In Marchafter a 15-year tenure that was productive but also controversial in spotsModesto Tico Valle officially stepped down from his position as CEO of Center on Halsted, the largest LGBTQ+ community facility/organization in the Midwest, Board Chair Victor Ravago announced.
According to a statement, Valle "went on leave back in November of 2022, which turned into a period of reflection for both the Board and [Valle], and through conversations and mutual understanding, it was decided that the time had come to pass the torch on to the next generation of leaders at the Center."
At that point, Chief Program Officer Editha Paras and Chief Development Officer Brad Snyder served as interim-CEOs. However, Snyder has departed, leaving Paras as the lone interim leader.
Recently, Windy City Times talked with Paras and Ravago (a hotelier with extensive experience working with social-justice organizations throughout the country) about the transition and what lies in store for the Center and its employees.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: I think the leadership transition took a lot of people by surprise. There was this media release stating that [Valle] was stepping down but he had already left, and he was already on a leave of absence last November. Walk me through what happened.
Victor Ravago: Tico went on leave at the end of November. At that time, it was only going to be a temporary leave. The board and Tico came to an agreement that it was time for a transition but it was not the first time we had discussed a transition.
A succession plan had been in the works for the previous two years. We used that time while he was on leave to reflect on the needs of the organization, moving forward. The board and Tico mutually agreed that it was the right time to put that plan in motion and work toward a transition.
Editha Paras: He was on leave and the board had discussions with respect to that leave, and what role he'd like to continue in. Also, I was brought in on Nov. 1, 2021, as the chief program officer as part of the plan to build out the senior team.
WCT: And then, Editha, you and Brad Snyder became interim co-CEOs.
EP: This is correct. Brad relocated to California after his husband accepted an offer [there]. And I'm the interim CEO while a search is happening.
WCT: So a search is now happening? At one point, it was unknown if that was taking place.
VR: Yes. The board has retained Koya [Partners] to conduct a needs assessment [involving] stakeholder engagement. Once that has concluded and a position profile finalized, they will begin a national search; we expect that phase of the scope of work to begin within the next few weeks. I don't have an exact date yet, but it's in the works of being finalized and will be publicized within the next few weeks, at the latest.
WCT: What's going on with the Center right now in terms of programming?
EP: We have two big events coming up in September, as we have our career fair on the Sept. 23, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. And then we have the AIDS Run/Walk on Sept. 30. (Note: The Center's AIDS Run/Walk team has a goal of raising $40,000 for the event this year.)
With respect to programs, we just started what I believe is the 37th cohort of our Silver Fork culinary-training program. It's a full class of 15, which is our biggest since the COVID pandemic, and we've had wonderful success stories there. [Note: Windy City Times talked with Silver Fork head Jenny Urban; the talk is at www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/Center-on-Halsteds-Jenny-Urban-trains-a-new-generation-of-chefs-/75332.html .]
Also, in the past year, we've restructured over youth program to expand the services to [serve] younger youths from 13 to 18. Given what we're seeing throughout the nation and given some studies we've read about LGBTQ youth needing more social and emotional support, we have expanded our support.
VR: From a board perspective, we're interested in long-term planning. Since we announced Tico's departure and appointed Brad and Editha (and now, solely, Editha), we've been making sure that we use an inclusive process to begin a national search. In the last two months (June and July), Koya has been engaged with the staff; meeting with people like stakeholders, donors and city leaders; holding town halls; and taking surveys to ensure that we're being intentional in creating a position profile for the leadership that the Center is going to require for the future.
We also need to meet emerging needs. As Editha mentioned, we're aware of the challenges and threats our community faces, locally and nationally. And some of those national threats are making local needs greater, as we see young people move to Chicago and as we see migrant refugees move here. It's a lot of foundation-building, it's ensuring that we have the resources and [the right] plans as we go into the future. We're very optimistic about the potential of the Center on Halsted, but we're also very focused on that foundation-building and that we have a successful transition as we search for that next CEO.
EP: We mentioned that we've reached out to our stakeholders. If you go to our website [at centeronhalsted.org/ceosearch.html&, we are seeking input from the community about the CEO.
WCT: Are there any plans for the Center's expansion?
EP: What we have is Center on Cottage Grove, which is right off of 63rd and Cottage Grove. There is no commitment beyond that particular obligation, but we are interested in expanding our services on the South Side. Right now, we have housing on the South Side and we are looking to build on that as the need arises. We currently house approximately eight youths.
WCT: Aside from finding a CEO, what would each of you say is the most pressing issue for the Center?
EP: That's a great question. Putting my chief program officer hat on, as Victor said, we're surrounded by red states, and we're starting to see more people in our programs who have relocated to Illinois. I always ask myself, "What is being asked of us and [how] do we meet those needs?" I also ask if we're ready for what's ahead.
VR: To echo Editha, there are going to be growing needs. We need to focus on our mission; we're always looking to serve those most vulnerable in our community and to make sure we can meet those growing needs. In particular, we look at our youth and toward our seniors and trans members of our community to ensure that we have the resources and services to meet their needs. We're constantly revisiting what programming those individuals need, and making sure we have the right folks at the table to help shape those services.
WCT: Something Windy City Times ran some years ago was about former employees alleging a toxic work environment. [Note: That article is at www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/Ex-Center-On-Halsted-staffers-allege-toxic-work-environment/52302.html .] What steps can you take to make sure this level of dissatisfaction/toxicity doesn't arise with the new CEO?
VR: I think the process we've been doing for the last 60 days of stakeholder engagement is a first step of ensuring that there's a way for staff, at all levels, to provide about the priorities of the Center. As we look at the structure moving forward, we're very mindful of how critical our staff, volunteers and community are. We want to make sure that everyone feels heard.
EP: For the kind of work we do, it's absolutely necessary for our program managers (who are the front line of our services) to [work smoothly]. My role is to make sure I remove whatever "frictions" that exist so they can deliver for the organization and to the community.
WCT: So what are your hopes regarding the Center's future?
EP: I'd like the Center to build on that strong foundation that it has had for the past 15 years and to adaptespecially with the increasing demands that we discussed earlier. To me, organizations such as Howard Brown, Center on Halsted and Brave Space Alliance need to be ready and available to adapt to the increasing needs of the community. Internally, I'd like to continue to build collaborations and to address challenges.
VR: For me, it's really to have the Center on Halsted continue to meet its mission by addressing current and future needs. I'd love for the Center to be a model for the Midwest and think about solutions in an innovative and transformative way. We also need to ensure thatfrom accountability and transparency standpointswe're able to raise the bar.
I'm excited about what's ahead and the chance to shape this next chapter.
Center on Halsted's website is www.CenterOnHalsted.org .