Exclusive: Former Mazzoni Center CEO Nurit Shein speaks out

After two decades at the helm of Mazzoni Center, CEO Nurit Shein left the organization in the spring after allegations of racism at the organization, an employee walkout and criticism that she covered up incidents of alleged sexual impropriety by the organization’s former medical director, Dr. Robert Winn. In her first interview since leaving Mazzoni, Shein spoke to PGN exclusively about her last days of employment, her thoughts on the protests against her and her role in the Winn investigation.

This interview has been edited for length.

PGN: When did you learn about the allegations of sexual impropriety by Dr. Winn?

NS: I think we need to put it in context. It was brought to me on a Monday morning after, on Friday, a case manager and her supervisor learned from a client about some allegations. When it was brought to me on Monday, we turned it to the lawyers and we started an investigation — an external, outside, unbiased investigation — and at that point, I informed my board president about it and I also informed the insurance company. Now these are just allegations that a client brought. I can’t tell you where it is right now because I don’t know.

PGN: What is your response to criticism that you knew about these allegations prior to them being brought to your attention?

NS: That’s the larger context that it needs to be put in. I obviously, for liability reasons and for confidentiality reasons, I am not going to go into any specific allegations. What I will tell you is that any allegation that came to my knowledge was investigated, dealt with either internally or with the board and/or externally. That is not to say that gossip within an organization of 140 people doesn’t go very far. So while as an employer and as a supervisor, I cannot tell anybody what corrective action I am putting in place except for HR, maybe, because I am not going to talk to one employee about another employee. I think that gave rise to a lot of the gossip that was going on. One thing that I do want to say is that when this last investigation was turned over, because we actually thought we had something really substantial, I actually had a conversation with the clinical staff at the medical office and what they said was, “Well we knew about this. We talked about it behind closed doors but we never talked to you.” So when you talk about this behind closed doors and you never bring it to me even though you see me day in and day out, don’t turn around and tell me that I covered it up.

PGN: What were the allegations made against Dr. Winn?

NS: For confidentiality and because I understand there is an investigation still going on and for my own legal liability and Mazzoni’s, I don’t think I can go into any of the details of specific allegations.

PGN: Did you contact law enforcement?

NS: No. There was no need to get law enforcement into the mix.

PGN: At what point during your tenure with Mazzoni Center did you hear about allegations of racism within the organization? From whom? What were the allegations?

NS: June of ’16 when I was in Israel, the BBWC [Black and Brown Workers Collective] stormed into a staff meeting and started calling the names of the individuals who were murdered in Orlando at Pulse and made some allegations of racism at Mazzoni. I was told via emails and phone calls when I was in Israel. So what we started doing was internal work. We talked to management and to staff. We decided that there needs to be some very intense training and changes in some policies. We involved staff in a very long process. At the end of which, in November, we decided on a national company that would come in and they did an intense two-day training to each and every individual in the organization. Actually, the [Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations] said this should be a model for many organizations because the training was very intense. In addition to which, we started an internal committee that was comprised of people of color out of staff, as they saw fit, and they would inform us of whatever recommendations and whatever issues and whatever areas in the organization they wanted us to look at. At the same time, we started a strategic plan which [reinforced] structure. I will tell you, one of the real deficits I saw [was] we have not done enough in professional development for staff. We were not in a position to pay for people’s education and most of what we were doing was really the training that they needed for their specific jobs. So one of the things that I committed to was really opening up a professional education and giving people more ability for more advancement. Again, I want to say that the gossip mill feeds a lot of these things. One of the things we were accused of was there is different criteria for different positions at Mazzoni. If the [Centers for Disease Control] or [the Health Resources and Services Administration] mandates that a case manager has to have a master’s degree, I cannot hire anybody else but somebody with a master’s degree. So therapists, doctors, nurses, etc., had to have certain credentials. And on the other hand, some of the very-valuable HIV counselors, the CDC does not mandate, so we were able to open it up to many more people. But the impression is all the black and brown people are our line staff and all of the other people — the professionals who make more money — have degrees and stuff like that. But it’s not because of what we mandated. It’s because of where the money is coming from and mandated in. 

PGN: During your tenure, were there any other efforts to specifically recruit employees or board members representing the people-of-color community?

