New Stonewall Executive Director AJ Casey Hopes to Mend a Broken Community
AJ Casey is inheriting a bit of a mess.
Come January, she’ll take over Stonewall Columbus as the organization’s newest executive director, succeeding Karla Rothan. Rothan was the Person In Charge for Pride 2017, during which four black trans individuals were arrested after a peaceful protest, and after which the local LGBTQ+ community was left fragmented.
At the start of her term, Casey says listening will be her number one priority. Engaging members from all corners of the LGBTQ+ community, she hopes to shape Stonewall into a more inclusive leader and start to piece back together the community it leads.
Pride 2017 & the BlackPride4
It started with a controversial decision by a Minnesota jury on June 16, 2017, the day before Columbus’ Pride parade. Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who fired seven shots into a car during a routine traffic stop killing school cafeteria worker Philando Castile, was acquitted of manslaughter charges. Castile, a 32-year-old black man, was in the car with his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter at the time.
“After the acquittal, we were angry. Everything that has happened in this city so far just like, boiled up,” said Wriply Bennet, one of the four arrested at Pride 2017, in a previous interview with CU. She made references to the Columbus Division of Police’s own fatal shootings of young black men like Henry Green, 23, and Tyre King, 13. “And it’s like, so they can ignore this happening across the country, they can ignore this happening here. They ignore our deaths, they ignore our struggles, and I was like, ‘How can you be proud? How can you march in a parade for pride when you ought to be ashamed of yourselves?’”
Bennet’s response, along with nine other friends, was to stage a protest at the Pride parade. Together with taped mouths, they locked arms and began to impede the roadway where attendees marched. Their hope was for seven minutes of silence, one for each time Yanez shot Castile, in peaceful protest against police brutality.
But observers didn’t know their intent, and within seconds police arrived to break it up. Bennet, along with Kendall Denton, Ashley Braxton and Deandre Miles — soon to be known together as the BlackPride4 — were thrown down, maced and arrested. Onlookers cheered as the parade continued.
In the weeks and months after, the BlackPride4 and their supporters grew more resentful of Stonewall Columbus, whose staff testified against the protesters as their charges were heard in court. Black, Queer & Intersectional Collective (BQIC), of which the BlackPride4 are members, led protests, overtook a Stonewall-hosted community conversation, and struck out on their own to throw a “Community Pride,” sans police, during Stonewall’s parade this year.
A rift had been revealed in the LGBTQ+ community. And that rift runs along the intersection of gender identity and race.
A Wounded Community
Casey wasn’t in town for Pride 2017, but that didn’t keep her insulated from the chaos.
“I think like everyone else, I experienced a lot of pain,” she says. “My relationships with people in the LGBTQ community changed. I believe at that time Stonewall had an opportunity to bring the community together, and for reasons that I cannot enumerate it did not happen, and there were people who felt betrayed and left behind.”
Dkeama Alexis, co-creator of BQIC, says Stonewall failed to take accountability after the arrests of the BlackPride4. Alexis, other members of BQIC, and their supporters presented Stonewall with a list of demands: the resignation of Rothan and the Board of Trustees, a public condemnation of the Columbus Division of Police, a public apology that acknowledges the exclusion of queer and trans people of color from the greater LGBTQ+ community, and a formal request for Columbus prosecutors to drop the BlackPride4’s charges.
Rothan officially stepped down from her role as executive director in April of this year, but remained on as a contractual hire to oversee the completion of Stonewall’s newly renovated facility. Only one board member has left, Sara Colton, because her term was up. There was no public condemnation of the Columbus Division of Police and no request that the charges be dropped.
“Folks in the community have already presented Stonewall with opportunities to be accountable, and they failed to rise to the occasion multiple times,” Alexis said in a statement. “I’m skeptical that any change-making processes led by SWC will go anywhere because they’ve so far been unable to internally commit to the necessary transformative work.”
In February, Stonewall posted a statement to Facebook following the sentencing of the BlackPride4.
