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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Ex-Center On Halsted staffers allege 'toxic' work environment
by Matt Simonette
2015-07-29

This article shared 24405 times since Wed Jul 29, 2015
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Thirty-one former employees of the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., have submitted a letter to the Center's board, asking it to assess the management style of its CEO, Modesto "Tico" Valle. In the letter, those employees allege that Center administration's treatment of staff has led to low morale and a high turnover.

"Quite simply, for all of his talents, Modesto Tico Valle may not be best suited in his current role," states the letter. "During his tenure, he has sown a culture of distrust and suspicion among the staff, often employing threats and intimidation. He has a pattern of recruiting highly qualified staff and then undermining their performance and initiative until they feel demoralized and undervalued. Additionally, he exhibits a pattern of overt hostility with targeted staff members for reasons that seem uneven to the level of hostility."

The letter goes on to state that, "As a result of these actions and others, the Center has seen an attrition rate that at times exceeds a costly 30% annually, even though the industry standard in the current economy is closer to half that."

The letter was delivered to board members and Center officials the week of July 13.

Windy City Times spoke with nine former employees of the Center, three of whom spoke on the record, including Kyle Kaufman, the Center's culinary arts manager from 2011 to 2014, who spearheaded the letter project; the others spoke on condition of anonymity. Center Board President Duane DesParte agreed to be interviewed about the letter, as did Douglas McMorrow, who was briefly the training manager for youth services and volunteers there, and was one of Kaufman's supervisors and mentors. McMorrow refused to sign, and disagreed with its allegations. Valle did not agree to be interviewed.

Kaufman said he was motivated to go forward with the letter because the Center to him felt "like a system of abuse, and it's a culture that promotes people acting like bullies. You work somewhere trying to teach people to stand up to bullies, and you work in an environment where you can't talk to anyone about the way that you work. That's the way I spent my life for four years."

DesParte told Windy City Times that the Center's board would take the letter under advisement, but he said they remain confident in Valle's stewardship.

"We always welcome and value any input from our stakeholders in the community," DesParte explained. "So we appreciated that group sharing with us their concerns. We immediately convened the Executive Committee to review the letter and we then instructed the Center's director of H.R., as well as the leadership team to review the concerns and identify next steps."

He added, "I've been involved with the Center for many years, and I've been on the board for the past six years. I interact with Tico regularly—many on our board interact with Tico regularly, through various committee [projects], various events—and we interact with the staff regularly. That's certainly not our experience. We certainly respect the input, but it's contrary to what we've experienced."

"I was very disappointed in the response," Kaufman said. "I was hoping that the board would be able to talk when you have 31 former staff members saying, 'Hey, there are some major issues that we want to talk to you about and help you with these issues.' Instead, it was, 'Thanks for the input—we'll be in touch if we need anything.' It's not productive."

The former employees whom Windy City Times interviewed hailed from a number of positions and backgrounds at the Center. They left their positions for a variety of reasons, and not all personally experienced unpleasant dealings with Valle. Nearly all, however, alleged that many employees felt at times bullied and micromanaged. They further suggest that that treatment has led to a high employee-turnover rate that diminishes both the Center's institutional memory as well as its impact on the community.

"It was challenging to get something done," said one anonymous former employee. "The staff often can't return phone calls without Tico's okay. He often makes the wrong decision, or no decision, and it adversely affects the Center in the community. The employees are afraid to jump."

The high turnover weighs heavily on employees. One employee said that staffers kept a group photo of Center staff on hand, and would regularly mark off employees who would be let go or quit.

"While I was there, I saw a good handful of people escorted out of the building," said Kaufman, who added that he was one of those employees. He was escorted out of the building a few days after turning in his notice of resignation, he said.

"Morale is always low," explained Kaufman. "Tico doesn't allow for any creativity or ideas. His way was, 'my way or the highway.'"

A central contention among the employees is a heavy-handed management style based not on established codes of conduct or the Center's mission, but Valle's whims instead. Nearly all the employees reported great excitement going to work for the Center, only to have that excitement diminish after having a run-in with management, or witnessing another employee's run-in.

"I was really eager to work at the Center after the 'Take Back Boystown' onslaught stormed Boystown, and I really felt that I could be a positive force for LGBTQ youth," said Precious Davis, who was youth outreach coordinator at the Center from 2011 to 2014. "In the beginning, it was exciting. I was really eager. … But then I really started seeing systematic things that were problematic."

But when Davis was working there, she began her gender transition. "That's when I first started to see a side of the Center that I didn't like. When I transitioned, I asked to change my name in the email system, as well as my business cards. I kept being told 'no,' that I legally would have to change my name and gender before they would change in the email system. It took months for that to happen. I had already changed my dress, and everything that identified me as female, and when somebody wanted to get in touch with me by email, they had to use that other name, that I didn't even go by anymore."

Davis said that she had to explain to a Center senior management official the difference between a drag queen and a transgender person. At another point, after beginning her transition, she was introduced to an official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using her original name.

"It was really frustrating," she added. "I didn't feel supported and validated."

Lynnea Karlic, who was youth vocational manager, then director of community and cultural programs, from 2011 to 2015, also noted an arbitrary approach to many management decisions and alleged that Valle's approach seeped down to other members of senior management.

"People take on the same leadership mentality," said Karlic, who noted that bullying became pervasive amongst many staff members. "People who don't know how to lead are taught [to perpetuate] a kind of micromanagement, a non-affirming environment. It's very toxic. I knew so many people who had their premier time at the Center, and [senior management] were oppressive, critiquing all the time. Constantly."

Karlic left of her own volition, frustrated by low pay and lack of opportunity for growth. She said her "turning point" came when Valle said that one of the Center's partners—"a major civic organization," she said—was unhappy with an event they'd co-sponsored. But she said the organization was unhappy with Valle's disengagement, not the event itself.

"It was a huge event, and the other organization shared funders and donors. This event had 150 people at it. This other organization put a lot of effort into cultivating the audience for this event."

The other organization, according to Karlic, repeatedly asked about Valle's participation, and he told her that he would not attend.

Following the event, Valle said that the other organization was "unhappy with the results."

"My staff person called the collaborator at the agency, and [Valle's remark] was a lie," Karlic said. "The executive director called Tico and said, 'I never said this. The next time you want to talk about a program, attend.'"

Karlic also had difficulty accessing resources or support. "Emails would be ignored. A lot of times, I was constantly asked questions that were not relevant to the issue that I was bringing up. I would run a program for speed dating, and get a random email: 'Who approved eggnog?'"

She added, "People will often talk about 'Tico's bad mood.' It's pervasive. People engage with body gestures and yelling. … It's totally fine to yell at someone, and then when conflict comes [to them] they don't deal with conflict."

"When Tico gets mad, he just stops talking to them and hopes they'll quit," Kaufman said.

For Karlic and others, the turnover was not just disheartening but disruptive to staff, who'd have increased responsibilities with little increased compensation. Davis said that she had to absorb the various responsibilities of six people who left the Center over the course of her time there, and that she only received one pay increase.

DesParte was not sure of the Center's turnover rate and could not comment on the letter-writers' suggestion that it was about 30-percent.

"We've had a solid corps of long-term employees," DesParte explained. "They leave the organization; what happens is we receive grants for new programs and fellowships. That allows us to bring in new hires and other qualified leaders. All of those folks know that when funding runs out, we will likely not be able to keep them on as our employees. … We have not seen what we would consider to be a concerning level of attrition."

But Karlic said, "It's their way of actually not [officially] firing people. I've seen roles cease to exist without an explanation. One day, people disappear and we're informed it's a funding issue, and then these roles often come back in a year or two, with a new person applying for them, and we have to re-create all the work."

"I think people were exhausted," added Davis. "They were resilient, and brilliant and talented. [But] I think people felt abused, unheard. It was hard walking in that building, knowing that your work is not recognized. … It's a community center, so it needs to operate with that sense of community. I don't think people who work at the Center feel that sense of community."

"I've never heard of someone leaving the Center and saying, 'That's a great organization.' There's always a war story," said Karlic.

But not for McMorrow, who worked at the Center as a vocational program manager from October, 2010, to January, 2011. He said he was asked to sign on to the letter and refused, thinking the effort misguided and unnecessary. He worked at the Center for only a few months, but said that he only left when family circumstances required that he find a higher-paying position.

"As a workplace, I can say it was a very professional environment," he said. "I was so proud to be a part of the Center. There was so much talent there. The people who worked there were very smart and dedicated people. I think everybody wanted to do the best that they possibly could. The management was usually right on; from my personal experience, they gave me the vision of how they wanted to build the Silver Fork Culinary Program and they let me go at it."

McMorrow said that he disagreed with the notion of Valle as a micromanager. "I never saw it. I never experienced it. I didn't directly report to him. I never had a conflict with Tico. I never observed any conflict. I never overheard any conflict. ...I saw him there at seven in the morning and I saw him there at midnight. We were all there doing what we could do to get things done, and he was just as committed as everybody else to getting the job done."

DesParte added, "I should say that I, as well the board, have full confidence in and fully support Tico and the leadership of the Center. That was reaffirmed after we reviewed the concerns. We continue to believe in Tico, and that under his leadership these past several years since the Center opened, we have achieved tremendous things. … I hope that this does not become a distraction from the good work that the Center does. This is something that we need to review, and we are reviewing it, and we'll take as appropriate action where needed, if needed. The main focus needs to be advancing our community and working everyday for the health and well-being of the LGBTQ community of Chicago. That's what we've done well under Tico's leadership, and we just need to keep focused on that—that is what our stakeholders expect and deserve."

Karlic explained she was motivated to speak about the Center not out of malice towards Valle or anyone there—"I don't want to see anyone fired," she said—but a desire to see it live up to its potential, and, she said, to give voice to both current and former employees who are afraid to speak out. She hopes the Center will put into place a clear grievance system for its staff as well as clear criteria for the hiring and retention of employees. Furthermore, she'd like to see a compensation structure commensurate with employees' job descriptions, experience and work loads.

"You have a bunch of people who want to give," she added. "It's pretty sad. They are altruistic. They walk in there. They have hopes and dreams. More than any other organization I have ever worked for, they are used for that. They get spun."

Below is a copy of the letter submitted to the board of directors of Center On Halsted, signed by 31 former employees of the center.

Dear Center on Halsted Board of Directors,

As active and proud members of the LGBTQ community, we have a vested interest in the success and growth of Center on Halsted. Our goal is to have a vibrant, dynamic and effective community center that serves as a Chicago landmark, service organization and a motivator for greater activism and affinity within our community.

These are among the reasons we joined the staff of Center on Halsted. Unfortunately, many of us were disappointed that the Center did not often live up to these goals. It is this reason we are writing you. We do not believe the Center is realizing its full potential. Specifically, we are concerned by the day-to-day management under CEO Modesto Tico Valle and his ability to effectively lead the organization.

Quite simply, for all of his talents it is our opinion that Modesto Tico Valle may not be best suited in his current role. During his tenure, many of us felt that he has sown a culture of distrust and suspicion among the staff. Some of his actions have been perceived by us as threats and intimidation. Although the CEO has a pattern of recruiting highly qualified staff it is our opinion that he often undermines their performance and initiative until they feel demoralized and undervalued. Additionally, some of us have felt that the CEO exhibits a pattern of overt hostility with targeted staff members for reasons that seem uneven to the level of hostility. Finally, it is also our opinion that as a result of these actions and others, the Center has seen an attrition rate that at times exceeds a costly 30% annually, even though the industry standard in the current economy is closer to half that. ( blog.execsearches.com/2010/05/05/paying-attention-to-turnover-in-the-nonprofit-sector/ ).

We feel this pattern is troubling. In fact, the challenges we faced ( examples of which are mentioned above ) are among the reasons many of us left the Center. What is also of concern is the seeming lack of oversight by the board. None of us can recall an evaluation process or staff survey, either formal or informal, on the part of the Board inquiring about staff culture or the ability of management. Similarly, none of us were contacted by members of the Board after we left the Center inquiring about our time at the Center or our reasons for leaving. We don't know whether this shows a lack of concern from the board or if this is because the information flow to the board was stunted. We are willing to express more of our concerns, as well as more details of our individual experiences, in a personal meeting with the board if the board has an interest in listening to the opinions of its former employees.

We are writing this letter to inform the Board of the ongoing challenges with Center management. We hope the Board can be better informed and moved to action. As such, we call on the board to conduct a full and robust management evaluation, including staff surveys and feedback. We also suggest to the board that human resources functions, too often controlled by the CEO, be left to a qualified HR professional. Understanding that a significant portion of staff have been at the Center for less than a year, we call on the board to reach out to past staff members as part of this process, including the undersigned.

For all of these reasons we believe that the board should also ask for yearly statistics on staff turnover and a general report, by an independent source, on the climate and culture of the organization. Once the management evaluation process has been completed, we call on the board to take actions they deem appropriate to address Center morale and attrition. We ask the board to recognize the very serious and ongoing challenges at the Center in effectively managing and leading the organization so that these issues can be resolved and the Center can fully realize its mission.

As members of the board, you are entrusted with this most valuable of community assets. We all believe strongly in the mission and value of the Center, which is why we first joined the staff. We hope that you will take this letter seriously and look into this issue for the sake of the LGBTQ community. We would like the opportunity to meet with the board to further discuss this letter and address any questions the board might have about our individual and overall experiences working at COH. Please let us know within the next few weeks of some dates and times that would work for the board.

Thank you,

Sincerely,

Brian Minka

Community Technology Center Director

March 2007-October 2012

Christina Waller

Career Training Specialist, Youth Program Staff Member and Volunteer Coordinator

January-October 2010

Claudia Mosier,Psy.D.

Director of Youth Programs/Director of Mental Health/ Consulting Psychologist

2012-2014

Danny Kopelson

Director of Communications and Public Affairs

2008-2010

Frank McAlpin

Youth Program Coordinator

July 2011-December 2011

Jacob Kosior

Director of Special Events & Volunteers

August 2010-May 2012

Jesi Miller

Youth vocational program manager

September 2008-October 2010

Joe Brown

Youth Case Manager/ Anti Violence Crisis Line Volunteer 2006-2009

July 2008-December 2008

Anti Violence Crisis Line Volunteer 2006-2009

Jordan Ewbank

Operations Staff

January-August 2013

June LaTrobe

Volunteer Director of Transgender Programs

2007-2012

Kevin Strowder

Youth Program Public Ally 2011-2012

Youth Prevention Project Coordinator 2012-3013

Kyle Kaufman

Culinary Arts Program Manager

September 2010-July 2014

Lex Lawson

Youth Advocacy Manager

September 2011-January 2013

Lynnea Karlic

Community and Cultural Director of Programs

2011-2015

Maura Ross

Community & Cultural Program Manager

July 2011-March 2013

Michael Chikko

Receptionist

October 2010-May 2015

Patrick Gerlick

Bilingual Health Educator Clinician

October 2011-December 2013

Precious Davis

Youth Outreach Coordinator

Aug 2011-Oct 2014

Richard Cordova

Health Educator

October 2008-October 2010

Robert Mitchell

Ovah Program Outreach Coordinator

February 2012-June 2014

Ron Wittman

Director of Corporate Partnerships

September 2011—June 2012

Russell Love

Youth Leadership Development Specialist ( Public Ally )

January-October 2011

Ryan Viloria

Receptionist

May 2007-Feb 2011

Sandra Mukasa

Health Educator

April 2013-July 2014

Sarah Sumadi

Director of Volunteers, 2009-2010

Director of Communications and Volunteers, 2010-2011

Tom Elliott

Director of Public Relations

January 2013—January 2014

Veronica Lozano

Health Educator

June 2011-August 2014

Victoria Stein

Director of Grants Administration

December 2011-June 2014

William Campbell,

Project Manager

2011-2012

William Farrand LCPC

Director of Community Behavioral Health Services

November 2013-April 2015

Zach Zimmerman

Public Programs

November 2010-February 2012


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