April 18-24, 2002
Photo By: Christina M. Felice
Christian Street YMCA director axed amid community outrage.
In last week’s cover story, “Let My People Go,” we learned of the rich history of South Philadelphia’s Christian Street YMCA (CSY) and its current struggle to gain independence from its local corporate entity, the YMCA of Philadelphia and Vicinity. The executives at the corporate office responded to the story by letting at least one person go: Christian Street Y executive director Blondell Parsons.
On Monday morning, Parsons' first day back at the Y since the City Paper article hit the streets last Thursday, she was summoned to the 20th and Market headquarters of the YMCA of Philadelphia & Vicinity, commonly referred to as "Corporate" by its branch members, where Chief Operations Officer Dave Simpson handed her a letter he signed himself.
"Dear Blondell," the letter begins cordially, "effective April 15, 2002, your employment with the YMCA of Philadelphia & Vicinity is terminated. We no longer have confidence in your ability to lead the Christian Street YMCA. Your inability to lead the operation in the best interest of our Association indicates that a change in leadership is required."
And with that, Parsons' 10 years of service to the Christian Street Y and the South Philly community it serves came to an ignominious conclusion. (A spokesman for the YMCA national office in Chicago said the CSY issue is a local matter.) To add insult to injury, Parsons says she was told not to return to her beloved Y, but that her personal effects would be gathered up and delivered to her. To ensure that she would comply, Corporate officers, including Simpson, made their way to the Christian Street facility, taking with them two beefy security guards to block Parsons' access. A locksmith was also brought in to change the locks on the front door and to her office.
Determined to get her belongings, Parsons summoned the Philadelphia Police and several of Christian Street's board members to help her get her things from the building. Seeing the board members and police officers, the Corporate execs relented and allowed Parsons to enter the building and gather her things. But from there, the situation only got worse. By noon, anger, resentment and chaos ruled the lobby of the Christian Street YMCA.
The word of Parsons' firing spread through the neighborhood within minutes, and streams of teary-eyed well-wishers and outraged residents arrived at the facility to express their solidarity with Parsons and their anger at Corporate. CSY members who showed up for their workout or swim asked what the commotion was all about, and upon learning of Parsons' firing, reacted angrily.
"This is complete bullshit," sputtered one member, who refused to give his name. CSY business manager Carla Ortiz, her eyes welling up, pledged her allegiance to her now-former boss and expressed her anger.
"I'm going to support Ms. Parsons and the Christian Street Y community 150 percent," Ortiz said, fighting back tears. "The employees are all in a state of shock. I think it's an outrage that they could fire someone who has made such a positive impact on this community for 10 years. This is all about the fight for independence. They were exposed in City Paper last week, and this is their revenge. They have tried to ruin a good woman. It's just so unfair."
Lawyer, former school board president and CSY board member Rotan Lee was busy delivering a tongue-lashing to Simpson in the lobby. Calling the firing of Parsons "weak" and "ridiculous," Lee was machine-gunning Simpson using his vaunted eloquence and nearly limitless vocabulary, while Simpson stood meekly in front of the frothing giant of a man, saying very little. After the dressing-down by Lee, Simpson flatly refused to comment on the record for this article. A few feet away, CSY board member and state Rep. Harold James paced the floor and yelled into a cell phone, rallying his troops to combat what he calls "a travesty."
James, never one to back away from a good fight, was shaking with anger and vowed that there will be a response, and soon.
"It goes to show you how modern racism works," a seething James said. "I thought they'd try to discredit Blondell, but I didn't think they'd have the nerve to fire her simply for standing up for the community. First, she should absolutely seek legal redress. But on a larger scale, I'll be meeting with other community leaders later today, who, I can tell you, are more than a little upset. Blondell has been an invaluable community resource for 10 years, and this community will rally for justice and fairness for her. She's been there for us, and now we'll be there for her. There will be protests, I guarantee you that."
Twenty-four hours later, James was still on the warpath, calling from his Harrisburg office Tuesday afternoon.
"This is a typical divide-and-conquer strategy," James fumed. "The people in control decided to kill the messenger, but that will not stop the message. Our resolve for a free and independent Christian Street Y is even stronger, and we will demand justice for Blondell, a dedicated community activist unjustly fired."
Lawyer Alex Talmadge, former city commissioner and district attorney candidate, is chairman of CSY's board of managers. Talmadge, contacted by cell phone Tuesday morning, was on his way to a meeting with YMCA of Philadelphia and Vicinity President D. Allan Shaffer at that very moment.
"I got a message on my machine from Shaffer yesterday at 11:45 a.m. telling me that they had fired Blondell," Talmadge said. "I was as outraged as everyone else. It was immature, desperate and demonstrates that they're afraid."
Talmadge promised to call back after the meeting with Shaffer, and he kept that promise a few hours later. Unlike the earlier call, where he was reasoned and thoughtful in his responses, Talmadge made no effort to hide his emotions.
"I asked Shaffer why he did it, and he said it was a personnel decision. He refused to elaborate, citing the possibility of legal action against him and Corporate by Blondell or the board," Talmadge said angrily. "I told him that firing Blondell was not only wrong and inappropriate, but not very well thought out. He said it was his decision and that was that. This to me demonstrates clearly that there is no reason for her firing other than retaliation. I told him that the community is now involved and that the issue is now bigger than him, bigger than the board, and bigger than Blondell. He knows that the community and the board will never stand for this. We will not give up our fight for independence and, if anything, the battle has escalated."
Calls to Shaffer's office had not been returned by press time.
Talmadge said that, to the best of his knowledge, the meeting of the CSY board of managers will take place as scheduled this Friday. No need to speculate on the main issue they'll be discussing, he added.
Both Talmadge and James promise political and community retribution for the firing, but they clam up on exactly what form that retaliation would take. James, though, hinted at protests both at the Christian Street Y and the corporate office.
"Over the next few weeks we'll plan and execute a strategy to let Corporate know just how the community feels about this" was as far as James would go.
CSY board member Bob Isard, a quiet and contemplative man, suggested that perhaps the U.S. Attorney's office should investigate whether Parsons' civil rights were violated under the law. He also offers a sad and concise commentary on the day's events.
"It was all just so unwise and unnecessary," Isard said, shaking his head ruefully. "This is not the YMCA's finest hour."
Those protests promised by Talmadge and James started Wednesday morning, April 17, when a small group of picketers began marching in front of CSY at 7 a.m. Led by Talmadge and Lee, the protesters pledged that their numbers will grow and they'll fight to the bitter end.
"We'll be here every day, and starting tomorrow we'll take the protests to Corporate headquarters," said Talmadge. "Tomorrow there will be 50 protesters, then 100, then 200. If we don't stand up, no one else will."
Talmadge says they're demanding the reinstatement of Parsons as executive director and a serious conversation with Corporate on the issue of CSY's independence.
"We're going to involve anyone and everyone who has an interest in this Y and an interest in justice," he said.