising experience and he understands the importance of strategic vision and partnerships. NCLR and EQCA have been critical partners for years.  We have often joined forces to make significant gains for LGBT residents in California.  We fully expect that partnership will deepen under John’s leadership.  We stand ready to help John and EQCA in any way that helps LGBT Californians and their families.” Kate Kendell, Executive Director, National Center for Lesbian Rights

Equality California (EQCA) is the largest statewide lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights advocacy organization in California. Over the past decade, Equality California has strategically moved California from a state with extremely limited legal protections for LGBT individuals to a state with some of the most comprehensive civil rights protections in the nation. Equality California has passed more than 90 pieces of legislation and continues to advance equality through legislative advocacy, electoral work, public education and community empowerment. www.eqca.org

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lester F. Aponte October 24, 2012 at 5:47 PM

Although the press release suggests the opinions of grass roots activists and organizations may not be valued by EQCA’s board, I want to express my sincere congratulations to John Connor and best wishes for your success. Activists, let’s give the man a chance. He has a gargantuan task ahead of him trying to rebuild the organization and restoring some semblance of credibility.

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