3 min

Rainbow Railroad hires Kimahli Powell as new executive director

Powell comes to the job with extensive non-profit development and advocacy experience

Kimahli Powell was the director of development and outreach at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network before joining Rainbow Railroad as the new executive director, a position he will officially fill on Nov 14, 2016. Courtesy May Truong  

Rainbow Railroad, the Toronto organization that helps LGBT folks escape persecution abroad, has hired a new executive director two months after its first and founding ED left the organization.

Kimahli Powell, who comes to the position after working as the director of development and outreach at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network for the last five years, will begin his new position on Nov 14, 2016.

“I feel really excited,” says Powell in a phone interview from Montego Bay, Jamaica, where he was helping organize the city’s Pride festivities as part of his work at the legal network. “I’ve watched closely the work of Rainbow Railroad and I, like many others, have been excited and impressed by the work that it has been doing in a number of years.”

Rainbow Railroad hopes to expand the number of people it helps escape from state-enabled violence, murder or persecution in their home countries. In 2015, the organization reportedly helped 77 people from the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East claim asylum in a safe country. 

Powell’s work with the legal network supporting Jamaican LGBT activists while launching a legal challenge of the country’s anti-sodomy law may tie-in well with Rainbow Railroad’s efforts to help many Jamaican queers escape persecution.

“Looking at his background, it seems like his entire career was actually leading up to this position,” says Michael Battista, chair of Rainbow Railroad’s board of directors. “You know, very strong fundraising and development experience, work in the LGBT community, and then international advocacy with the HIV/AIDS legal network — and the fact that he’s a gay man of Jamaican background was the icing on the cake.”  

With Powell hired, the goal now will be to further increase cash flow and use that to help fund a larger caseload. “Our draft strategic plan certainly identifies growth as being a priority and we need money to do that,” Battista says.

The organization is blessed with a solid board of dedicated individuals who created a blueprint for his work, Powell says. He wants to look at program delivery and whether the people Rainbow Railroad helps are finding proper settlement and integration after they have received assistance. The group’s Syrian sponsorship pilot program has welcomed all five refugees, but a decision will have to be made about the future of the program. 

Kimahli Powell says he’s ready and looking forward to the challenges that come with being the executive director of Rainbow Railroad.
Courtesy May Truong

“I’m also looking where Rainbow Railroad’s voice is as a leader on LGBTI rights in Canada and internationally, as we play a key role in providing pathways to safety for people all over the world,”  Powell says.

But the job doesn’t come without its potential pitfalls. Citing “burnout” as a factor in his departure, Rainbow Railroad’s previous and founding executive director Justin Taylor left the organization in August.

Since Taylor’s departure, Battista says the organization has put proper safeguards in place to ensure the “vicarious trauma” of working with vulnerable people often in desperate situations doesn’t take its toll on the team trying to help them.

“When our previous executive director started, there wasn’t a program manager for him to rely upon to deal with most of the cases from which the trauma occurs, so he was dealing with running the organization as well as being kind of a first-line responder,” Battista says.

Now with two full-time staff members (a program manager was hired in April 2016), the executive director will have more time to focus on the administrative and fundraising aspects of running the group while the program manager will respond to the bulk of the caseload. Battista also says staff will have access to counselling and mentorship outside of the organization, if needed, to cope with the heavy nature of the work.

“Coming to a job and facing those cries for help on a day in, day out basis can be very exhausting, draining and very stressful, particularly because they’re coming — from a lot of times — halfway around the world, and a sense of helplessness sets in that there’s nothing immediate that we can do, and sometimes there’s nothing we can do at all,” Battista says. In 2015, Rainbow Railroad received 235 requests for help, but was only able to take less than a third of those cases.

“I’m aware that it’s going to be a stressful job and there will times where it’s going to be tough, and I’m also really looking forward to that challenge,” Powell says. “I think by my experience so far, it has led me to this moment. I know what I’m getting into.”