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Questions of Racial “Sensitivity” Cloud Selection of Interim Executive Director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville

Board members satisfied with candidate’s response to allegations

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“If push comes to shove, we will go without an interim executive director,” said Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville (CCGJ) Board Chair Ann Carey on Sept. 17. It was close to the end of a long and surprisingly painful meeting.

On June 15 CCGJ Executive Director Tony Allegretti resigned. Originally his plan was to remain with the organization until Dec. 28; three weeks ago, he moved his departure date up to Sept. 28. That put a lot of pressure on the board to find an interim director.

By the afternoon of Sept. 14, that person was looking to very likely be current City Council hopeful Michael Boylan, who is running to succeed term-limited Matt Schellenberg in District 6. As the former head of local NPR affiliate WJCT, he has the qualities, resume and connections the CCGJ is looking for. After Florida Politics reported that he was being considered for the position, the meeting was convened to discuss Boylan as possible interim CEO.

At that meeting, board member JaMario Stills raised concerns that in the past Boylan had made disparaging comments about women and people of color, comments that Stills said he would “rather not provide explicit quote because it is embarrassing.” Stills did say, however, that the statements he was privy to were “enough information to make me feel that this would be a very bad move,” he said.

Following that meeting, Boylan categorically denied the charges to Folio Weekly, saying, “I guess I’m at a loss, quite honestly as to what to say […] I don’t ever recall a specific situation...my frustration [is that] my actions speak louder than my words. I have a history of providing support to the women on my staff, to people of color not only in the organization but outside of it as well...so I just think it’s being unfortunately used as a means of impeding my opportunity to help…. And I don’t know what the real rationale for it is.”

Boylan also spoke of his time with the Human Rights Commission and said that his commitment in part stems from wanting to be a part of a solution since he relocated here about 20 years ago. He said he’s “facilitated study circles [on race relations] for about 15 years, so not only did I participate in them, I led them.” And Boylan has served on many boards including One Jax, Reclaiming Young Black Males for Jacksonville’s Future, and Community Health Charities, among at least 13 others.

The following day, Sept. 15, FW received an email from Boylan where he did recall one incident: “We had hosted an event at WJCT that went into the evening where I was one of the last persons leaving the building. Out in the parking lot still were three good friends who happened to persons of color. In a poor attempt at humor I made some comment about questionable characters hanging out in the parking lot.”

Boylan explained that one of the people in the parking lot noted his comments and said, “I [later] met with two of them with a mutual friend where they let me know that they found my words offensive.” He said he was embarrassed and apologetic.

He noted that he reached out out to the “third person who was in the parking lot that evening and apologized for my insensitivity. That person told me no apology was necessary, saying he knew me for the person I was and absolutely took no offense to it.”

Human rights activist Chevara Orrin was one of the three witnesses to the incident. Orrin noted that one of the three people present had a very different take on Boylan’s statement, which they did not find offensive. She also took care to give context to the conversation, explaining to FW that she served on the board of trustees of WJCT for maybe three or four years, and also served as a member of the Cultural Council’s grant panel for several years. “So I have perspective about both organizations and also with Michael,” Orrin said. In fact, Boylan was the person who brought her onto the WJCT board.

Orrin said that Boylan’s statement was made in the evening after an event at WJCT with guest speaker Sonia Manzano (Maria from Sesame Street). Manzano’s presentation was about diversity, inclusion and belonging. Orrin, Rachel Vitti (a dyslexia education specialist and public education policy advisor, as well as wife of former Duval County Superintendent of Schools Nikolai Vitti) and another person of color were standing in the parking lot chatting. They were the only people present. Boylan, she says, walked up to them. “I’m assuming he’s doing this in jest. But he walks up and says, ‘What are you all doing in my parking lot? Y’all out here, you riff raff in my parking lot, I’m gonna call the police.’”

Orrin said that there had recently been a police shooting of an unarmed black man. “Rachel, her immediate response: She twisted her head around in that black woman kind of way and said, ‘What did you say?’ And her eyes literally jumped out of her head. She looked at me, I looked at her and she walked off, and I walked off to my car and before I could open my door, Rachel was calling me. And she said, ‘What the hell?’ We were both practically in tears. We are both the mothers of black sons […] I will tell you this: if you jokingly call the police on Rachel’s son, he could be dead, easily.”

She said her immediate thought at the time was, “I wouldn’t joke with a Muslim friend about extra security at an airport. For me it was that level of basic sensitivity.”

Subsequently, Vitti and Orrin met and discussed the best way to proceed and process their emotions. They brainstormed about how best to thoughtfully approach Boylan so they wouldn’t appear as “angry black women.”

“Part of the reason we addressed it with Michael was because we’d already had numerous micro-aggressions from just being on the board.”

Orrin said that she was hopeful that Boylan would hear what they needed to say. She said that he was clearly upset and embarrassed, and denied any taint of structural racism. He apologized and asked how to “make this better.” Orrin and Vitti said “accountability.”

Orrin then explained the idea of accountability: “Michael, you are on stages across this community talking about and championing race, how powerful would it be if you stood on a stage and said, ‘the work is messy, and it is awkward. Let me tell give you an example of something that happened to me recently: I deeply offended two black women that I respect. Even with the best of intentions, this was the impact on their lives.’”

Orrin continued, “He looked off in the distance, and said, ‘That’s a good idea.’” The next day he sent a follow up email with the subject line, “Again, my apologies,” in which he wrote:

Chevara & Rachel -  I want to, once again, thank and apologize to you both. Thank you for your willingness to and candor in letting me know that my thoughtless words were hurtful. I apologize for my
insensitivity and I want you to know that this experience has left an indelible mark. I can't stop reflecting on it. - Michael

One source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, seemed to echo Orrin’s sentiments, “Michael Boylan is not a bad guy at all—he just doesn’t understand the context of the times we’re living in; and, its worrisome to think about someone in that position who doesn’t have situational awareness.”

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As the Sept. 14 meeting CCGJ wound down, Carey said that she planned to have a “frank” discussion with Boylan. On Sept. 19, board members told FW that they had discussed the matter with Boylan and were completed satisfied.

Carey replied: “I have spoken with Michael at length and am satisfied with the response he has given me. He engaged in a similar conversation with JaMario Stills about his concerns, as well. We will be discussing the interim appointment recommendation in Thursday’s meeting with the full board.”

On Thursday, Sept. 20, the CCGJ held a second meeting. Once again reservations about Boylan’s fitness and temperament were expressed. Many members were reluctant to take a position, as Stills had not disclosed the details of his allegation. Of the conversation he had with Boylan, Stills said, “It was a great conversation and Michael Boylan was in concert with my concerns...[he] was articulate about diversity and inclusion.” Stills summarized the content of their conversation: “We will agree to disagree.”

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For Orrin, the bigger picture here is one of accountability and learning, “If you are a self-proclaimed racial justice advocate, then you also have to be held responsible for making sure you are educated and making sure to continue to educate yourself around the groups you are saying you support.”

The CCGJ votes on Boylan’s appointment as interim executive director today.

FW will continue to follow developments.

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UPDATE: According to a press release sent out on Sept. 28, the CCGJ is moving directly into a search for the Executive Director. There will be no interim director.

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