My Nonprofit Reviews
Review for Thomas Merton Center, Inc., Pittsburgh, PA, USA
The Thomas Merton Center has pulled off some impressive endeavors, and I believe that with a lot of work, it could be a great resource for the city of Pittsburgh. However, this organization's current internal issues handicap it to the point that they make true movement work impossible and many who try to get more closely involved are so disillusioned with their experience, they do not want anything to do with the Center or its projects afterwards.
My first experience with the Thomas Merton Center was volunteering through Book 'Em, the books-to-prisoners project under its nonprofit status. This was a great experience and over the next two years, I volunteered with a number of the Center's projects and made friends with many individuals in Pittsburgh's social justice community. In July of 2008, I was hired as the full-time Communications Director at the Center; in this role, I recruited volunteers and interns for the Center and its twenty-six projects, wrote press releases and served as the press contact for all public communication, designed promotional materials, and organized outreach events (May Day Festival, Artist Tree Party, G-20 Film & Forum series, "Gentrification 101" series) within the local community, among other responsibilities. In May of 2009, it was announced that the G-20 Summit would be held in Pittsburgh in September of 2009, and my time that summer was spent organizing the march and protests as well as speaking to countless local, national, and international media outlets.
During all of this, the Center had been housed in a leaky old building (that they owned) that needed more repairs than the organization could afford; the three-story building was also larger than they needed. When the opportunity to rent the adjoining first-floor storefront came up, the Board jumped at the chance to move with the supposed intention of avoiding high heating bills for the '09-'10 winter, despite concerns raised by the staff about the Center's new landlord, an organization which is viewed with mixed feelings and by many as a gentrifying force in the low-income, largely Black neighborhood (as evidenced by multiple affiliates disaffiliating from the Center when they did move). When voicing our concerns, most Board members dismissed them as being completely unfounded, saying such things as "What is gentrification anyhow?" or "If you really want to see gentrification, look at the North Side," as though it could only exist in one neighborhood in a city like Pittsburgh. The Board did not consult the Center's members about this decision, nor did they plan how they would manage to move in time to avoid paying winter heating bills - they just did what was immediately cheapest, which has been their modus operandi for some time (i.e. holding the 2009 Thomas Merton Award Dinner at the Churchill Valley Country Club, which was inaccessible by public transit and has a long history of discrimination and exclusion).
The Center signed the lease but didn't actually move until at least February (they were simultaneously paying rent and high heating bills). Meanwhile, I had been encouraged by one Board member to respond to strong interest among young people in the city around the topic of urban redevelopment in Pittsburgh, and so I organized a weekly "Gentrification 101" series that was held in January. It was well-attended by a fairly diverse audience, and attendees seemed to enjoy the discussion and wide diversity of opinion on the subject. However, when the rest of the Board learned about the series, I was criticized for personally attacking the Board and their decision to move, then formally reprimanded (I wonder if they still have that letter that I had to sign...).
In March of 2010, I left for a two-week vacation in California. My second day in California, I woke up to a voicemail telling me that I (along with the other two staffpeople) was being laid off in thirty days. No warning, just a voicemail. After finally connecting with Board members in Pittsburgh, I was told that Board and staff were meeting immediately to talk about what to do, etc. I bought the cheapest plane ticket possible to fly back a week early, and guess what? No one had met. At the first meeting that did occur, the main concern was not finances or communication to the Center's members, but whether or not to publish one affiliate's letter to the Center in the next edition of their monthly newspaper. It was also suggested that someone from the staff could write a "staff appreciation article" about ourselves as a last good-bye.
Since then, the Center has received funds from a grant that I applied for while employed there and hired two staffpeople. Additionally, they are paying a Board member as a "consultant" (something that I always understood to be a direct conflict of interest). Staff positions were not publicly advertised, and no staffperson employed during my time was offered a position at the Center. This felt like a direct insult and confirmation that I had been fired, not laid off. When I've asked current Board members the reasons for this, I've been told that they were/are not looking to hire a Communications Director, etc., but are looking to hire an organizer.
And then I gotta' wonder...what the hell was I doing for two years that wasn't even in my hand-scrawled job description?
I've personally experienced the results of this organization in...
Something that stood out to me repeatedly during my time at the Thomas Merton Center was how much of a white, middle-class world it is and how little effort is made to connect with those of different demographics, particularly those within their own neighborhood. I'm now applying for graduate school with the intention of exploring the lack of communication that exists between movement organizations and direct-action social service providers and how this is indicative of internalized racism/classism.
If I had to make changes to this organization, I would...
I would establish two-term limits (for a total of four years) within the Board of Directors, so that there is the opportunity for new faces and fresh ideas. With the same people constantly being re-elected because they're "a familiar name" or having the current Board members selecting new Board members to replace those who quit mid-year in frustration (as has happened for at least the last two years), there is no possibility for real change.
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