Communication could have saved law center

Editor's Note

At the end of September, Charlotte’s LGBT community received sad news — the closure of the landmark LGBTQ Law Center, a program of the Freedom Center for Social Justice. We originally reported the story online at goqnotes.com/31480/.

The news comes on the heels of nearly a year of scrutiny for another local organization, the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte. And, it follows years worth of reports on other organizations facing challenges of their own.

The closure comes following the revocation of the Freedom Center’s federal tax-exempt status, though leaders with the Freedom Center say funding challenges were the main cause of the stumble.

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There’s no reason, at least publicly presented, to believe Freedom Center board members and its executive director, Bishop Tonyia Rawls, weren’t operating with the best intentions of their organization and community in mind. So, in this way, the group’s current situation may differ significantly from the discord and dysfunction that marked the financial mismanagement and embarrassing closure of Metrolina AIDS Project or the sheer dishonesty and subterfuge that characterized Time Out Youth’s anti-gay, former executive director and its then board’s response.

But, the Freedom Center’s current trouble has experienced failure in key areas common to every other struggling organization we’ve reported on — a lack of transparency, accountability and communication.

Rawls and her board say the Freedom Center failed to secure three grant awards for which it had applied this year, leaving the organization in a “desperately tight situation” beginning in May. The group said in the same statement that it raised $17,000 in non-grant funds from friends and donors.

Whether though an innocently optimistic hope that things would get better or a more insidious face-saving pride, these budgeting shortfalls and fundraising challenges were never publicly disclosed to the community — full of people and organizations who might have stepped up to the plate and seen the organization through its financial dry spell.

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The Freedom Center’s law staff say they weren’t aware of the scope of the challenge, either. Attorney Sarah Demarest says they were “blindsided” when they were told the law center would have to shut down. Left hanging in the balance were clients — some booked weeks in advance, Demarest cites — utilizing the free or deeply-discounted legal services they couldn’t have found elsewhere. And, though that was exactly the mission and purpose of the law center, Freedom Center board members and Rawls seemed almost flippant when they said in their statement that “our desire to carry a program like this was not sustainable, particularly since more than 85% of our services were offered free of charge.”

Several actions might have saved the law center — among them, a series of public fundraising appeals outlining the Freedom Center’s needs, for example, or a story pitch to this newspaper asking us to highlight to the community the fundraising challenges in operating such a desperately needed and much-sought legal resource for our community. Neither of those occurred.

The message imparted to the Freedom Center today is the same message other qnotes staffers, editors and I have echoed for years: This community is here to help you. This community is rooting for your success. This community wants to see good people, good organizations and good causes lifted up so that they might thrive and make change for our people. But, this community can’t help you if it doesn’t know what your problems are and if you fail to communicate those problems openly and transparently.

Here’s to hoping this message,  one I’d rather not have to write about again, will be heeded by others — for the good of their own leaders and staff, their stakeholders and clients and, more importantly, our community as a whole.  : :

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.

2 Replies to “Communication could have saved law center”

  1. I was one of the last to get my case completed for name change. Kelly Durden handed me my court order on Sept 7 and the center closed a week and a half later. I thank Kelly and Sarah for their help and caring. I am sad to see it go

  2. We (my wife and I ) would have been willing to give some financial support to the Freedom Center if we had known it needed support. I hope it reopen sat some point, it is much needed in our community.

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