Timeline: Months of activism led to Mazzoni Center leadership ouster

How discussions, protests and a medicine strike brought on three resignations.

Shani Akilah and Abdul-Aliy Muhammad of the Black and Brown Workers Collective.

Shani Akilah and Abdul-Aliy Muhammad of the Black and Brown Workers Collective.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad knew that “all the necessary ingredients” were there. Long before controversy at the Mazzoni Center boiled over into employee walkouts and the resignation of the Medical Director Robert Winn, CEO Nurit Shein and Board President Jimmy Ruiz, Muhammad believed that enough impropriety had occurred to successfully challenge the center’s leadership— from there, they had to “organize to make this happen.”

This was not a distant issue for Muhammad. The activist, whose pronouns are they/them, is a member of the Black and Brown Workers Collective. The group became a regular presence in the media for challenging racism in the Gayborhood last year. Protesting prejudice in the LGBTQ-focused nonprofit sector is another layer to their efforts, but it’s also a personal one.

BBWC founder Shani Akilah is a former employee of Philadelphia FIGHT, the local AIDS nonprofit. Muhammad is a former Mazzoni staffer. If you ask Muhammad about how they knew of racial tension at the center, they will tell you they’ve seen it and experienced it first-hand.

The resignations at Mazzoni can be viewed as a second grand win for the collective. Their demonstrations against racism in the Gayborhood last year sparked conversations that led to a Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations hearing. The collective also demanded the resignation of Office of LGBT Affair chief Nellie Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick was ousted this past February. This past January, the PCHR released its report on the matter, detailing a pattern of prejudice experienced by people of color in neighborhood establishments. PCHR named Mazzoni and FIGHT specifically, recommending that “board members, directors, management and staff” at the nonprofits undergo implicit bias training.

The recent protests toward Mazzoni’s leadership have come after claims that Winn committed sexual misconduct with patients and employees, but also after complaints that senior management had showed bias to its staffers of color. None of these grievances are new. And frankly, it’s not unusual for employees of color to explain that differential treatment exists in their workplaces. A key task that the collective has balanced over the last year is provoking discussions around complaints that activists have long argued, while emboldening their arguments with new evidence as it surfaces. As Muhammad puts its, they use the receipts.

For example, African-Americans who visited iCandy had complained that an informal dress code forbade Timberlands. In the specific mention of Timbs, the BBWC sensed a racially coded message. “We knew that there were patterns of discrimination for who gets in,” Muhammad explained. The collective symbolically left a pair of Timberland boots at the establishment’s door. Muhammad sees a link from that protest, to the video that leaked of iCandy’s owner using the n-word which leaked shortly after. “The receipt came out to prove that the intent was there for that dress policy,” they said.

In this Mazzoni controversy, Muhammad moved based on their own experiences, then used the PCHR report as a reference point. Here’s a timeline of how the shakeup rolled out.

Jan. 23, 2017

The PCHR released its report, Inform Monitor Enforce: Addressing Racism in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ Community.

After the report’s release, Shein reacted to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Mazzoni is the biggest specific LGBT employer in the city, so the bigger you are the bigger target you are,” Shein told the paper. “That’s not to say that everything is 100 percent OK. Clearly there are things and we’re willing to talk and work on them.”

The paper also described Shein’s thoughts on prejudice within the organization as “more anecdotal than systematic.”

Such commentary did not sit well with Muhammad. “It was clear that Nurit was committed to denying the Mazzoni Center’s participation in white supremacist frameworks, and we needed to escalate our organizing,” they told Billy Penn. “For her response to be, ‘Well, this is anecdotal,’ that just showed that she was tone deaf and blind to the actions that she needed to take.”

Jan. 25, 2017

Two days after the report’s publication and Inquirer’s article ran, as reported in Philly Mag, the Black and Brown Workers Collective launched a Change.org petition calling for Shein’s resignation. Ruiz gave a statement to Philly Mag in response, which quoted Shein. “As a matter of policy, Mazzoni Center does not respond to allegations made against staff on social media,” the then-CEO said in the statement.

Feb. 10, 2017

“Nurit Shein, Resign!” was the protest chant two-and-half weeks later when the collective confronted her in person at Mazzoni’s Justice in Action, a legal services event that the center hosts annually. The collective Facebook Lived the protest. Muhammad read aloud a list of grievances, among them that Shein had allowed bias against people of color during investigations and that Winn that committed “multiple reported incidents of sexual violence.” When Muhammad brought up the allegations of Winn’s misconduct, Shein raised her hand and began to move away from the demonstrators. They just moved closer. Muhammad kept on reading.

Mar. 21, 2017

District Attorney Seth Williams was indicted on corruption charges. Per the indictment, Williams allegedly accepted gifts from Michael Weiss, the owner of multiple Gayborhood venues, including Woody’s and Voyeur. Weiss allegedly paid for flights and a used Jaguar convertible for Williams. Since Weiss was Mazzoni’s board secretary at the time, this presented another controversy surrounding the center’s leadership.

Mar. 23, 2017

Philly Mag’s Ernest Owens penned an op-ed demanding that Weiss leave his position at Mazzoni. “In an era of unprecedented political vulnerability for the local and national LGBTQ community, we cannot afford the distraction of and possible additional fallout from the case of an influential community stakeholder allegedly taking advantage of his wealth and privilege to bribe a powerful city official,” Owens wrote.

Late Mar. 2017

Weiss resigned from Mazzoni’s board. Ruiz detailed to Philly Mag that two other board members had also resigned, for other reasons.

Early Apr. 2017

Winn was placed on paid medical leave.

Apr. 11, 2017

Mazzoni employees staged a walkout soon after, as outrage over Winn’s alleged sexual misconduct intensified. “Robert Winn Did It!! Nurit Knew!! #Walkout,” read one protest sign.

(Mazzoni reps have been somewhat reticent to press regarding these allegations, citing privacy and legal concerns. The center has confirmed that Winn is under investigation.)

Apr. 13, 2017

Before this day, most of the allegations against Winn, aside from BBWC’s claims, had been reported to the press through anonymous sources, but on that day, Philadelphia Weekly quoted a former Mazzoni board member Mark Coyne who wrote, “I have an obligation to respond as I indeed did have knowledge of the alleged misconduct when it first surfaced approximately 4-5 years ago.”

Winn resigned.

Apr. 20, 2017

Last week, a larger employee walkout took place. Philadelphia Weekly reported that “more than 60 staff members signed a Statement of No Confidence calling for the resignations of Shein and Ruiz for failure to investigate.”

April 21, 2017

Muhammad, in support of their efforts, stopped taking their antiretrovirals in protest, vowing that their meds strike would end would Shein stepped down.

“I think that pressure is on for her to resign and I want to make sure that this happens,” they told Mic at the time. “That’s why I’m committing myself to not taking my meds until this happens.”

Apr. 24, 2017

Shein and Ruiz resigned Monday. Muhammad ended their strike and began taking their meds again.


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