6 min

Coup rocks Youthquest

New board's legitimacy questioned

Credit: Robin Perelle

It was like watching David fight Goliath, Dillon Lazaroff says, recalling the night 30 or so youth packed Youthquest’s annual general meeting and overthrew its board of directors. “The youth had the vote and were able to vote Goliath off. They slew the board.”

Two weeks later, the dust continues to swirl. While some are hailing the youths’ Oct 12 coup d’état as a victory, others fear BC’s largest youth support organization may never recover.

Lazaroff, for one, is happy to see the old board go. The Surrey drop-in coordinator says the old board has been neglecting her drop-in and others for months-and prioritizing all the wrong things.

Youthquest is supposed to be about the drop-ins, she insists. They’re the core of this organization, they provide the safe spaces for the youth to connect in. By ignoring the drop-ins, the old board has been ignoring the youth, she claims.

Now, she says, it’s time to go back to basics.

Lazaroff points to a forecasted budget for the next few months which allocates most of the organization’s meagre funding to the executive director’s salary, and little to drop-ins or youth activities. She’d like to see those priorities reversed. If it were up to her, she’d put more money into youth activities and hire a part-time person to coordinate all the drop-ins. The board cut a similar position this summer due to lack of funding.

It’s like the drop-ins have been running without any support from the board, she says. “I felt I was on my own.”

Lazaroff feels particularly abandoned in her attempts to find a new meeting space for her group. The Surrey drop-in has been meeting in the rough Whalley neighbourhood for the last month, forcing the youth to run a gauntlet of hard-drug dealers and homophobic slurs just to get in the front door. That’s got to stop, Lazaroff says, but her requests for help have yielded little response from head office.

That’s not entirely true, says Youthquest’s former chair of the board, Jim Mann. He himself has been using his political connections in Surrey to try to secure a new space for the group, he says. Though he hasn’t succeeded yet, he has been trying.

The board has not been neglecting the drop-ins, Mann says. It’s just that the board can’t manage all the organization’s daily and weekly operations itself; it has a different role to play. “The board has a global view,” he explains, it builds and maintains relations with funders while overseeing the organization as a whole.

The board simply cannot manage each individual drop-in, he repeats. “I understand where they’re coming from but we just can’t do it. We are a board of volunteers. We are trying to network for funding opportunities.” The board has coordinators such as Lazaroff to manage individual drop-ins, he points out.

Besides, the board’s fundraising efforts are important and benefit all the organization’s members, he notes. New funding would make it possible, for example, to reinstate the recently cut drop-ins coordinator position, which he says he was hoping to do early next year.

Overall, Mann says he feels “very proud of the progress Youthquest has made in maturing as an organization.”

Though new to the organization himself, Gary Mitchell supports Mann’s fundraising focus. The former Conservative candidate says the old board was “perfectly moving in the right direction” with its emphasis on finding new money.

Anyone who wants to de-prioritize Youthquest’s fundraising and networking efforts is missing the big picture, Mitchell says. “Without money and awareness, you have nothing.”

Mitchell attended Youthquest’s Oct 12 meeting at Mann’s invitation and was elected to the new board. Mann and the old board had the organization’s “best interests in mind,” Mitchell repeats.

Lazaroff is not so sure. She says neglecting the drop-ins in favour of fundraising is not in the best interests of the youth Youthquest is supposed to be serving.

Louise Thomson shares Lazaroff’s concerns about the old board’s priorities. The former drop-ins coordinator (whose position was cut this summer for lack of funding) says the old board seems to have forgotten Youthquest’s mission statement. Youthquest is supposed to be about the drop-ins, she says; it’s supposed to be about “being in those communities where it’s hard to be gay.”

Ryan Zihrul agrees. “The drop-ins are the core” of Youthquest, he echoes. “And the youth are the people who are supposed to run Youthquest.”

Zihrul helped start the Chilliwack drop-in four years ago. Now the 18-year-old is concerned about the direction Youthquest seems to have taken in the last few months. The drop-ins are worth supporting, he says, “because most communities don’t have a safe and secure space where [queer youth] can be themselves without apology or shame.”

The drop-ins are important to Nathaniel Wolfe, too. Wolfe was one of the first youth to attend a Youthquest drop-in when the organization started in 1993. Now 28 years old, he has been involved in many different facets of the organization for more than a decade; he even served on its board in the late 1990s. This year, he returned to Youthquest to volunteer at its New Westminster drop-in, only to find “a black cloud” looming over the organization.

There’s a lot of negativity in the air and the board seems to have forgotten the youth and the drop-ins, Wolfe says. But “the drop-ins are what the society started with. That’s essentially what Youthquest is about-providing drop-in space.

“Youthquest used to be a grassroots organization,” he laments.

Such concerns drove Wolfe to attend Youthquest’s annual general meeting Oct 12. He was not prepared for what happened next.

He was waiting for the meeting to begin when “this crowd” of youth and their supporters walked in, wearing buttons saying, “Put the youth back in Youthquest,” he recalls. It was powerful, he says. “[I] got very excited. [I] knew at that moment that there was going to be a big change.”

He was right. Within the next few hours, the youth challenged the old board’s priorities, called for a financial audit and reportedly tried to hold a vote of non-confidence against the old board (though no such motion is recorded in the meeting’s minutes). The old board dissolved, as some of its members resigned and others decided not to run for re-election. A new board of directors rose in its place.

Wolfe is part of that new board. So is Zihrul.

“It was really empowering,” says Zihrul. “It was a great feeling to know what’s right is finally being done. And that we have the power to change what is happening.”

Now that he’s a director, Wolfe wants to focus on the youth, strengthen the drop-ins and generally bolster the membership’s confidence in the organization.

Zihrul also has high hopes. Though he’s nervous about being on a board for the first time, he says he’d like to see Youthquest run “a lot more smoothly” and be more youth-oriented. “And [have] a board that doesn’t act like a whole bunch of bigwigs just sitting at the top where no one can access them.”

While Zihrul and Wolfe feel empowered by the Oct 12 meeting and its election outcome, Mitchell and Mann say the night was anything but positive.

It was “nothing short of a coup on a Machiavellian level,” Mitchell says. The protestors “hijacked” the meeting with their unprofessional conduct and “highly emotional outbursts.”

Though some of the members may have had “very valid concerns,” he says (pointing to questions of expenses and representation), they brought them up “in a hysterical manner.” And, as a result, he says, they may have jeopardized the entire organization and everything it’s worked to achieve.

Mitchell points to a letter the new board received last week from Youthquest’s lawyer. The letter warns the new directors that some aspects of their election may have violated some of the organization’s bylaws. It also reportedly encourages the board to hold a new election in six weeks.

“This is serious,” Mitchell says; the integrity of the society could be at stake. Some donors have already pulled out, he notes.

Mann is also concerned about Youthquest’s well-being under its new board. He, too, is urging the new board to hold another election in six weeks “to confirm the outcome in a more reasonable environment” and make it “more credible.”

The newly elected board members could run again if another election is held, Mann points out. Though he says he himself would not run again, he would like to create and sit on an interim board to oversee Youthquest until a new election can be held.

Neither Zihrul nor Wolfe would comment on Mann’s suggestion to dissolve the new board and hold a new election. The new board is meeting as Xtra West goes to press to address that question as a group.

Mann says he just wants to minimize the meeting’s impact on the organization and its reputation. “I just don’t want to see the organization permanently damaged,” he says. “Nobody wins that way. Nobody does.”