NS: Yes. We always had specifically wished and wanted to recruit people of color and if you look at the organization when I left it, 50 percent were people of color so I would say we were doing OK. Was upper-management as reflective of people of color as we would’ve liked it to? No. But if you were to look at the last two years of my tenure, any senior position that was hired were people of color. Now, I had directors who worked for me for a decade or two and they came up the ranks. The director of care services, she started as a case manager and came up the ranks. So should I fire her because she’s white and doing a good job? It is a process and lucky for Mazzoni, we had a longevity in positions and as we grew, we opened up manager positions. Most of the manager positions were people of color. You can’t just look at four people at the top and then say, “Racist.” You have to look at the whole organization and say, “What ability was there to increase?” And through the strategic plan, we were going to open it even more. Could we have done better outreach to pools of where people of color were? Probably. In any organization, you can always do better. You should always try to do better.

PGN: After PCHR presented their research at its press conference in January, you were under scrutiny for saying the findings were “more anecdotal” than systemic. What did you mean by this comment?

NS: I don’t even know when and if I said that. I would say that this was probably taken out of context. I am somebody who, if you tell me a better way to do things, I would do it. If I ever said that, which I do not recall, then it was probably taken out of context. 

PGN: Did you participate in the PCHR-mandated trainings addressing racism within nonprofits? If so, what did you learn?

NS: Yes, of course. You always learn. As you can see, I am a white person, even though I will say that I consider myself very “other” because I come from a different culture. I come from a different part of the world. I have a different religion than the main religion here in the United States and I did not come here as a young person; I came here as an adult. But even though I am “other,” I walk down the street with white skin. I cannot presume to understand fully what people of color feel and even though we hear it all around and we all get angry about it, I want to learn from them what needs to be done better.

PGN: In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently to enhance diversity in the organization?

NS: Of course. I think what seemed very clear to us, and was relayed in forums like directors’ meetings and managers’ meetings, I did not personally make sure it got translated to line staff. I assumed that when we talk about the policy at directors’ meetings, it gets relayed down the line and when everything started happening, I understood that it was not always relayed and sometimes in a different light. Would I do things differently in relation to internal transparency? Absolutely. 

PGN: The BBWC had been calling for your resignation for some time; when was the first time you had a discussion with anyone on the board, on staff, etc., about that demand?

NS: I think when I came back from Israel in the summer. First of all, we reported to the board that this is what happened. Since then, on an ongoing basis, I have reported to the board things that have happened, demonstrations outside Wash West, anti-Semitic remarks against me and so on and so forth. And we actually hired a consulting person [and asked], “Should we respond to this? Should we not?” And together with the board, the decision was not to respond to Facebook issues and so on and so forth.

PGN: How did those conversations progress?

NS: I, of course, reported to [the board] on the training that we were doing and there was a schedule for the board to be trained from [PCHR]. There was a progression and the board was involved with all of this. Here, I need to give you some information that nobody has because I left before [it happened]. I have been in discussion with my board president and then later with the board about my retirement. Everybody knew that after 22 years and with the move to the new building, I was going to retire. My senior staff knew it. Probably most of the staff in the organization knew it. And I’ve been making plans. I am from Israel. I have been making plans to go back to Israel to get an apartment so we can live back and forth. This was not news to anybody. In fact, I already videotaped my announcement of my retirement and the board, in my March meeting with them, said, “No. No. No. With all that’s going on, we don’t want you to announce this until we move to the new building.” So I was already retiring. We were finishing up a strategic plan —which I have no clue what’s going on with it now; my understanding is that it’s not enforced — to have a transition period. I knew we needed a transition period from an executive director that was really the founder almost of the organization, even though we have a really wonderful history before me. Twenty-two years [working as CEO] is a long time. I was working with my board president on putting a transition plan in place.

PGN: So when were you planning to officially retire?

NS: I talked with the board that once we moved to Bainbridge, I would announce my retirement. My intent was to retire at the end of the summer. 

PGN: Let’s talk about the staff walkout at the PCHR training a few months ago. Did you anticipate something like that might happen?

NS: Actually, no. I did not. I know for a fact — and you can ask other staff members — that some of the staff were coerced and bullied into walking out; they did not want to walk out and then people said to them, “Well, you’re not going to stand with us? Then you will suffer.” Some of that was there as well. I think though, mostly, it was good intention on the part of some of the staff wanting to stand with the clients, not knowing all of the story, the truth and what was done and not done.

PGN: How do you feel yourself and the other Mazzoni management handled the walkout?

NS: I don’t think there was anything we could do other than let them stand there. It was on work time. Clients were not being seen. They closed Wash West for a couple of hours and I had to make other arrangements in order for [the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office] not to get concerned about the contract of providing services. At the same time, nobody got punished for that. We said, “OK. You’ve done it. Now let’s get back to work. Let’s talk internally. Let’s make things better at Mazzoni.” I think we handled it in the best way that a responsible organization should handle something like that. 

PGN: Shortly before your resignation, the board said it had confidence in you, but by the end of that weekend had asked you for your resignation. From your understanding, what changed?

