Attic Youth Center appoints new executive director

John Fisher-Klein is the new executive director of The Attic Youth Center.

After a 14-month search, The Attic Youth Center has appointed John Fisher-Klein as their new executive director. Fisher-Klein, who grew up in southern Delaware and has degrees from the University of Delaware and Wilmington University, assumed the role on September 27. He previously worked at the Delaware Department of Education as an education associate and at AIDS Delware, where he served as executive director. He takes over for Shawnese Givens, who has served as The Attic’s interim executive director since March 2019.

“On behalf of the Board, I’m proud to welcome John Fisher-Klein to the team and support his leadership. The world has given all of us many challenges, and we’ve had to make many changes and adaptations. We are not done evolving and growing, and we have much more work to do. I know John is excited to be

a part of that change,” Board President Jasper Liem said in a press release.

The appointment of Fisher-Klein comes after the conclusion of two independent two-year investigations into allegations of racial discrimination and sexual misconduct, which were were first revealed on the Facebook page of the Black & Brown Workers Co-op (BBWC) in March 2019.

The allegations prompted executive director Carrie Jacobs to be relieved of her duties and Director of Programs and Operations Christina Santos to depart the organization.

Following the conclusion of the investigations in March 2021, the organization released a statement that “the investigations included extensive interviews with board members, staff and youth, concluding that The Attic, its Executive Director and staff, took quick action in response to the allegations, and complied with all legal mandates and requirements.” When questioned by PGN at the time, neither Jacobs nor Givens shared further details of the findings of the investigations.

Through the turmoil of the last two years, the organization has continued to serve LGBTQ youth via programming, counseling services, and a training institute.

PGN spoke with new executive director Fisher-Klein about his vision for the organization, the importance of LGBTQ youth having a voice, and what the community can expect going forward.

It’s been a long couple years for The Attic, and PGN has reported on the various events that have happened, including the lengthy search to find a new executive director. What are your plans to help return a sense of unity and stability to the organization?

One of the first things I want to do as the executive director is a community driven strategic planning process. The Attic’s existing strategic plan expired last year, so we’re operating on that plan but it needs to be at a minimum updated but ideally recreated. What I envision is a process that really allows the youth that we serve to come out and speak to us in various ways, whether that’s through focus groups, surveys, and a variety of ways of collecting data. They are going to set the priorities for the organization because that is The Attic’s history and that is what has made it a viable organization for all these years; it was youth-led. So we want to return to that; we want to make sure the youth have a voice in the future of The Attic. We’re going to do that through a pretty comprehensive strategic planning process.

The Attic was founded in 1993, and it came to be because the youth who were part of the very first 8-week support group wanted it to be a more permanent thing. Since the organization is almost 30 years old, what do you think needs to be refined about the organization to meet the needs of 2021 LGBTQ youth?

I think there are really two things we can focus on. One, and this is a skill set of mine, is formalizing processes and procedures and things like that. While The Attic is pushing 30 years old, it’s been a grassroots organization, and with that comes a lot of things that are done without policy or procedure in place, things that are done sort of a handshake and a nod, a little less formal. So one of the things I want to do is formalize processes and procedures, because that’ll make sure that The Attic is able to survive another 30 years. The other thing that’s important to me, and I’m going to bang this drum throughout this interview, is youth voice. That’s something that over the past couple years has not been as strong and that’s something we really want to emphasize as we move forward, engaging youth and make sure that their voices are heard, because we believe that young people have the right to a certain amount of autonomy, we believe that they know their needs better than anyone else does, and we really want to listen to them and what they have to say and then shift The Attic and go in the direction that the young people need us to go in.

The Attic started as a small support group and then it really expanded to include a wide variety of social services and different events. What are you specifically hoping to expand as far as services or events for youth that might not have been as big before?

One of the biggest things that we do is provide mental health services and we actually do have a need to expand there. We have a waiting list as it is. The pandemic did not help with that because we were using some satellite space that we stopped using during the pandemic. So I see not only an opportunity for the organization to grow but an opportunity for us to meet the changing needs of young people by providing comprehensive mental health counseling services. So I do think we’re going to grow there. The other thing that has been on the radar, and it’s on the radar of other organizations as well, is homelessness among LGBTQIA+ youth. And so it’s really important to me that we at least get our finger on the pulse of that, get a good understanding of what that looks like here in Philadelphia and how many of our youth are experiencing homelessness and what services they need to stabilize their housing. So looking at things like housing case management, transitional housing. Of course long term these are very expensive things to do and big undertakings. And again I want to emphasize that we’re going to go in the direction that the youth tell us we need to go in. So if they don’t elevate housing as a primary concern, then it may not be something The Attic chooses to address at this time. But I suspect that they will elevate housing. It’s something we hear about a lot, and so there’s definitely a need I think, so that’s an area that we’d like to help address.

One of the things that has become clear in healthcare is that you can’t have good healthcare without housing.

Right, it’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We have to meet the most basic needs for health and safety before we can really start focusing on other things. So on the one hand it’s unfortunate that we’re in a position where some of those basic needs are not being met, but that is the reality of the situation. The Attic Youth Center really wants to be a place that treats the whole child or the whole young person and addresses as many of their needs as we can, so that’s where I think the philosophy through which we will approach any new services or expansion of services, is really meeting that youth need and being as close to a one-stop shop or at least a really good referral source as we can be.

