Sunday, November 13, 2016

Make Pride a Membership Organization

by Mark Gabrish Conlan

Originally presented at the community meeting November 13, 2016 at the Joyce Beers Community Center to discuss the future of San Diego’s Pride events and the apparently arbitrary and cause-less firing of Pride’s executive director by the current board.

I’ve been part of San Diego’s Queer (a term I use inclusively because I can’t stand the initials “LGBTQ” or whatever they are this week) community for an awfully long time, ever since I came out definitively as a cisgender Gay man in 1982. I have been part of every Pride event since 1983 and briefly served on one of the Pride boards in the 1980’s.
During that time I’ve seen repeated meltdowns in the administration of Pride. There were at least two in the 1980’s and there have been others since. Pride will always be a source of contention because it is the biggest public event our community puts on, the event that most strongly and vividly defines us to the broader community.
And the various Pride organizations that have come and gone in San Diego have not helped their cause by running themselves more like private for-profit corporations than community organizations. Over and over again we’ve seen Pride secretly — and legally — taken over by people unknown to the bulk of the Queer community and its activists, people most of us in the community have never even heard of until they screw up and their screw-ups hit the media.
The current administrative model for Pride — a nonprofit corporation with a self-perpetuating board of directors — makes it all too easy for disastrous administrative mistakes to happen and to get covered up. It is that model, not any specific board or staff members, that needs to change. To that end, I propose:

Make Pride a membership organization. Pride should be reorganized so that individuals can become members by paying dues and/or contributing volunteer time to the events, and it will be the members — not the board — that elects the board annually. This creates a constituency to which the board members would have to answer instead of secretly and unaccountably doing whatever they want with the organization.
Hold Pride’s annual meeting after the events. The annual meeting of Pride’s members would take place in August (or, if the Pride events are rescheduled, about one month after they take place). At that meeting all parties involved — Pride board, staff, members and the community at large — would have a chance to discuss that year’s events, both what went well and what didn’t, and then the membership would elect the Pride board for next year.
The Pride board. All Pride board members would serve a one-year term; they could run for re-election, though the Pride bylaws could include a limit on how many consecutive terms one individual could serve. The bylaws should be crafted to ensure that all segments of our community — Lesbians, Gay men, Bisexuals, Transgender people and non-Queer allies — are represented fairly.
Pride should be run openly and transparently. Though California law no longer requires private nonprofit corporations to run under the same openness rules as governmental bodies, it should still be a good idea. All Pride board meetings should be open to the public except when they discuss personnel issues or pending litigation, and the agendas should begin with public-commentary periods in which any individual can address the board.

Afterthoughts: Some issues were raised at the November 13 meeting which need to be considered seriously if this proposal is implemented, among them ensuring representation for communities of color on future Pride boards, making membership affordable for people with limited income (either by allowing them to join at a lower rate or having their volunteer hours counted in lieu of a dues payment), and cultivating a culture of mutual respect among the individuals working on and for Pride.
A membership organization structure for Pride will not solve all its problems. The new bylaws that make the change will have to be very carefully crafted to avoid the possibility of a certain group “packing” the membership and staging a hostile takeover. But many of the people involved in Pride have had experience in membership organizations, from the San Diego Democrats for Equality to the American Civil Liberties Union, and can use that experience to craft bylaws that can ensure organizational democracy and control the potential to abuse a membership structure.
The point isn’t that converting the Pride corporation from a self-perpetuating board to a membership structure will solve all its problems overnight. What it will do is end this abominable Catch-22 the community members who are concerned about Pride’s current direction find themselves in, in which they have absolutely no recourse against the existing board except to boycott the events altogether, which would threaten their very existence. The first thing we need to go forward with a positive future for Pride is a way to hold the board accountable. A membership structure is a well-established, well-proven way of doing just that.