NS: I don’t know. We always had board meetings with senior staff and myself present. I learned that there was going to be a board meeting in which no staff was involved. That was on Sunday, April 23. That evening, I received a phone call from Anthony Rodriguez, who is now the acting board chair, to say to me, “The board has met and we’re asking for your resignation.” I said, “What?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “Why, what’s going on?” And he said, “Well, I can’t tell you. But it’s for the good of the organization.” We went back and forth. [I] never heard why. And then I said, “Well, if I am going to resign, there needs to be a transition period and there needs to be some negotiations.” He said, “Not a problem.” I said, “OK, so I’m going to the office tomorrow morning to start the transition.” And he said, “Sure.” About an hour later, I got a text message — which I have — saying, “Don’t come into the office until you hear from our lawyers.” At that point, I said, “I need to get a lawyer too.” There was back-and-forth and I was asked not to go to the office, not to use my email, not to talk to anyone. I receive an email from [Rodriguez] on May 5, informing me that this was my last day of employment at Mazzoni Center. So, I did not resign. 

PGN: Would you say you were terminated?

NS: Yes.

PGN: To clarify, did you ever submit a letter of resignation?

NS: No.

PGN: Have you been involved in the third-party investigation of the Winn allegations?

NS: I started that investigation. I called the lawyers and I started the investigation. I was involved in that investigation from the point of view that they interviewed everybody.

PGN: What have you been up to since you left Mazzoni?

NS: I kept planning for my retirement. I am leaving for Israel in mid-October for several months in order to buy an apartment in Tel Aviv. I’ve been keeping busy. I’ve been going to the gym a lot more than I did before. I’ve been traveling some, visiting family. Since I’m going to Israel, I’m not going to start any volunteering or anything major this summer but probably when I come back, I will do something.

PGN: Earlier, you said you were coming back from a meeting. Is that for a new job?

NS: Actually, I was offered two consulting jobs right after I left but I decided not to do that.

PGN: Was it challenging to not oversee the completion of the move to Bainbridge Street?

NS: Yes. I do want to say, it’s painful. I have given two decades to this organization and I think I have done a good job at building a very robust and important health organization for LGBT people in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania. To be wiped out of Mazzoni in such a manner is painful. I’ve been talking about our building for the last eight years and we have seen almost every vacant building in the city of Philadelphia. So when we made this building into what is going to be the future of health care in Philadelphia, it’s painful that I worked for the last two years, almost three years, on this building. Almost exclusively, my job was to make this happen, to raise the money and to bring everybody together. To not even be able to go, that’s painful.

PGN: What would you like to see in your successor?

NS: I think Mazzoni is a great organization. I think the staff is [comprised of] good-hearted, hard-working, conscientious individuals. I think if we take a look at the strategic plan — make whatever you want of it — but the organization needs to change [in structure]. I think we need to open it up. We have been able to reach over 800 people with PrEP but what we knew for a fact is that we’re not reaching young people of color, who are at disproportionate risks. What I started was the PrEP clinic at Wash West. That is the key to bringing in more young people of color to get on PrEP. That’s the future. The other big future for Mazzoni is research. I have tried for the last two years and we were going to get a grant for research. I don’t know where it is now. But we are sitting on a treasure of data. That data needs to be used in order to inform us of the specific needs and to get more money. In the climate of Washington, D.C., today, everything is eroding. If we don’t come up with the proven science, we will not be able to survive. I think Mazzoni is poised to do the research that we need to do. I really think it’s a great organization and great people work there. We can make it better internally and, definitely if we put more energy into MSM of color into research, I think this organization is going to be there for many years to come. 

PGN: Is there anything else that you’d have done differently in your leadership?

NS: Yes, of course. You can always do things differently. But I think at every juncture, we did the right things and we took the right calculated risks. What I should’ve done better is … We grew very fast in the last 10 years. I could have slowed it down and built more infrastructure. I think that would have been easier because we tax people very much in doing more and more without building enough infrastructure. I hope this strategic plan is going to go somewhere because, in it, we really put a lot of thinking into restructuring the organization.

PGN: Those are all of the questions I have unless there’s something you want to add or clarify?

NS: I want to say something else. I think the board of directors is a group of very dedicated, good people. It’s not that they’re bad individuals. I think there was panic. I think there was inexperience in what a board should be doing but I really want to say these are good people and I hope that they get better experience in governing and I hope that they will be able to lead the organization forward. I’ve known [interim CEO] Steve Glassman for many years but I have never worked with him. So I don’t know what he will bring to Mazzoni. I think we need to bring people who have expertise in health care.