Castro cultural district sees board resignations

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday December 7, 2022
Share this Post:
Carnell Freeman, left, has resigned from the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board and raised questions about cultural district manager Tina Aguirre. Photos: Freeman, courtesy Castro LGBTQ Cultural District; Aguirre, Fabian Echevarria
Carnell Freeman, left, has resigned from the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board and raised questions about cultural district manager Tina Aguirre. Photos: Freeman, courtesy Castro LGBTQ Cultural District; Aguirre, Fabian Echevarria

The recent departure of a member from the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board is only the latest in what has been a slew of resignations since August.

Carnell Freeman, who joined the cultural district board in 2020, resigned after alleging "unequal treatment" by his fellow board members.

"It has been challenging for me to remain on this board as a Black gay man with the constant feeling of being treated with [a] different standard than others on this board," he wrote in an email to the board around November 18, further alleging "a pattern of abuse and disrespect..." Freeman resigned November 28.

Freeman is not the only person to have quit, however. Since August 18, three other members have resigned from the board, beginning with Sabatini Fusco (who, while on the board, was known as Corey Fusco), Christopher Vasquez, and Mahsa Hakimi.

Neither Fusco nor Vasquez responded to requests for comment by press time.

Cultural district manager Tina Aguirre, a genderqueer Latinx person, told the Bay Area Reporter that much of the conflict with Freeman stemmed from an incident that took place on November 13. As lead of MOCAA, a social group "celebrating the QTPOC experience," according to its Facebook page, Freeman had held an event at Mission Dolores Park that day. However, wrote Aguirre in an email to the B.A.R., Freeman had used his cultural district email in communications about the event.

"I advised him to consult with [American Indian Cultural District] leadership on if they had any requests, questions, or comments regarding the event," Aguirre stated. "This is because the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District as a sibling cultural district acknowledges that American Indians have a long history of being erased and not acknowledged. Carnell failed to reach out to AICD as I requested so on Nov 4 I sent an email to the [executive director] of AICD, Sharaya Souza and copied her staff person, Paloma Flores."

Dolores Park sits within the boundaries of the AICD.

Flores responded, stating, "Given it is a BIPOC during Native American Heritage Month (NAHM) I hope there will be some good sharing from our allies on the history of the area and acknowledge American Indian peoples."

Aguirre said they advised Freeman "that he should provide a land acknowledgement at the event and share a little about the significance of the site."

At a later virtual meeting of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board, Freeman reported on the event, calling it "well attended" but, said Aguirre, when he was asked whether he provided a land acknowledgement, he declined to discuss it. Aguirre suggested they discuss the matter offline.

"So I let him know that we could discuss this offline though if the answer to my question was that he did not do what AICD requested, that I would be very disappointed because of the importance of our relationship with other cultural districts," said Aguirre. "He, again, declined to answer my question."

After that meeting, Freeman sent an email to the cultural district's advisory board, which "deflected away from answering my questions, instead focusing on completely outrageous accusations about anti-Blackness," Aguirre stated.

Freeman disputes that, however, and told the B.A.R. that the incident over the land acknowledgment was merely "the last straw. I've been blindsided and disrespected by Tina on multiple occasions."

Aguirre, he said, waited until the meeting to bring up the matter of the land acknowledgment, even after texting him before to inquire about how the event had gone. She didn't bring the matter up then but, instead, forced him into an awkward position, Freeman alleged.

Freeman told the B.A.R. he had planned to recite the acknowledgement but, after thinking about it, decided against doing so. He did not explain why to the B.A.R.

"I was uncomfortable with the responsibility of reading something that I did not feel was my lived experience," he said. "The way I looked at it was if I were to ask a white person to do a reading about something that was specific to Black people."

Difficult relations on board

Despite the controversy surrounding the event at Dolores Park, however, emails from various members of the Castro cultural district board suggest there's been an ongoing pattern of difficult relations among them. A resignation letter from Fusco, the first person to leave, suggested a hostile work environment, although they do not identify any one person as being behind that.

Citing "the continuation of their tactics of Trans erasure," Fusco stated in an email dated August 18 that they "saw first hand that the well was already poisoned by a few members who have continually shown TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist], Transphobic, and classist behaviour (sic)."

Fusco said the ongoing conflicts had led to a "degradation" of their mental health. They declined to comment by press time.

The same day, Vasquez, who works as director of communications for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, tendered his resignation, citing conflict among the board members.

"The egos — or rather the hubris — of certain members of the board made [redacted] intra-board [redacted] relations unworkable at best and oftentimes toxic at worst," Vasquez wrote in his resignation email. "That these board members have been able to curtail the important work of an entire District is just sad at its core."

