Tony served on SMYAL’s Board of Directors from 2013 to 2019, where he served as the Chair of the Governance Committee. He is currently a Partner at Thompson Coburn LLP where he is a leading legal advisor to many of the nation’s largest transit systems.
What brought you to SMYAL?
I am one of the founding members of the Team DC Scholarship Committee and through that, we were sent as representatives into schools to talk with LGBTQ youth about participating in sports and applying for the scholarship. I spent time with Gender and Sexualities Alliances (GSAs) talking with LGBTQ students about their experiences and saw how these groups were affirming to the students who were out and proud. This particular scholarship acknowledged the youth who were out and engaged in sports, but what I discovered was the amount of LGBTQ students who weren’t athletic, but were still looking for support. After several years looking for ways that I could be helpful to LGBTQ youth who may not look to sports as an outlet, I sat down to lunch with my friend Mike Schwartz, who was SMYAL’s Board Chair at the time. I asked him how I could volunteer, and next thing I knew, I was on the Board! I was drawn to SMYAL’s strong interest in helping bridge the gaps that LGBTQ youth were facing.
What inspired you to get involved with the organization at a deeper level as a major donor and Board member?
During that lunch in September of 2013 with Mike, we talked about where SMYAL was, where they had been, and where they were looking to go. I saw strong potential for growth and I asked how I could help them get there. Mike pointed out that as a lawyer involved in compliance issues and someone who was fairly involved with the LGBTQ community, I had a fair amount to offer at the Board level. I fully expected to be asked to paint walls, which I have done, but Mike really pointed out that my best value was my professional skills.
I’ve noticed that in my six years on SMYAL’s Board, most members give well and above the expectation for Board contributions. When you see how much SMYAL means to individual youths, when you see the positive impact on families, communities, and schools, it’s relatively hard if you have the means to not say “This is something I want to support.”
A lot of us look at SMYAL and see ourselves figuratively in the youth who they serve. We don’t know exactly what it’s like to be a 15 or 16-year-old today, but there are experiences that we share. I have to believe there are a lot of donors who have said, “I wish I had this level of support when I was going through this”. That is especially true for me.
How have you seen the organization and the Board of Directors grow over the years?
I had been on the Board when our previous Executive Director (ED), Andrew, announced he was going back to school and SMYAL found itself looking for an ED. I served on the search committee, and it was clear that Sultan brought a vision and openness to consider different approaches to meeting the needs of the youth which has been a fundamental part of the organization’s growth. They are both incredibly strong EDs, bringing different perspectives and talents to the organization. This organization leads with the vision and finds a way to make the dollar to support it.
This was especially true when we were considering starting the Youth Housing Program. We really asked ourselves, can we do this? Will we do this well? Will it be effective. But in the end, we knew that this was where the need was and that it was the right thing to do, so if we could, we should.
I’ve seen other organizations whose missions become distorted based on where they get their funding. But SMYAL holds closely to its strategic plan and really allows their programs to drive their development, instead of the money driving the focus.
I remember when we celebrated SMYAL’s 30th anniversary in 2014. It was clear from talking with many of the early alumni of the organization that this is an organization that has the ability to come through a crisis like this. We came through the 2008 recession and have been continuing to grow since. This is an organization that needs to be resilient so that we are able to continue serving LGBTQ youth. There are a lot of people who are scared right now, and we know that this is going to disproportionately impact members of our community, many of whom are served by SMYAL. We’re going to need the financial support of our community because SMYAL needs to come through the other side of this.
When I left the Board in December, I remember sitting back in my chair smiling. There were three new Board members who were jumping right into the conversation, asking important questions. I knew the Board was going to be in good hands. Over my six years, I’ve seen individuals come and go, but the commitment to the organization has remained the same.
What was one of your fondest memories of your time with SMYAL?
The fondest memory I have of SMYAL is sitting in the living room of the first Youth House and having a conversation with 5 or 6 of the residents. I could have just floated back to my office after that conversation. It was just so positive and fun. I found myself laughing and smiling on the metro thinking about comments made by residents who were just so strong. It was clear that they felt that they truly had a home and not just a place they were permitted to stay.
Join Tony in helping ensure that SMYAL is able to stay strong in our mission to empower and support LGBTQ youth today and on the other side of this crisis by renewing or becoming a member of the Major Donor Club here.