The Pride Center of Maryland on Tuesday announced the departure of executive director Mimi Demissew, who had served in the role since 2016.
Merrick Moses, president of the center’s board of directors, told Baltimore Fishbowl on Thursday that he “can’t really go into the specifics” of Demissew’s departure but that the board “decided it was time for the Pride Center to go in a new direction.”
“It’s a new day at the Pride Center and we decided to move forward,” Moses said.
In an interview with Baltimore Fishbowl on Friday, Demissew also would not comment on whose decision it was for her to leave the center, but she said she was able to accomplish everything she set out to do as executive director.
“I’ve done everything that I wanted to do,” she said. “It was time.”
Demissew added that she leaves behind a committed group of staff and volunteers.
“I’m proud of the work that has taken place in my time,” she said. “I think there’s an excellent staff in place, an excellent group of volunteers who are dedicated to the mission of the center. I wish everyone all the best.”
The Pride Center announced Demissew’s departure just before 10 p.m. on Tuesday, hours after the Baltimore Sun published an article about the center shifting Baltimore Pride activities to better align with the Black Lives Matter movement.
But Moses said that article did not factor into Demissew’s departure.
In fact, Moses said the board and community members had been talking about restructuring the center–including Demissew’s departure, expanding the board of directors, and diversifying programming–since before the coronavirus pandemic, but that COVID-19 added momentum to their plans.
“With the center not open right now to foot traffic because of COVID, we decided this would be the right time,” he said.
As for the Sun article, Moses said the center remains committed to the Black Lives Matter movement and sees its role in racial justice efforts as “not just providing a place for organizing and strategizing, but actually leading the way in terms of being a voice for what the community wants.”
“Ultimately, we believe that because the Pride Center strives to have access to those in power and linking those with power to those who have the least power, we can be a broker for social and economic change for our community,” he said.
Demissew, a Black woman, said it was important for her to make sure that the Pride Center of Maryland, like other LGBTQ+ community centers across the country, actively supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Aligning the center and aligning Pride with Black Lives Matter is also a national movement that’s taking place in all LGBT centers,” she said. “It’s certainly something I pushed for and also something I wanted to align our center with.”
The Pride Center will begin its search for a new permanent executive director “shortly” with guidance from a team of consultants,” Moses said. Additionally, the center plans to expand and diversify its board of directors.
“We want the board to reflect and represent the beautiful diversity of the sexual and gender minority community, not just in Baltimore City but in the state of Maryland,” he said. “We definitely will be going on a robust search for people who want to contribute to this community and want to see the center thrive.”
The board of directors currently comprises four members: Moses as president, Kenneth Moore Jr. as vice president, John Harris as treasurer, and Jumel Howard as secretary.
The Pride Center’s website also lists two at-large members, Brian Gaither and Angela Gustus, but Moses said they both recently resigned.
The executive director is not a member of the board of directors but answers to the body.
Moses said the board is unsure how many members the expanded board will include, but he said they want an odd number to avoid tied votes.
He added that the board hopes to include more women, transgender people, non-binary people and people of color as part of its expansion.
The four current board members are all people of color, but Moses said he is the only self-identified transgender member.
With a more diverse board of directors, Moses hopes the Pride Center’s services will be more inclusive for all members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“We want expanded, robust programming organically coming from the center,” he said. “We have a lot of issues going on in our community, combined with COVID, racial injustice, healthcare inequity … We want to make the center a warm environment for every sexual and gender minority that comes through that door.”
The center, located in Charles Village, oversees Baltimore Pride activities and provides other services to sexual and gender minority individuals, including conducting HIV testing, distributing bag meals, collecting clothing donations, and offering free legal consultations.
In April, the Pride Center postponed Baltimore Pride due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Demissew said at the time that the center was coordinating with Baltimore City officials to reschedule the event for late August or September.
Moses said that the center has not yet chosen a new date for Baltimore Pride because “everything is still so fluid with COVID,” but the event will likely be held virtually.
“A lot of Pride Centers are doing virtual Prides, so all options are on the table for us in terms of what we’re looking at doing–except for meeting person-to-person, of course, because of COVID,” he said.
Demissew came to the Pride Center of Maryland in 2016, when she served as a volunteer for a few months before taking the helm as executive director.
At the time, Demissew said the center accumulated nearly $250,000 in debt and had an annual budget of about $60,000.
“It looked like it was on the brink of closing down,” she said.
She added that the center only had about 10 programs per month, provided services for about 40 people per month, and had about 10,000 people coming to Baltimore Pride.
Demissew said the organization now has a $1.2 million budget, has more than 30 programs per month, provides services for 800 to 1,000 people per month and draws more than 40,000 people to Baltimore Pride.
Demissew also oversaw the renaming of the organization from the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore to its current title, the Pride Center of Maryland, which she called an “overdue” change.
One of Demissew’s final acts as executive director was to call on the Maryland General Assembly, as well as Maryland’s representatives in Congress, to implement reparations for the Black descendants of enslaved people.
Last Friday, the Pride Center urged Reps. Andy Harris, Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, Anthony Brown, Steny Hoyer, David Trone, Kweisi Mfume and Jamie Raskin to push Congress to pass H.R. 40, a bill to study and develop proposals for providing reparations to Black people who are descended from slaves.
The center called on state lawmakers to create their own reparations bill for Maryland.
The center also urged the state legislature to recognize Juneteenth as an official Maryland state holiday. The day commemorates when a Union army general arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 and told enslaved people there the war was over and they were free–two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Dec. 6, 1865 abolished non-penal slavery across the country.
The Pride Center also called on the state legislature to demilitarize police in Maryland and reinvest those funds in community organizations, public schools, public healthcare and the creation of Community Invested Violence Intervention Coalition Peace Officers.
Demissew said she plans to spend time with family and continue to work with state Sen. Mary Washington to push for reparations at the state level.
“That’s definitely something that’s going to continue to happen,” she said. “I think for right now I’m just going to enjoy the downtime.”
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