Prizm News / December 1, 2018 / By Bob Vitale
AJ Casey brings a long resume and lofty ideals to the LGBTQ community center.
By Bob Vitale
AJ Casey brings 30 years of experience developing, running and raising money for nonprofit agencies to her new job as executive director of Stonewall Columbus.
She also brings the experience of a daughter of a civil-rights lawyer and registered nurse “who instilled in us a need to fight for what’s right.”
“It’s not about the work of being an executive director,” she says of what drew her to the job. “It’s not about the paperwork. It’s not about the facility maintenance, although those are all huge things. It’s about changing, helping, supporting the lives of people who are literally counting on us for their lives. It’s an awesome responsibility.”
It’s also “a scary honor,” she jokes.
Casey, a native of Cincinnati, graduate of Youngstown State University and resident of Columbus since the 1990s, was hired in November to lead the 37-year-old LGBTQ community center. She’ll start with the new year.
She takes the helm at a critical juncture.
Stonewall opened the doors in mid-November on a $4 million building renovation and expansion that triples its space and will accommodate expanded services and programming. The center also is turning the page on friction that followed the arrests and convictions of four black and queer activists who stepped into the 2017 Pride parade to protest police violence and call attention to violence against trans women of color.
Casey says she plans to meet with people throughout the LGBTQ community during her first 100 days on the job. She attended some of the meetings that took place over the last year—“some of them were not very pleasant experiences,” she says—but remains convinced that Stonewall can emerge “stronger, bigger, better, wiser.”
“I don’t think there’s been any malicious intent to exclude people. There’s been a cry to be more purposeful about including people. I think that’s going to happen.”
“People are trying to mend fences, build bridges. That has to happen. It has to start with conversations. It has to start with a willingness to understand.”
A day before she was introduced last month as Stonewall’s new leader, Casey sat in the lobby of the new center as construction workers rushed to get things ready for an opening reception. As a volunteer for the fundraising effort and a member of the Stonewall board since January, she’s been picturing how the expanded center would be used since it existed only on paper.
Now as the incoming executive director, she sees more than support group meetings and ballroom dance classes and one-on-one counseling sessions. She sees more than wedding receptions and parties and conferences for which people will be able to rent space in the building.
“I think now, in this political environment, a community center is more necessary than ever before. I think we live in a society now where hate is almost acceptable. A lot of the progress we’ve made is threatened,” Casey says. “I think this is the place—and I really intend that this is going to be the place—where people can come to just be themselves and also to find refuge and support and just love.”
She knows that sounds kind of corny in these times.
“I’ve been critiqued, criticized, because I really believe that love is an answer,” she continues. “It’s a solution to the problems; it’s not a Band-Aid. It’s a healing thing. I think that’s what this center has to be.”
Casey, who is a lesbian, has been thinking a lot lately about community and how we define it.
We’re members of the LGBTQ+ community simply by virtue of our sexual orientation or gender identity, she says, but it takes more to bring us together in the broader sense of the word.
“Do we just coexist in a big empty world, all of us identifying with our specific letter of the alphabet?” she asks. “It’s one thing for us to identify as part of a community and be here and not know the guy sitting next to us. It’s another thing to come here and meet and make new connections.”
That’s the biggest challenge that awaits her, but it’s the part of the job Casey says she’s most looking forward to. It’s the “good awesome” she refers to right after saying she’s taking on an awesome responsibility.
Casey began thinking about using her experience and talents within the LGBTQ community while attending her first Columbus Pride brunch in 2015, but she says she probably wouldn’t have sought the Stonewall job had it not been for the divisions laid bare in 2017.
Before she moved back to Ohio in 1995, Casey was director of the Boys & Girls Club in Seattle. She came home to be closer to her parents. Her father was Ohio’s first black assistant U.S. attorney, and her mother was a civil-rights activist and nurse.
Most recently, she has worked with Benefactor Group, a consulting firm for nonprofit organizations.
Mary B. Relotto, the founder of Dames Bond, a networking and support organization for women entrepreneurs, has known Casey for 22 years. She calls her friend a problem-solver but describes talents that go far beyond that.
“She is insightful, thoughtful and has the uncanny ability to make sense of just about anything through her words of wisdom,” Relotto says. “In fact, I have relied on AJ numerous times to guide me through some difficult situations. The bottom line is that she cares deeply about the community in which she lives and plans to serve it with an open-door policy. I couldn’t be more proud of this woman I fondly call sister.”
Stonewall board Chair Rob Podlogar says trustees “could not be happier” to welcome Casey on board.
“As the organization moves in to our new center we saw and have every confidence that AJ will bring the leadership, community partnership and fundraising experience to usher in this exciting new chapter. Together, we’re excited to expand the current programming to ensure that our entire community is represented.”
Among her priorities, Casey says, is expanding Stonewall’s technological footprint and giving people more options for interacting with the center and using its services.
She wants more intergenerational programming and more programs to bring LGBTQ people together across race and gender and identities.
“I’ve got a million ideas,” she says.
“I want us to be able to talk about how we can help eliminate barriers, know each other and connect. We are a community. We’re not just LGBTQ people all living in the same town.”
FIND OUT MORE
Visit stonewallcolumbus.org to find support groups, social events and other programs coordinated through Stonewall Columbus.
To learn more about the renovated and expanded Stonewall Columbus community center, visit stonewallbuilds.org.
Stonewall Columbus organizes the annual Columbus Pride festival and parade. It’s scheduled for June 14-16 in 2019.