A failed search for a new executive director and tension between board, staff and community has led to unprecedented turnover among management at the Lussier Community Education Center — five of six managers resigned in the period of about a month — but leaders pledge that services will continue and trust will be restored.
Former managers told Madison365 that board members exhibited racial microaggressions and botched the search to replace longtime executive director Paul Terranova, instead installing a long-term director who was not vetted through the search process; however, the board chair says the process to find a permanent director will resume.
A tumultuous search process
After Terranova announced his resignation in September, the process got off to a slow start, members of the search committee told Madison365. The board hired search consultant Peter Gray, who is white, to coordinate the process. Board president Lorri Wendorf-Corrigan said she and the staff agreed to a deliberate and “collaborative” process.
Further, she said, “I think everybody was on the same page that our goal really was to hire a person of color, that the organization needed to be led by a person of color.”
The committee was able to winnow the field down to nine candidates, five of whom were interviewed. Of those, the committee chose two finalists: one local, and one from out of state. It was decided that the out-of-state candidate would be flown in and given a tour of Madison, in addition to being interviewed by both the search committee and Center staff.
In describing the plan for the day, Wendorf-Corrigan wrote to committee members, “We’ll have an itinerary for him while he’s here (meeting with a black leader, meeting with a black realtor, eating at a restaurant frequented by people of color in Madison, etc.). Peter and another non-decision maker, a person of color, will be with him for this ‘tour’ of Madison.”
Committee member Corey Whitmore, who worked as the director of the center’s radio station, questioned this plan by email.
“Who is the Black Leader he would meet with? That goes a long way in how the candidate may perceive Madison,” he wrote, also asking what was meant by “a restaurant frequented by people of color.”
“Do you mean a restaurant that serves African food, Mexican food, or Soul food?” he asked. “While I understand you are introducing him to the BIPOC community in Madison, Madison is approximately 80% white. I would argue his ability to navigate that will be instrumental in how long the candidate stays in Madison if chosen. We do ourselves a disservice misrepresenting what Madison is.”
Whitmore also questioned whether the Black candidate should have part of the tour only in the presence of Black Madisonians.
“I would prefer NOT to have Peter on the Tour,” he wrote. “Allow our black candidate the freedom to ask questions and have fruitful discussions without a white person present. We do this at Lussier all the time with our monthly racial identity caucuses.”
In an interview, Whitmore said other committee members concurred with his questions, and two other members – former assistant director Daniel Steinbring and Nikki Conklin, who represents the area on the Common Council – confirmed this.
Wendorf-Corrigan did not respond to the email because, she said, “I’m one of those people who never wants to respond via email when I’m angry.” She said Whitmore raised good questions, but she objected to the “tone” of the email.
“I guess what I heard was that, as a white woman, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have a right to be working on this since both candidates were Black,” she said.
At the same time, Wendorf-Corrigan said she heard rumors that Steinbring was sabotaging the search process because he wanted the job – something she didn’t believe at the time, and something Steinbring vehemently denies. Wendorf-Corrigan acknowledged that Steinbring clearly told her he was not interested in the job.
However, Wendorf-Corrigan said the local finalist – who Wendorf-Corrigan did not name but who Madison365 has confirmed was Brian Benford, a Madison Alder and Success Coach at UW’s Odyssey Project – passed on the same rumor, and now she believes it. Wendorf-Corrigan said Benford withdrew his candidacy for the job based on this rumor and other negative things he heard about the Center; Benford denies this. He said he did hear that rumor about Steinbring, but only after he had decided to withdraw from consideration.
“I … was offered a fantastic opportunity to stay with the Odyssey Project so I withdrew from the process,” Benford said in a message to Madison365. “I feel extremely fortunate to be part of the Odyssey team and their mission to help historically marginalized people to reach their full potentials through education. I deeply appreciated the opportunity to apply at the LCEC and for any consideration that the hiring committee gave me.”
Whitmore and Steinbring both resigned from the search committee earlier this year.
With only one candidate remaining and tensions rising among the remaining members of the search committee, Wendorff emailed staff that the board had decided to pause the executive director hiring process.
“The board is pausing the hiring process to focus on the needs of our community and the needs of the Lussier organization,” she wrote. “Diana will be the Executive Director moving forward.”
The Diana referred to in that email is Diana Shinall, who the board hired as interim director last fall. Shinall is a longtime nonprofit executive who founded TJs Support Brokerage Firm, a pre-apprenticeship life skills training program for adults. She and Wendorf-Corrigan worked together years ago when Wendorf-Corrigan was a contract manager for the City of Madison and Shinall held one of those contracts to provide services.
Multiple people confirmed that Shinall was not going to apply for the permanent executive director position, because Gray, the search consultant, advised that it’d be difficult to get candidates if it was perceived that an interim director would have an inside track to the job. Wendorf-Corrigan also made it clear to staff that Shinall would not have hiring and firing authority.
Tension among staff began almost immediately; staff described complaints regarding Shinall’s management style. Shinall acknowledged a difficulty in transition but said she understood where it came from.
“I’m not the previous executive director. I’m different,” she said. “I even said to the board, these folks are hurting. They lost their leader of 20 years. And they will need some time to heal, to get acclimated to the fact that he’s gone. And whoever you bring in, isn’t gonna be him. And you all cannot be feeling like somebody else is gonna come in and do it like he did. You have to be realistic. He was a quiet, Caucasian male; you’re looking at an African American designate. Those people are not gonna manage in the same way.”
The email from Wendorf-Corrigan announcing that Shinall would be the executive director “going forward” angered staff and search committee members, because they perceived a permanent hire taking place outside the established search process in which they had invested as much as 50 hours or more.
“If she’s so qualified, why didn’t she apply?” Conklin said.
However, in reality, Shinall was not appointed as the permanent executive director – her contract was extended by 18 months and the word “interim” was removed from her title. And when the search reopens, she will be allowed to apply for the permanent position. (She said she hasn’t yet decided whether she will.)
“I believe I put it in my communication, both with the steering team and staff that we would reopen the process,” Wendorf-Corrigan said. “We didn’t say when we would reopen the process after we’ve had a chance to do a review of the first process and figure out what worked well, and what didn’t.”
The email announcing that Shinall would be the executive director “going forward” did say the search process would be “paused,” not “ended;” however, it did not indicate that Shinall’s contract still had a limited time period or that the search process would be reopened.
Tensions lead to turnover
The tensions were exacerbated by what staff saw as meddling by Wendorf-Corrigan – for example, she wrote a “performance improvement letter” reprimanding former development director AB Orlick for “disrespectful” behavior, something a supervisor would normally do – as well as what some saw as racially-motivated microaggressions. The board, for example, had to issue a written apology to Steinbring in January for the way some of its members acted toward him in a meeting months earlier.
Ultimately, five of the six management-level employees resigned over the course of one month. Two of those five were planning to move to other cities anyway, but told Madison365 that they would have resigned regardless.
Shinall said in an email to Madison365 Thursday that three of those management positions have already been filled with new hires either already on board or starting soon, and an offer will be made to the leading candidate to fill a fourth position today. The search to fill the fifth vacancy will get underway next week.
Wendof-Corrigan said the board will undergo the same racial justice training as the staff, and would work to reopen the search process in the not-too-distant future with hopes of a less acrimonious process next time.
Shinall said the most important thing is that the work will continue – including the food pantry, radio station, after school programs and more – hopefully, soon, in an upgraded building.
“I can envision those things happening at Lussier and if I’m here or if I’m not here, if there was a part I left, and somebody’s life was changed for the good, then my work has been done,” she said.