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Rainbow Railroad executive director resigns

Former ED Justin Taylor says ‘burnout’ was a factor

Former Rainbow Railroad executive director Justin Taylor says the timing is right for him to leave. Credit: Courtesy Rainbow Railroad

Two years after being hired as the organization’s first staff member, executive director Justin Taylor has made the “tough decision” to step down from Rainbow Railroad’s top job.

Taylor announced his departure in an email sent to Rainbow Railroad supporters on Aug 17, 2016.

Rainbow Railroad is a Toronto-based organization that helps LGBT refugees seek safety from state-enabled violence, murder or persecution in their home countries. Last year, the organization reportedly helped 77 people from the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East to claim asylum in a safe country.

Taylor’s departure leaves a large hole within the refugee aid organization that is currently embarking on an ambitious plan to help significantly more LGBT refugees, according to board chair Michael Battista. This year, Battista says that Rainbow Railroad has already assisted 36 people.

“Justin took us from a passionate but disorganized group of volunteers to a professional organization that’s gained a huge amount of credibility amongst donors and other international organizations,” he says.

Battista credits Taylor with the organization’s incredible growth, which went from fielding a couple of requests for help per month and working with about $16,000 per year to now receiving one request per day and so far this year, has raised over $250,000 in travel assistance.

Taylor says the timing was right for him to leave, as the organization is now financially stable and just hired a program manager in April to handle most of the group’s casework.

However, the significant challenges of the organization — working with donors, growing the organization and dealing with what is often a very challenging caseload — are reasons why Taylor says he needed to step back from such emotional work to find a better work-life balance.

“I have two young nephews in Ottawa who I haven’t been able to see very much,” Taylor says. “So a whole bunch of things combined, kind of to make me assess that I need to spend a little bit more time focusing on my family and myself and a little bit more self-care.”

Working with people in such harrowing circumstances does not come without its toll, Taylor says, having recently learned that a few of the people Rainbow Railroad was helping had committed suicide, and one person was murdered before Rainbow Railroad could intervene.

But even when they are able to help, things don’t always go smoothly. In another case, they were trying to help a queer woman escape Uganda only to find out she had been abducted, drugged and raped.

“Each of those things takes a bit of an emotional toll on you,” Taylor says. “You’re the kind of person who wants to help as many people as you can and do as much as possible, so when there’s these setbacks, they can be pretty emotional.”

Still, both men insist Taylor’s departure comes with proud accomplishments and well wishes, including the launch of Rainbow Railroad’s private sponsorship pilot project with Syrian refugees, which has sponsored five people, four of whom have already arrived in Toronto.

Battista says the organization is looking to “diversify its toolbox” by potentially making the sponsorship program permanent, and increasing its caseload even more. Rainbow Railroad has hired Ken Gibson, who most recently served as the chief financial officer with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, as its interim executive director while it searches for a new permanent head.

And though the casework is the bread and butter of Rainbow Railroad’s work, Battista says the new ED will focus more on the growth and development of the organization, a job description that Taylor helped create. “Now that we have someone full-time processing cases, the demands for us to raise funds and help those cases is increasing,” Battista says.

But those demands can also be straining on the rest of the team. When asked about the workload and stress level of staff, Battista says they need to be sensitive to the signs of trauma by having regular counselling available to them as well as checking in with staff to make sure things are okay.

Taylor’s departure adds yet another vacant leadership position in Toronto’s LGBT community including Pride Toronto, the Canadian Lesbian Gay Archives and the Inside Out Film Festival.

Even though Taylor is leaving, he’s proud of Rainbow Railroad’s accomplishments and is optimistic about the organization’s future. “I can say there’s well over a hundred people that were helped during my time here and we grew the organization three-fold so there’s things to be happy about,” says Taylor.