O'Connor stabilizes EQCA
by Seth Hemmelgarn
When John O'Connor became Equality California's executive director last December, the statewide LGBT lobbying group was a bit of a mess.
The organization had been without a permanent leader for more than a year, following the abrupt departure of Roland Palencia, who lasted just three months in the position. Its finances were shaky. EQCA seemed to have lost its way after Geoff Kors, who led it for almost a decade, stepped down in March 2011.
Like many other nonprofits, EQCA had also seen a drop in contributions in recent years, and the organization had laid off some staff.
As O'Connor, who is gay, worked to rebuild the nonprofit, marriage equality advocates saw a monumental shift when, in June, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially killed the state's Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban and struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
Asked what the biggest challenge during his first year at EQCA has been, O'Connor laughed and said, "All of it."
After some consideration, he said, "Revitalizing an organization that had been through so much upheaval at a time when the LGBT movement for equality was shifting so dramatically was very complicated, and identifying strategies for doing that was the most challenging thing. That includes getting people's financial and political support behind what was happening, inspiring a staff to work as hard as they needed to work to make this possible, instilling confidence in elected officials once again, and instilling confidence in the press."
O'Connor, 42, whose salary is $150,000, said EQCA has successfully been rebuilt. The organization is "resolvent," its "reputation is dramatically improved," and "our visibility is dramatically improved across the state, particularly in Sacramento."
However, he said, "We're not done. It will be a multi-year project of re-staffing, re-stabilizing" and other work.
Along with rebuilding relationships, O'Connor's also been collaborating with EQCA's board members and re-engaging with partners such as the Transgender Law Center and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. It has also shifted its base of operations to Los Angeles; when Kors was at the helm EQCA was headquartered in San Francisco.
LGBT leaders praised the changes O'Connor has brought to the organization.
"I've really enjoyed working with John," said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center. "He is clearly committed to equality for all LGBT people in California. He is working incredibly hard, and I've found him to be an exceptional partner thus far."
Before O'Connor, who had previously served as executive director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs, joined EQCA, the organization had laid off several people. The group now has 43 paid staff, most of whom organize street canvassing, phone banks, and fieldwork.
The budget for EQCA's 2014 fiscal year, which begins January 1, is $3.5 million, an increase of $500,000 from the 2013 budget. The figure includes expenses for EQCA and its educational affiliate the Equality California Institute.
According to its recently filed tax documents, contributions and grants to the main EQCA group for 2012 were $1,585,628, up from $1,388,285 in 2011.
"Continuing to articulate the urgency of the work," is the biggest challenge ahead, said O'Connor. Even though California now has marriage equality, more remains to be done, including in areas like health care, cultural competency in nursing homes and other settings, transgender equality, and safe schools.