When Kay Martinez joined the Mazzoni Center as the organization’s first-ever Director of Diversity earlier this year, they were excited about using their more than ten years of experience working in diversity to advocate for the staff of the Philadelphia-based LGBTQ health center.
“They, especially people of color in the organization, felt like they needed someone in senior leadership to look at diversity issues and to look at an equity issue—particularly around compensation around performance reviews and around the general climate of the organization,” Martinez says.
However, after working for the organization for fewer than four months, Martinez’s employment was terminated without warning. On August 20, Martinez was called into the non-profit’s human resources office and issued a “Suspension from Employment” notice.
“This letter is to inform you that your employment at Mazzoni Center ends today effective immediately. It is apparent you do not agree with how management has decided to effectively accomplish the mission of Mazzoni Center and your conduct has not been professional and inconsistent with the role you fulfill within the organization. Therefore, it is best for us to part ways,” stated the letter, signed by Mazzoni CEO Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino. Martinez says the managerial disagreements were not explained when the letter was issued.
Martinez’s termination was the catalyst for a 50-person walkout and a Change.org petition demanding the resignation of Sciarrino and five other board members, the reinstatement of Martinez, mandatory anti-oppression trainings, and routine audits of board activities. As of October 1, the Black and Brown Workers Collective petition has collected 477 of the 500 wanted signatures.
Martinez had concerns from the start of their employment, when Sciarrino consistently misgendered Martinez on their first day. In another incident, Spanish-speaking staff members asked Martinez to advocate for them after realizing they were not being paid for translation services their white colleagues were compensated for.
Shortly after, Martinez says they were given a new job description. “I noticed that a lot of my authority and purview to look at matters regarding compensation and performance were removed,” they say. “I felt like the timing was very suspicious, where after I raised issues on behalf of staff, I [had] all those powers taken away from my job description.”
Martinez believes that a few incidents led to their termination. The first was a lack of preparedness when the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference in August was protested. Martinez says that no precautions were taken to protect attendees and the police assigned to the event were slow to react. Martinez and two other staff members, both queer women of color, were injured before police intervened.
The boiling point though, was when the microphone of a staff member of color was turned off during a staff meeting with more than 100 employees. The staff member, Nefertari Sloan, a senior health and sexuality educator, was trying to read a statement explaining worker frustration and low morale when Sciarrino ended the meeting, shutting off the mic and eventually demanding those remaining in the room disperse. Sciarrino had faced criticism since being named Mazzoni’s CEO in March.
“We felt like as people of color, and LGBT people of color in a LGBT organization, that our freedom of speech is really important,” says Martinez, “That we should be able to voice our concerns and should be able to speak freely. And when you have a [cisgender], heterosexual CEO who doesn’t allow for black women and queer black women to speak that, we have a really big problem.”
About 30 staff members decided to protest the incident the next day in their cafeteria’s outdoor area, providing Sloan time to read her statement. A photo of the group was posted to Martinez’s public Instagram account but they removed it approximately 24 hours later.
The following Monday, Martinez and one other staff member involved in the event were fired.
Although the Mazzoni Center did not respond to a request for an updated statement on the termination, Mazzoni’s Director of Communications, Larry Benjamin, released a statement regarding Mazzoni’s “unusual structure and way of operating” and plans to address “challenges which must—and will be—addressed so that we may increase operational efficiencies, deliver superior customer service, and create a more professional place of employment—all of which are crucial to our ability to effectively run our organization and provide high-quality services to the community we serve.”
The Philadelphia Commission on Human Rights is investigating Martinez’s termination.