CHELSEA — The group tasked with finding the next CEO for embattled AIDS service organization GMHC has come under fire by the organization's HIV-positive clients for its lack of racial and ethnic diversity.
GMHC's CEO search committee has no members who are black or Latino — or even anyone who is openly HIV-positive, according to sources, prompting anger from the Consumer Advisory Board, which represents those served by the organization.
"It's shameful," said Manny Rivera, chairman of the CAB. "Diversity doesn't mean we want a black guy as CEO, it just means having people in the room who have had those experiences."
CAB urged the GMHC search committee's leader, superstar civil rights attorney Roberta Kaplan, to include black and Latino voices on the committee.
But Kaplan brushed them off, emails obtained by DNAinfo New York show.
"According to GMHC’s articles of incorporation and New York law, it is the legal responsibility of the GMHC Board and the Board alone to appoint GMHC’s new CEO," Kaplan wrote in a March 28 email to CAB that was shared with DNAinfo.
"The CEO Search committee and the Board would welcome any thoughts or feedback either about the qualities that you think are most important in GMHC’s next CEO, or specific persons who have applied for the job who you would like to recommend ... You can rest assured that we are taking that responsibility very seriously and are working very hard to identify and select the best possible person for the job."
The majority of GMHC's clients are black or Latino, which aligns with recent statistics showing higher HIV rates among blacks and Latinos than among whites.
"A search committee with no people of color is deciding the fate of these people of color," Rivera said, adding that he and others are frustrated the monthslong search for a new CEO has been largely a closed process.
Hours after DNAinfo New York reached out to Kaplan and the board about the clients' concerns, the search committee published an open letter to clients on GMHC's website.
"Our number one goal from the very start of this process has been to hire the most qualified person possible to lead GMHC into the future, regardless of race, gender, or sexual identity, and/or HIV or other health status," the letter says. "That, of course, has necessarily required that we keep the identity of the candidates strictly confidential in order to protect the privacy of the candidates as well as to encourage the greatest number of qualified persons to apply.
"As you can imagine, there are very few people willing to apply for a new job — especially one like the CEO of GMHC — if by doing so, the fact of their application will become public knowledge."
Rivera said the all-white committee looks particularly bad in light of a much-criticized separate entrance for GMHC clients, which many said stigmatized people with HIV. The organization's founder, Larry Kramer, called it a "Jim Crow" separation.
Some clients fear that the process could signal an unwillingness to reform GMHC in the wake of the departure of Marjorie Hill, the former CEO fired in September, who led the organization to move into a largely empty $389,000-a-month office it is now looking to leave.
Kaplan has so far pushed heavily in favor of her friend and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to take the job, but Quinn turned down the position, sources within the organization said.
In a March 27 letter to the GMHC board, the client group wrote that their voices were not being heard in the current makeup of the nine-member committee. The group includes Kaplan, who shot to stardom after successfully arguing the U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, board chair Myron "Mickey" Rolfe, vice chair and attorney Michael Harwood, treasurer Warren Bimblick and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, who specializes in serving patients with HIV/AIDS.
"It is unacceptable that clients will have absolutely no role in either the vetting or the actual selection of the CEO that will serve them," the CAB wrote in its letter to Kaplan. "And the CEO selected by the few will be in place long after all of the terms of the current members of the Board of Directors are over."
The CAB has joined with AIDS activist group ACT UP and is planning protests at GMHC's West 33rd Street offices over the lack of diversity on the committee. The group also plans to urge public officials and donors to stop giving money to GMHC unless it allows black and Latino voices to help choose a new leader.
Rivera said he's particularly disappointed in Kaplan, who he said should be more open to a diverse committee.
"How is this woman with a national reputation for fighting for equality, fighting for gay and lesbian rights — how does this woman justify defiantly saying she knows what’s best for black and Latino people with HIV?" he said. "And how does she possibly justify excluding them from the process?"