“The court’s decision should not silence the discussion about violence and discrimination facing LGBTQ+ people of color. Rather, it should strengthen our resolve to address these systemic issues in our pursuit of equality and fairness.”
“This experience has shined a light on divisions within our entire community,” the post continued. “As we look toward the future, Stonewall Columbus will continue to work toward healing these divisions through greater collaboration and engagement.”
In the post, Stonewall said they’d expanded their Board of Trustees to better reflect the community and enhance programs to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ people of color. Eight people were added, including Casey.
Mending Fences & Building Bridges
Casey moved from Seattle to Columbus back in 1995, but she’s originally from Ohio. She’s currently at Benefactor, Of Counsel, where she’s served for four years.
For 30 years now, Casey’s worked in the nonprofit sector, and she describes herself as a natural teacher and visionary. As a Columbus resident, Casey’s done fundraising for Goodwill Columbus and the Columbus Cancer Clinic. From there, she went into consulting, assisting with fundraising with a national consulting firm. She hopes to use this fundraising experience to grow Stonewall’s 40-year fund of nearly $4 million to $40 million.
“Our responsibility is to provide a place where voices can be heard and build coalitions that allow needs to be met and those voices to be expressed, and build on what we’ve created over the last 40 years — build it to last,” Casey says.
At eight years old, Casey says she was first introduced to the world of politics and social justice. Her father was running for judge at the time.
“My family have been fighters for civil rights, social justice since I was a child,” says Casey. “I have been a lifelong fighter, or at least believer, in doing what’s right so people can simply be themselves. Everybody wants to be able to live openly and happily and, if not accepted, certainly be respected.”
She didn’t take this job because she thought it was going to be easy, she says, but to use the skills she’s developed to both mend a broken community and enable it to grow.
Come January, Casey hopes to host a series of discussions, dubbed “100 Days of Listening” and involving up to 12 people, “so I can listen to what people in the community need, want and desire from Stonewall, and fuse those ideas together to shape the future of programming.”
She says in order for Stonewall and the greater LGBTQ+ community to be able to move on from Pride 2017, everyone will have to show a willingness to come to the table, and she’s optimistic about it.
“It has to start with conversation,” she says. “Two people, me and you, willing to have a conversation and air out what happened. And from that initial conversation we can expand from two to six to 600.”
After those 100 days, Casey plans on using the ideas, feedback, complaints, etc. to develop a new plan for Stonewall and Pride 2019. She’s always seen Pride as a safe space, a place where she knew that she’d be okay as part of a marginalized community, a place where people have come to find a spirit of belonging, “no matter their age or race or where they grew up.”
Casey knows about the critiques Columbus’ parade has faced from groups like BQIC: that it’s whitewashed, over-policed, and unsafe for people of color. But she doesn’t necessarily agree. She sites the involvement of David Brown and the Harmony Project, who led the parade this year, and says that Stonewall has been deliberate to prioritize diversity in their selection of Grand Marshal.
“People will get a chance to see more visibly the kinds of changes — diversity and inclusion will become one of the touchstones of my time there,” Casey says. “Can you see it? Can you feel it? Are people really feeling that Stonewall is a reflection of the community that we serve?”
Casey’s plan for Stonewall focuses a lot on moving forward, but a statement from Alexis suggests BQIC, the BlackPride4 and others aren’t quite ready to bury the hatchet.
“If anything, I hope they understand that their main priority should be outlining concrete steps to repair the harm they’ve perpetuated against queer and trans communities of color, most recently the #BlackPride4,” Alexis says. “The first step in that process is SWC at least acknowledging how they engineered that pain, which they have yet to do.”
Casey is faithful that her plan for thoughtful, open dialogue will help bring the community together. She says now is not the time for infighting.
“It’s almost politically correct to hate people who don’t look like you or live where you came from. We are threatened at the federal, the highest level. This is not a time for us to fight with each other,” Casey says. “Protesting, rallying — it all has a place that can never be replaced, but there is also a time to build community, and this is it.”
For more information, visit stonewallcolumbus.org.