Prizm News / April 27, 2018 / By Bob Vitale

Rothan steps down today, but she’ll continue as a consultant until Stonewall’s building project is finished.

By Bob Vitale

Deb Steele

Stonewall Columbus will start charting its future on a “blank sheet of paper” in coming weeks as it begins a national search for a new leader, seeks broad input on programming at its newly expanded community center and works to turn the page on a year of controversy.

That future starts Saturday when Deb Steele, a veteran organizer for progressive causes, takes over as interim executive director of the 37-year-old LGBTQ organization. Karla Rothan, who has led Stonewall since 2006 but became the target of criticism after Columbus police arrested four black activists at last year’s Pride, steps down today but will stay on as a consultant to wrap up fundraising and construction for the $4 million building project.

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Stonewall Columbus board Chairman Rob Podlogar said Steele will oversee the center’s day-to-day operations, as well as planning and production for Columbus Pride in June. The board, meanwhile, will conduct a community-wide survey on programming as it looks for the person who will be the center’s next full-time executive director.

“The community’s going to tell us what we need,” he said. “Give me a blank sheet of paper. What do you want to see for yourself at Stonewall Columbus?”

And by “community,” Podlogar added, he doesn’t mean people who already use and support the center.

“It can’t just be the 60,000 people on our email list,” he said. “It needs to be the 200,000 people we don’t have on it.”

A board committee is writing the job description now for the next executive director, and the search will begin in mid- to late May. Podlogar said interviews could begin in July and a new director could be hired by September. Still, he said, “we’re not forced into a timeline. If we don’t find the right candidate, we’ll continue.”

The right candidate will have a big job ahead.

Although Stonewall expanded its board of trustees early this year to add more people of color, it faces continued criticism stemming from the arrests, trial and conviction of three of the four activists who stepped in front of the parade on W. Broad Street to call attention to police brutality, violence against transgender women and the marginalization of people of color within the LGBTQ community.

Members of Black Queer & Intersectional Columbus—including Wriply Bennet, one of the Black Pride 4—say the entire board should resign and be replaced.

BQIC has urged past Columbus Pride sponsors to shun the celebration this year. The group has announced plans for a grassroots Pride festival and other events in June that will eschew corporate sponsors and put people of color front and center.

Stonewall trustees, meanwhile, “realized that the board needed to take a look at itself and the organization,” Podlogar said. Board members have taken part in an internal assessment and two educational sessions so far covering issues such as implicit bias. Podlogar said training will continue.

“As we bring on a new (permanent) director, the organization is moving in a direction of growth and inclusion,” he said. “I think it would be hard to find an individual to lead an organization they didn’t think was being fixed.”

Steele sounds as if she wouldn’t. The former Stonewall board member said she’s honored that fellow trustees trusted her to lead the organization through its transition to a new director, but she added: “My name is on the line.”

Steele has a degree in sociology from Ohio State University and is the elected fiscal officer for Franklin County’s Clinton Township. She has worked as a union organizer, a community organizer and an environmental organizer. “I live and breathe social justice and economic justice,” she said.

“I know in my heart the people (at Stonewall Columbus) are coming at this with the right values,” Steele said.

She also acknowledged a lot of work ahead for the LGBTQ center.

“Some people won’t be convinced until they see it through action. … I can see from their perspective that they don’t see it yet.”


Bob Vitale
A Toledo native and graduate of Toledo Public Schools, Bob has worked as a local government and politics reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, as a Washington correspondent for Thomson Newspapers and as editor-in-chief for Outlook Ohio. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science from Ball State University and a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.