Rush Center lays off entire staff, shuts down after 12 years

The Phillip Rush Center abruptly closed on Monday, leaving five employees jobless and clients of the non-profit’s Health Initiative program without its long-running services.

The Rush Center board claimed that the coronavirus pandemic led to the closure, according to a statement provided to Project Q Atlanta on Wednesday. 

“It is with much sadness that we announce the closing of the Rush Center, effective Monday, June 15, 2020,” the statement said. “Due to the unprecedented effects of the COVID pandemic, the Rush Center is unable to continue operations. As a gathering space and location for service provision, it has been impossible to fully operate since March. This has taken a tremendous toll on the organization and sadly we must close operations.”

Interim Executive Director Simone Bell confirmed with Project Q Atlanta that she and Amir Jones, Darie Wolfson, Damir Allwood and Sebastian Beckham Nix were let go. Bell declined to comment further. 

The physical Rush Center facility will remain open, according to the board’s statement. Current tenants include Georgia Equality, Atlanta Pride, SOJOURN, Pets Are Loving Support, All-1-Family and Out Georgia Business Alliance. 

“To the best of our ability, we are working on details so that tenant organizations will not be displaced,” the statement said.

Georgia Equality takes over lease

 

Five Rush Center tenants released a joint statement on Wednesday that said they are “collectively heartbroken” about the layoffs.

“The combined staffs of all of the Rush Center organizations have been like a family, and we know that sentiment is shared by so many in the broader LGBTQ community,” the statement said. “Our organizations are committed to working together to preserve what we can from what has been built here.”

Georgia Equality is a co-signer on the Rush Center facility’s lease, according to the statement. 

“Consequently [Georgia Equality] will be taking over the lease to provide stability for organizations that use the space and make sure that organizations can continue to access their offices, mail, and storage,” the statement said. “That access is unchanged as of now, and it is our plan to keep it that way.”

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham (second photo) told Project Q that the groups are committed to keeping their offices “for now.”

“For the physical building, we have a lease for another year, and we’re committed to continuing to work with the organizations that are there to make sure that everybody has access to their offices and the rent and utilities get paid,” he said.

Graham said most of the tenants have been working from home since the coronavirus pandemic started.

Troubled times for Rush Center

 

The Candler Park facility that later became the Phillip Rush Center was created in 2008. Rush (third photo) was a longtime LGBTQ Atlanta activist who died in 2009.

The Rush Center initially housed the Health Initiative and Georgia Equality, but it later expanded to become the home of Atlanta Pride, SOJOURN and other LGBTQ and progressive organizations. 

The Health Initiative was founded as the Atlanta Lesbian Cancer Initiative in 1996. The organization was renamed the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative in 2004 and then the Health Initiative in 2011.The Health Initiative name was officially changed to the Rush Center in 2018 when it became a program of the facility. 

The Rush Center's closing comes six months after Linda Ellis resigned as the executive director. Bell, a community activist and former state lawmaker, came on as interim executive director in January. She was to serve in the position for nine to 12 months to give the Rush Center board time to find a permanent leader, Rush Center Board Chair Sandy Hoke said in January.

Also in January, longtime employee James Parker Sheffield claimed that the Rush Center fired him in retaliation for organizing a union for the center’s employees. A small fire that month also caused minor damage and forced the facility to temporarily shut down. 

CenterLink, which represents a coalition of LGBTQ community centers, released survey results in May on the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on 135 centers across the U.S.

The survey found that over half of the centers have experienced cancellation of fundraising, reduced fees for services and reduced individual contributions. The survey also found that without additional help, nearly one-third of the centers would shut down by July.

The Rush Center board’s full statement:

It is with much sadness that we announce the closing of the Rush Center, effective Monday, June 15, 2020. Due to the unprecedented effects of the COVID pandemic, the Rush Center is unable to continue operations. As a gathering space and location for service provision, it has been impossible to fully operate since March. This has taken a tremendous toll on the organization and sadly we must close operations.

We are grateful to Simone Bell who stepped in as Interim Director earlier this year. The Rush Center board recognizes the hard work and commitment of the dedicated Rush Center staff. We are grateful for their dedication and service.

To the best of our ability, we are working on details so that tenant organizations will not be displaced. We recognize the void that this leaves in our community. We thank all of the Rush Center supporters over the years. We are grateful for the community support and we hope that a new community space will emerge when the time is right.

The Rush Center Board

The joint statement from Rush Center tenants:

We, the five undersigned tenant organizations of the Phillip Rush Center, are writing to Atlanta's LGBTQ community, our community, in hopes of providing some information about what is happening with the Rush Center. 

We are collectively heartbroken by what happened at the beginning of this week. The combined staffs of all of the Rush Center organizations have been like a family and we know that sentiment is shared by so many in the broader LGBTQ community. Our organizations are committed to working together to preserve what we can from what has been built here. 

As you may know, Georgia Equality is co-signed on the lease for the physical building spaces that we occupy, and consequently will be taking over the lease to provide stability for organizations that use the space and make sure that organizations can continue to access their offices, mail, and storage. That access is unchanged as of now, and it is our plan to keep it that way. 

In the coming weeks and months, we will assess our ability to afford the rent and utilities necessary to continue providing community gathering spaces. It is our hope that when large gatherings are allowed to continue, the space that so many community groups depend on will still be here waiting for them. 

We know many folks have additional questions, as do we. Please direct your questions to members of the Rush Center Board of Directors. 

All-1-Family
Atlanta Pride 
Georgia Equality 
Out Georgia Business Alliance
SOJOURN

This story is made possible through a grant from Facebook Journalism Project's COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund.