Rush Center hires Simone Bell as interim leader

The Rush Center’s board of directors named former lawmaker and longtime community leader Simone Bell as its interim executive director this week. 

Bell (photo) replaces Linda Ellis, who stepped down as executive director of the Rush Center and the Health Initiative in December. 

“I think it is a great opportunity for me to use my skillset to move the Rush Center forward,” Bell told Project Q Atlanta. “I’ve hit the ground running.”

The Rush Center is home to the Health Initiative, Georgia Equality, Atlanta Pride, SOJOURN and several other LGBTQ and progressive organizations. 

Bell became the first African-American lesbian to serve in the state legislature when she was elected in House District 58 in 2009. She led the Southern Regional Office of Lambda Legal from 2015 to 2018 and was chief external affairs officer for Planned Parenthood Southeast in 2019.

Bell’s first day at the Rush Center was Tuesday. She will be in the position for nine to 12 months to give the Rush Center board time to find a permanent leader, according to Board Chair Sandy Hoke.

“We think she's a great fit for the organization,” he said.

Bell takes over the position during a tumultuous time for the Rush Center and some of its tenants.

Ellis resigned in December, and the following month, longtime employee James Parker Sheffield claimed that the Rush Center fired him in retaliation for organizing a union for the LGBTQ center’s employees.

Bell said she was “happy” that the Rush Center board recognized the union and that negotiations will soon start.

“We’ve communicated already and will be setting up a meeting in the next week or two with the union,” she said.

Bell had no comment on Sheffield’s claims, saying she was “in the process of learning about that.”

The Rush Center board also had a change in leadership, with Hoke taking over as chair after Gail Cowie's term in the position ended on Jan. 17. That same day, a small fire at the Rush Center caused minor damage and forced the facility to temporarily shut down.

Hoke said they are hiring someone to fix the smoke damage. 

“In the meantime, we have let our staff and tenants know that we think that they are best advised not to spend much time in the building,” he said.

Rush Center tenant Atlanta Pride has faced several board and staff resignations and criticism over its leadership since October. Atlanta Pride Executive Director Jamie Fergerson is a Rush Center board member.