The next month, on September 22, board member Jasmine Johnson let the board know that she would not be running for reelection.

"I will most definitely not be running for another term and will most definitely not be recommending anyone I know to run for a position either," Johnson wrote in an email to Aguirre, and Co-Executive Chair Stephen Torres. "As evident by the now 3 resignations in as many weeks, the board is a toxic environment due to the bullying of members and staff by two board members and I have absolutely no desire to keep myself in it or subject anyone I know to it."

A Freedom of Information Act request for emails detailing the resignations only revealed two up to that point. Other board members, in addition to Johnson, had declared their intent not to run for reelection, however.

Johnson was not able to be reached for comment.

On September 27, the board received another resignation, this time from Hakimi who, in addition to being one of the original board members and — being an attorney — helping to draft the district's bylaws, served as treasurer.

Hakimi, a lesbian, told the B.A.R. in a telephone interview that the issues surrounding the board now date back much earlier, and are rooted in the board's refusal to address issues of equity and representation. Notably, she pointed out, the board has become increasingly dominated by men who socialize together and who refused to take seriously her, and other board members', concerns about the lack of diversity and transparency on the board.

In a letter to the board dated May 9, Hakimi laid out her issues with the then-co-executive chairs, Torres and Fusco, and outlined a number of serious allegations.

"It should not come as a surprise to any of you that the co-chairs and I have not been seeing eye to eye about the direction of the leadership and lack of transparency in their decision making in [the] last few months," Hakimi wrote. "I have been a vocal adversary on our executive team, rejecting the behind closed door decision making that has not followed any of our past protocols, processes and good faith practices under the convenient guise that this organization lacks good written policies."

She goes on to accuse Torres and Fusco of "bending the rules and making skewed interpretations of our policies and practices to accommodate their personal objectives," and, because of her own efforts, she has "been scolded, vilified, manhandled, harassed, insulted, blocked and my professional integrity questioned..."

Freeman, who was the most recent to resign, makes similar accusations in his resignation letter.

"I can no longer stay on this board as long as the current leadership remains," Freeman wrote. "I also believe significant challenges will continue on this board until people speak up and send a clear message to leadership and staff that bullying, attempts at intimidation, and disrespect will not be allowed within this organization."

Hakimi said, too, that requests she made to the board to do "the hard work to move us forward" with three actions have also been unmet. First was a request to investigate an incident in April between Hakimi and Aguirre, followed by a request for a diversity, equity, and inclusion training session. Finally, Hakimi requested immediate "approval of funds for Governance Committee to hire consultants under supervision of Governance co-chairs to complete our internal protocols and process including a grievance policy and written partnership protocol with the district fiscal sponsor, including an HR policy for staff that are in line with the fiscal sponsors guidelines — to be completed within 90 days."

None of these requests were answered, she said.

April 6 incident

One of the dates that pop up with some frequency in the various emails is April 6. A couple of emails from Hakimi refer to "the incident" on April 6 as being significant in the continued degradation of relations among board members.

While Aguirre and Torres declined to discuss the matter with the B.A.R., saying they regard it as a personnel issue and, therefore, it falls under employee confidentiality, Hakimi had no such hesitation.

Torres and Aguirre wanted to release $90,000 to a list of organizations without what Hakimi felt was proper authorization from anyone on the board. More notably, they wanted to release it without Hakimi's approval as treasurer. As it turned out, those funds were part of the ones that the cultural district didn't actually have due to an error by its fiscal sponsor the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Neither the money nor the recipients were approved by the district's Diversity and Inclusion Committee or the board "and it was rushed without any oversight," Hakimi told the B.A.R.

"We didn't have an objection to the list, necessarily," she said, "but the approval process, which was my ongoing concern with the leadership by that point. The director overrode our concerns and moved to approve the payments with support of the co-chairs [Torres and Fusco]."

"The checks," Hakimi said, "were signed off without my review or signature."

That August, it was discovered the district had overspent its budget. Aguirre and the co-chairs "told us that this money paid out was a main cause of the financial crisis for the organization," said Hakimi.

In an April 6 Zoom call with Hakimi, Aguirre, and another district staff member, the matter came up. The district employee was asked to leave and then Aguirre scolded Hakimi, saying she was making their job difficult and "that I had too much power," Hakimi told the B.A.R.

Aguirre told the B.A.R. they feel that "Ultimately, this comes down to misunderstanding of roles and responsibilities, and attempts to subvert well defined roles and responsibilities."

Aguirre said they worked closely with their human resources representative who, because the cultural district is sponsored financially by the LGBT center, is an employee of the center. Everything was carefully documented, she said.

Hakimi said her requested investigation of the incident never came to fruition.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.