[ A more detailed report on this topic appears in the Aug. 4 Windy City Times, available at the link below. It includes extensive response from LCCP supporters and past board members. ]
The Lesbian Community Cancer Project and Howard Brown Health Center held a joint press conference Aug. 2 to announce what the organizations call a 'collaborative relationship' to better serve the healthcare needs of the lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.
In front of an audience that included donors and local politicians, Executive Director Jessica Halem began by introducing the LCCP board members and staff in attendance and then read a prepared statement. She recalled how in April 2003, LCCP was facing closure and asked its supporters for additional funding. Already at the time, Halem said, the objective was not only to keep the organization alive but to build a solid foundation for the future.
To this end, various avenues were explored, including sharing space and merging with other existing entities. But it eventually became clear to the LCCP board that the best way to ensure sustainability would be to secure the help of 'a partner with similar goals and mission.' Howard Brown was a top candidate because of its position as the main provider of health services to the Chicago GLBT community.
Under the new arrangement, LCCP will benefit from Howard Brown's elaborate and reliable infrastructure while saving money on overhead. The stated intention is to try to establish joint programs and write joint grant proposals where before the two groups would have been competing for a similar piece of the pie. There will remain respective areas of expertise where each is uniquely equipped to cater to certain target populations, but it is anticipated that Howard Brown's more extensive resources will provide LCCP with an unprecedented level of support.
Moreover, those who prefer to direct their contributions to women's causes should be pleased with the fact that LCCP will retain its own name and status as an autonomous 501 ( c ) 3 organization. Events like the Coming Out Against Cancer Ball will continue.
Halem spoke of the dreams that the LCCP founders shared 13 years ago when putting together a formula where lesbians could have access to a team of doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, educators, and advocates. As a testimony to the efforts of all involved over the years and in the interest of preserving a recognizable presence, the LCCP will soon have its name on the front of the Sheridan Road building along with HBHC's.
Keith Waterbrook, executive director of HBHC, then took the podium to explain why the collaboration made sense to the larger of the two organizations. He mentioned that it had been a group decision to formalize ties and stressed the prevailing atmosphere of cooperation among the staff and board.
Waterbrook reported that the initiative had been approved by both boards and specified that the official letters of intent call for an initial five-year cohabitation period. He said he was looking forward to welcoming the LCCP when they move in Sept. 1. 'It's a small step, but symbolically, it's a huge step,' he declared.
Once everyone is settled in, a steering committee made up of members from both groups will look at the newly created opportunities in terms of service improvements. It is not yet clear when this committee will be expected to report back to the boards but at this point all parties are stating their enthusiasm and willingness to work together at the planning level and on the ground. Ultimately, it is whether the changes that are implemented make health services available to more members of the GLBT community that will determine success. Prevention efforts and quality of care issues will be other important yardsticks by which to measure progress.
While according to the agreement each organization retains the right to opt out should irreconcilable differences arise, it would be easier for Howard Brown to cut services than it would be for LCCP to find a replacement partner. But Halem was very clear on why she believes collaboration has become inevitable for the LCCP, saying, 'As you can imagine dollars to serve lesbians do not flow like a river.'
The enthusiasm at the press conference was echoed by some in the community, while others see the 'collaboration' as potentially troublesome given HBHC's history of alleged sexism and racism. Many also believe this is the first step to a full merger, and fear that LCCP's unique voice will be swallowed up by the much larger HBHC.
Jackie Anderson, who served on LCCP's board for six years, four of them as president, was among the first wave of agency leaders.
'LCCP has come through probably the most critical year in its history, where the very existence of the agency was in jeopardy,' Anderson said. 'The board and staff did an incredible job of pulling through. If this is what that board thinks it needs to do for LCCP to continue to work on women's health, that's what they need to do.'
Anderson, like many of those contacted by WCT, pointed to HBHC's controversial past in terms of tensions with both women and people of color. 'I am confident this board will take care of the agency, they are strong, committed, sharp. ... I want to see LCCP survive, the mission of it, to continue to be made real.'
After the press conference, Jessica Halem, Keith Waterbrook and HBHC's Dr. Leigh Roberts sat down with WCT to discuss more in-depth the issues surrounding what the three call a 'dance' or 'dating,' and not a merger.
Waterbrook said HBHC has 22 board members, with one-third being people of color, and three are women. Only a few attended the press conference Monday. All but one of LCCP's six board members were at the Monday event; there is one male on LCCP's board.
WCT: How will you counter the perception that this is really just a merger? Some people seem to be alarmed about this potentially happening so quickly.
JH: I have not heard as much alarm around this. I think what people are most concerned about in the near future is what what they know and look for from LCCP remaining the same. When people hear events are going to be held, our stamp will be on things, our voice is not going to change, it starts to make sense. My sense is people have gotten more sophisticated about the conversation around the Center on Halsted. People start to get the idea of infrastructure sharing, potential collaboration, but remaining autonomous. The proof will be in the pudding. When people see we do separate things ... LCCP has never provided services. We always helped women get in the door of another standing health clinic. We are not set up that way. ... It was always outreach and education about why women should go to this place, and giving our stamp of approval.
WCT: A referral?
JH: No, not referrals ... LCCP educating about why women should seek services. Our aim is to educate.
LR: We can do that better together. Jessica and I together speak to healthcare questions ... together it's a very complete picture.
JH: Because LCCP is not made of doctors, we understand the place consumers are coming from. The questions, the fears.
KW: The issue of referrals never came up. What really came up was joint programs.
WCT: What about the competition for grants?
KW: We do it together.
JH: LCCP doesn't have to spend the staff time managing the grant. The research staff is here, we don't have to outsource. We can do what we do best, the education and facilitating the groups.
KW: It would defeat the purpose if we're competing for grants.
LR: Each organization will continue to apply for things they can only apply for, like HIV research grants. But it does mean that opportunities that might not have been open to either singularly, are open as a joint effort. It's really to augment. Grants are very clear who can apply, who is eligible. It's not a free-for-all.
WCT: So is the women's program going away? That served a similar role as LCCP.
KW: The women's program really is our medical, primary care services, mental health, case management. A third of our patients are women, those are our women's services.
JH: The [ HBHC ] women's program was mostly a marketing and outreach piece.
KW: It really was.
LR: It was not about direct services. We've been doing these things for years.
JH: So those services never changed. So let's look at it for a smoking grant. There are different staff needs for grants, it allows for very specific delineation of jobs. We used to have to outsource, but now it means many departments can be engaged.
WCT: The largest concern of this seems to be from the history of HBHC, particularly on issues of people of color. Going back to the AIDS Walk, Harambe Center, Stop AIDS. You can say you all get along, but what happens when one of you is gone, and new people come in.
KW: The issue is combining the cultures. That does not mean just Jessica and I get along, it means staff and board. I can speak to the Harambe thing, we got kicked out. It had nothing to do with unilateral actions on Howard Brown's part. It's not just two people. In actuality, in the discussions, the strongest supporters were the board members. The chairs of both boards.
JH: What HBHC needed all along in terms of heightening and deepening the work that's already going on around here is they needed a collaboration with LCCP. I think both parties always knew that was what was important. ... We've had a lot of different staff in and out over 13 years, and I am very proud to say that voice and mission has not changed in 13 years. I truly don't believe that the idea of three people inside this institution can disappear inside this organization.
WCT: You, Jessica and Keith, were in the room during those heated Taste for Every Palate discussions. Two or three years later, people have not forgotten those allegations of racism and insensitivity leveled at Howard Brown. Do you feel lessons were learned, or culture changed?
JH: I cannot imagine doing this with somebody who we had not gone that deeply with. I think the incredible depth of those conversations started and continue within this agency, that's the kind of partner we want to partner with. Someone who is actively engaged with a problem, issues in the community at large. Of all the partners we could have partnered with, I wanted to be with somebody we had all the skeletons on the table. We knew exactly what we were getting into. ... In no way do we think that the work is not still in front of us. I don't know what else to do except go towards it. I was deeply involved in that. I am here to say that people and processes and institutions have to change. The community deserves better.
KW: That was just a moment in time. I think everybody learned some lessons. We came away with a respect, especially for LCCP, and that over time, our getting to know the people at LCCP, has made a huge difference. You have to get past stuff. It's like any relationship, if all you do is focus on what is negative ... the relationship will never go anywhere. This is a relationship where all parties have everything in the open.
JH: I don't know any other reason to call someone on something you want to change other than you want them to succeed. I don't think anyone has written off either agency. I inherited just as many issues with LCCP. The hope is that people engaging with us, that people keep coming back for services, and that people keep hoping LCCP can do better and more.
WCT: You have said 'dancing,' others have said 'dating,' but the assumption is this is on a track for eventual merger or marriage. If all goes well over the five-year plan, or if you accelerate that plan, will it be a marriage?
LR: Maybe, but it will be a marriage of two independent beings, which is to say, maybe we'll be married. ... Who knows. It's so far down the line, it's almost not relevant. The most important thing is to get together and still do good work.
JHL: It really depends on what the work is. The proof will be in the pudding. I hope everybody will give us some time to do some exciting things. ... I think this day is an exciting day for everyone in the community who wants to move forward together. ... Some would like to see us work together more.