The Attic has been a space of joy for a lot of youth and the people that work there. How do you feel about the proliferation of LGBTQ characters in film and television and music? Do you think overall that’s a good thing for Attic youth? 

Absolutely. I think representation matters and it makes a huge difference to young people, and I come at this with a background in early childhood education as well as out of school time education. Young people need to see themselves represented in the media. It’s really important to their well being, it’s important to their development of identity. I definitely think it’s a good thing. I will point out though that a lot of the representation that we’re seeing is still white representation, and so as we think about the advances that we’re making, we also have to recognize that race plays into everything that we do and that it’s really important that Black and Brown youth see themselves represented as well. And the last thing I’ll say on this note is that you can’t have representation without inclusion, and that means inclusion of people with disabilities as well. So when we think about people who have different abilities, people who are neurodivergent, people who have different physical abilities, the deaf community, the blind community; queer people come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s important that we recognize that representation of all types of queer people is important, not just certain subsects.

The Philadelphia School District and other organizations recently held the first youth pride for students, but it wasn’t super well attended. I’ve read reports and have heard from people that a lot of students aren’t out to their parents, or they still have to live a sort of double life. What do you think The Attic could do to help ensure that every student who wanted to attend a youth pride event would be able to?

I think there are short term things we can do and there are long term things we can do. Short term things are continuing to provide services that are confidential where necessary, being a safe space for young people to come and talk about issues of gender identity and sexual orientation I think is really important. Long term, though, I think it’s important we not only support the child but support the family. Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher, and it’s really imperative that we work with parents and guardians as much as possible to keep children in the home, to help parents understand what’s going on with their child, and to help create safe spaces in the home for the child. So as a long term strategy I really do think that working with parents is something that is of interest, and providing support to parents so that they can be the best parents they can be for their queer kids is a strategy that we’ll look into.

I’ve thought of The Attic as a youth-only space. Is the organization doing active outreach to parents?

We’re not currently doing a lot of active outreach to parents and we’re not doing programming for parents. This is an area where I think we could potentially grow. I know that it’s something that our clinical team has brought up as a need, that parents are looking for support groups themselves. Meanwhile, just because there is a need doesn’t mean that The Attic has to meet the need. I know that [Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania] is doing some great things around gender clinics, things like that. I know that our colleagues in Delaware have a parent support group for trans kids, so maybe that’s something we could look into replicating. Again, it’s not necessarily that The Attic has to be the one to provide the service, but I want us to be part of the solution, and so if that means supporting another partner to provide the service, if that means we’re starting a new branch of service, I’m open to the possibilities and I think the board is as well.

I want to go back to what you said about youth having a voice and making sure that they are driving the direction of The Attic going forward. Sometimes we’ve seen that people who enter into a space sometimes need guidance from people who have already had that experience. In addition to the youth voice, do you also think that it’s important for people like yourself, Carrie [Jacobs] and Shawnese [Givens] to help continue to guide youth in a way?

Yeah, I think so. I’ll be honest with you, I think it’s a really tricky thing to get right. And the way that you get it right to me is that you listen to the youth for not only their challenges but their strengths. And you help them see how those strengths can be used to address the challenges they’re facing. So it’s about partnering with youth. I recognize that we employ staff who are experts in mental health counseling. I like to consider myself an expert in the human services field. So I have lots of ideas about things I think would be great. What I will do at a minimum is share those ideas with the staff, the board, the community, the youth we serve, and get feedback before we implement anything. That said, I don’t want to push on the youth something that they don’t want. So it’s very important to me that we are really listening to them, because they are the backbone of the organization and we are responsible to them. They are our constituents, and so that relationship is really important. You raise a valid point about the complexities of doing something like that, especially when your clients are people who are in many cases minors.

Philly’s a small place, a lot of the LGBTQ nonprofits and organizations know each other and have worked in different capacities with each other. Are there any old or new partnerships with organizations that you’re especially excited about or looking forward to?

I can share with you that we’re working on a CDC grant with the Mazzoni Center that’s around HIV prevention which we’re very excited about. HIV prevention used to be a much larger part of what we did, and then over the years other organizations stepped into the mix and we took a backseat, is my understanding. And now we’re really looking at this partnership with Mazzoni as another opportunity for us to get back into that world. We know that our young people are at risk for HIV infection and other sexually transmitted infections, so it just makes sense that we would partner with someone to offer services to them that would help prevent the spread of the virus. I’m really excited about that; Carrie [Jacobs] is actively engaged in that and working with me on that, and I’m taking full advantage of her expertise. So I’m looking forward to that. And I just stumbled this morning upon GALAEI’s information about bringing Pride back in sort of a collaborative way, so I’m interested in working on that. Speaking about representation, I think Pride events are important for young people to see and participate in, and so I’m excited to see that an organization is working to bring Pride back and it looks like they’re going to do so in a collaborative way, so I’d really like to get our young people involved in that as well.

This interview has been condensed for space and clarity.