Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino, eight weeks into her job as chief executive of the Mazzoni Center, knew she was stepping into a turbulent situation at the Center City nonprofit that provides medical and other services to the city's LGBTQ community.
In April 2017, Mazzoni's board ousted its longtime leader amid allegations that she harbored long-running bias against minority employees and was slow to react to claims of sexual misconduct by a former medical director. In the wake of all that, workers voted to unionize in September.
The appointment of Gonzalez Sciarrino in March sparked a new furor, with some objecting that the 50-year-old can't represent the Mazzoni community because she is the group's first non-LGBTQ leader in its nearly 40-year history.
"There's a lot of distractions," Gonzalez Sciarrino said Friday at Mazzoni's new building at Broad and Bainbridge Streets, which serves 35,000 clients a year. "Distractions are distractions, as long as we know what we are here to do."
Among her priorities, Gonzalez Sciarrino said, is to rebuild relationships with longtime partners that were frayed by last year's turmoil. She said the dedication she has seen from employees since she arrived has encouraged her: "They know how we need to do what we do, how we need to do it best, so that we can help, so that we can provide hope."
Some leaders in the city's LGBTQ community are waiting to see what Gonzalez Sciarrino does at the center, which says it operates the largest private HIV testing and STD screening program in Philadelphia. It employs 182 and expects to have $16.5 million in revenue in the year ending June 30.
"The importance of the Mazzoni Center cannot be overstated. As a community institution, many LGBTQ Philadelphians count on Mazzoni for their medical care," said Amber Hikes, executive director of Philadelphia's Office of LGBT Affairs.
Hikes said she is looking forward to Gonzalez Sciarrino's presentation at the LGBTQ State of the Union on Tuesday at the Kimmel Center, where 600 people are expected. "This event will be the first time the greater Philadelphia LGBTQ community has an opportunity to hear from Mazzoni's new CEO about her priorities for the Mazzoni Center and its direction moving forward," Hikes said.
A founder of the Brown & Black Workers Collective on Friday remained convinced that Gonzalez Sciarrino was not right for the job.
"Lydia is, from what we know, straight-identified. She is 'CIS' — she identifies with the gender she was assigned at birth — and she is a white Latinx woman from Florida, who isn't even from Philly," said Shani Akilah. "Not only did they not choose somebody from Philly, they didn't choose someone who represents the community impacted by HIV/AIDS."
Gonzalez Sciarrino said she moved from Puerto Rico to Erie, Pa., when she was 19 and lived there for 21 years, rising to chief financial officer of a nonprofit continuing-care retirement community, before moving to Florida in 2008. She worked most recently as CEO of the nonprofit Whole Family Health Center in Fort Pierce, Fla., which had $9.5 million in revenue in fiscal 2017.
The controversy over the choice of Gonzalez Sciarrino by Mazzoni's board is not surprising, said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University's School of Business. When picking a CEO, organizations that serve a narrowly defined population, such as people with a certain disease or with specific characteristics, face particular challenges. Otten said some board members are going to want the CEO to mirror the population that group serves, while others want the best candidate for their mission.
Mazzoni's balance sheet shows a spike in long-term debt from zero in fiscal 2016 to $10.5 million at the end of fiscal 2017. The money was used for its new headquarters, which opened in May 2017 at Broad and Bainbridge Streets. The board clearly needed someone with deep financial experience.
"No matter what we do, if the business is not financially solid," Gonzalez Sciarrino said, "we may not be able to continue providing services or we may have a hard time regrouping."