Top positions in Office of LGBT Affairs vacant, new appointment imminent

Photo by Kelly Burkhardt

The Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs in Philadelphia is currently without both a director and deputy director. 

Upon Amber Hikes’ resignation as director of the Office of LGBT Affairs at the end of July 2019, former Deputy Director Evan Thornburg handled the responsibilities of the office, while the city government conducted a lengthy search for Hikes’ replacement. 

As of December 2019, Thornburg is no longer working as deputy director for the LGBT Affairs Office, according to Lauren Cox, deputy communications director for the Mayor’s Office. 

An automated email from Thornburg stated she would be out of the office from Dec. 17 to Jan. 14 of this year. The message also read, “Please be advised, currently there is no Executive Director or Deputy Director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, so it may take some time to return your message, and there is limited assistance the office can provide at this time.”  

Cox said Thornburg, who was appointed deputy director in November 2017, will transition to the role of director of training and program development in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. According to Cox, Thornburg’s position as director of training and program development “was originally made before anyone even knew that Amber was leaving. Part of the transition was when we did find out Amber was leaving, Evan agreed to do both roles for a little while to make sure there wasn’t a complete vacancy.”

As director of training and program development, Thornburg, “will be critical in carrying out the training requirements for managers and supervisors that were included in the Mayor’s Executive Order No. 1-20,” Cox said. On Monday, the Mayor’s Office instituted a new Executive Order focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion that will  “establish formal oversight of the Office of LGBT Affairs and Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities” and “mandate diversity, equity and inclusion training.” 

The Executive Order also “formalizes the creation of the City’s Racial Equity Initiative. All City departments will be required, by the end of 2023, to conduct Racial Equity Assessments and create Racial Equity Action Plans.”

“This new directive (Executive Order No. 1-20), is an important step for City government,” Cox added. “The mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training will help managers and supervisors to create work environments where all people are treated in a fair and respectful way.”

Thornburg, an out North Philly woman of color, previously worked as project manager for the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, education specialist at the Bryson Institute of the Attic Youth Center and as an independent diversity consultant. She also volunteered for the COLOURS Organization, MANNA and the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania before taking on the position of deputy director of the Office of LGBT Affairs and now director of training and program development in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

Whether Thornburg is being considered for the position of director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, Cox said, ”I can’t comment on that specifically.”  

While Cox relayed, “We are hopeful that we’ll have an announcement about the replacement for the executive director position in the office soon,” the top positions in the office are vacant.

Leadership in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion “made a choice to have two fellows brought on fulltime to help fill a gap for a little while because they believed they were getting close to making that offer for executive director,” said Cox. 

Former fellows, now full-time employees Sayeeda Rashid and Erik Larson have been with the Office of LGBT Affairs since August 2018 and October 2018, respectively. Rashid and Larson are assisting with office needs and “continue to work on projects and day-to-day activities for the office with supervision from the First Deputy Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Steve Preston, who normally supervises the director of LGBT Affairs,” said Cox.

While the city didn’t provide specific details on the extended vacancy of the position of director in the LGBT Affairs office, Cox did say, “I think It’s a tough spot to fill. We’ve had two directors in that position, and you want to make sure it’s the right fit and that it’s somebody who can represent the community, somebody who can navigate the laws of government. And I think Amber obviously [left] some very big shoes to fill … so I think that made it a little trickier than some of the other positions we’ve had to fill lately. But also with some of these executive director positions they are a little bit of a lengthier process just because of the visibility and the stature they have.”

She added, “For any hiring process in the city, we make sure there’s a diverse panel there,” including age, race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. “For this position, in particular, we were obviously very sensitive to make sure that there was representation from the LGBT community on that panel, in both rounds of interviews as well as the resume review.” 

The hiring manager is Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Nolan Atkinson, with final approval by Mayor Jim Kenney, but Atkinson’s “First Deputy Steve Preston sort of shepherded the process,” according to Cox. 

Atkinson oversees the entire office where the Office of LGBT Affairs resides and has had substantial experience working with LGBTQ communities, Cox said. “He for many decades worked in the legal field and handled cases related to civil rights and was very focused on diversity and inclusion work,” she added.

Preston served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Mayor Kenney from 2016 to 2018 before moving to the role of in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in November 2018. Prior to that, he worked as transition advisor and then transition director for the Kenney Administration. He first entered local politics in 2014 as deputy state director for Organizing for Action, “which worked closely with groups like Equality PA on LGBTQ+ issues and other areas of advocacy,” according to Cox. She added, “He also worked directly with the Office of LGBT Affairs, serving as the direct report for Amber while she was here.”

Preston could not be reached for comment. 

“Creating a culture of inclusion within City government has been a priority for Mayor Kenney since his first day in office,” Cox told PGN. “That is why he signed an Executive Order appointing the City’s first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and creating the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in 2016, and why he began his second term with a new Executive Order expanding the mandate of their office.”