Mazzoni Center Faces Backlash Over New CEO Hire

Amid transparency concerns over the center’s hiring process, some community members and staffers say new CEO/executive director Lydia Gonzales Sciarrino lacks the right experience to run a LGBTQ-centered organization.

Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino

The Gayborhood nonprofit Mazzoni Center is facing renewed criticism by community members, staffers, and activists as new CEO/executive director Lydia Gonzales Sciarrino met frontline staff for the first time while beginning work this week.

One major concern is that Sciarrino, a straight Latinx woman who moved from Florida to take the position, lacks the experience and local perspective to lead the city’s largest LGBTQ healthcare provider. (Historically, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ nonprofit leaders have typically been members of the community who identify as LGBTQ.) At the same time, some members of Mazzoni’s advisory CEO search committee are speaking out about what they term a lack of transparency throughout the selection process.

Sciarrino was previously the CEO of Whole Family Health Center, a “small HIV/AIDS clinic” that she helped “develop into a profitable and well managed health care organization with the goal of becoming a Federally Qualified Health Center,” according to her online Mazzoni bio. According to her LinkedIn, she has worked for six nonprofits in her career, none of which were LGBTQ-centered.

Sciarrino told told Philadelphia Gay News last week that she feels “honored” to be the first straight person to lead Mazzoni, and that she “look[s] forward to this opportunity to be a greater advocate for the LGBT community.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, 96 people have signed a petition created by the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (BBWC), the intersectional activist group that has been mobilizing staff against Mazzoni’s controversial decision-making for more than a year, to “stop the onboarding” of Sciarrino.

The petition, whose demands were drafted in part by some Mazzoni staff members, criticizes the nonprofit’s board of directors, alleging that it has “continued the legacy of adjacent workplace violence by continuing to make bad bad decisions.” The petition calls for a public community meeting, the resignation of legacy board members who served during the leadership of former executive director Nurit Shein, and “a democratic process for choosing the best fit for permanent CEO without any salaried admin staff being privileged,” among other demands.

“Tone deaf would be the nicest thing to say about this decision,” Vicky Borgia, MD, a former Mazzoni physician, wrote in a comment on the petition. “But the truth is this is an act of violence and deliberate silencing of the very communities Mazzoni is funded to serve. Shame.”

Search Committee Members Raise Transparency Concerns

Philadelphia magazine has spoken with four people who served on the 14-member Mazzoni advisory CEO search committee, all of whom requested anonymity due to having signed a non-disclosure agreement before volunteering. The advisory committee — made up of Mazzoni Center staff, board members, and community members — was charged with, among other duties, discussing “desirable skills and attributes necessary in the next CEO” and “participat[ing] in developing interview questions and candidate grading system.” The advisory group was also to meet with final candidates during second- or third-round interviews to give a tour of the center and “offer feedback.”

Overseeing the advisory committee was a five-member executive CEO search committee, consisting of four Mazzoni board members and only one staff member. The executive committee conducted interviews and selected the final candidates to be considered by Mazzoni’s board of directors.

The four advisory committee members claim that they individually raised concerns with board members about transparency throughout the five-month process, and that the candidate interviews and tours they were supposed to have been a part of never happened. (Mazzoni Center declined to answer specific questions from Philadelphia magazine pertaining to the committee members’ claims.)

One of the members says that their duties on the committee were “scattered,” and that the committee was “only used as a way for the board to appear like they cared about community input.” “When I found out [the board] was going to have the final say, I knew this was all going to be bullshit,” they said. “We were initially told that we would meet the final candidates — that never happened. We never got to meet Lydia.”

“The board isn’t being transparent and honest about how limiting that five-month process was for us,” another member said. “There were concerns raised from the very beginning about how the community would respond if a straight person with no LGBTQ nonprofit experience ran an organization that already had issues with representation. The board was adamant on their personal top picks, and many of us actually preferred a more qualified LGBTQ person of color from the local community that we felt was best suited for the position.”

A third member said there was “too much board input from the jump, and that made the process very tedious. Board members, especially board chairman Christopher Pope, made clear the type of leadership they felt was best for the organization without seriously taking into consideration our thoughts. Many of the longtime board members used their seniority as a way to belittle our advice. It just really felt like they knew what they wanted and just used us as a way to appear more democratic. It was everything but that.”

In a March 29th statement responding to questions from Philadelphia magazine and subsequently published, the Mazzoni board of directors defended their decision to have the final say in hiring Sciarrino: “We greatly appreciated all input from the advisory group of the CEO Search Committee. Their involvement heavily influenced the CEO job description, identified key attributes and skills needed for the role, and developed interview questions—all of which gave us a solid foundation for the candidate selection and interview processes.”

In regards to concerns of a straight person serving as executive director, the board said that they “are disappointed members of the community — our community — chose to judge Lydia without first meeting her, based on their perceptions of her race, gender identity and orientation, and not her qualifications.”

Sciarrino did not respond to requests for comment.