A month before he steps down as executive director of Equality Texas, Scott looks back at past progress and ahead to future victories
AUSTIN — Equality Texas announced last week that Executive Director Paul Scott will step down at the end of February after four years at the organization’s helm. Scott, who previously headed Resource Center Dallas, will become executive director of AIDS Services of Austin.
Scott sat down with Dallas Voice this week to discuss his time at Equality Texas and talk about what the future holds for the statewide LGBT advocacy group.
DV: What were the factors that led to your decision to leave?
P.S.: "I think the primary issue for me was, it was a unique opportunity. I never intended to look … but this position came up due to the retirement of Lee Manford, who was with AIDS Services of Austin for 12 years. I took it as an opportunity to look at getting reconnected with direct services again, and specifically with HIV and AIDS, which is a significant part of my background. And as I explored the opportunity, I felt that it was a good opportunity for me to move back into the direct service field, which is kind of like a co-equal passion of mine, in terms of HIV and AIDS work, along with the equality work I’ve been doing for the last four years."
DV: Speaking of those four years, what would you say was your biggest accomplishment during that time?
P.S.: "Depending on how you focus it, there are several. One is increasing the capacity of the organization to do its work across the state, as well as moving the organization to a level of sustainability in order to be more effective at the Texas Capitol and in other places around the state. So I think in terms of organizational work, that’s a key accomplishment. The second, in terms of the mission of our organization, is really moving forward in terms of how we do our work at the Capitol and the level of professionalism we’ve developed in terms of our staff and our work with our legislators. I think I’m extremely, extremely proud of the staff here in particular, in terms of how we are respected at the Capitol as an organization. I think one thing we’ve seen over the last two legislative sessions is that our reputation among both our allies as well as those legislators who don’t agree with our issues, that we are considered a go-to resource. Our information is accurate and up to date, and we are respected in terms of the information that we’re giving them in order to support their positions. That is something that I’m very proud of."
DV: On the flip side, what has been your biggest disappointment or regret?
P.S.: "I think with anybody in this type of work, advocacy work, I think you definitely want to be able to see a full-fledged passing of a law and signing by the governor. But we all know the challenges in terms of making that happen. So I think in terms of a dream, that would be the biggest regret — passing a specific piece of legislation such as our safe schools bill this past session. But I think the reality, though, as compared to the dream, is the tremendous amount of success we’ve had. In two sessions now, we’ve not had anything anti-LGBT go forward, and in 2009 nothing was even filed nor any amendment filed. So we see progress on that front, as well as moving forward with proactive legislation, where we were able to pass through the Public Education Committee, which is a Republican-dominated committee, an anti-bullying and harassment bill. The Calendars Committee also passed it out, which again was a Republican-dominated committee. And we were able to get it on the floor of the House, and due to the other bills that were under consideration, it didn’t come up to a vote, it was unrelated to that bill itself. So we feel very good about the way we do our work and the positive conversations, and switching from a negative and defensive posture to a proactive position and posture now in the Legislature.
DV: When do you think we’ll finally see pro-equality legislation in Texas?
P.S.: We definitely feel like 2011 is a strong opportunity again. I think the anti-bullying and harassment bill is the one that we’re going to continue to focus on in terms of making sure our schools are safe for our students. We’re still working with our safe schools coalition, with representatives from various education and interest groups that are part of that coalition, and feel strongly about the work we’re doing with that, and the partnership we have with Rep. Mark Strama, who carried that legislation in 2009. So we feel strongly about the opportunity there in both the House and Senate. We definitely have interest in the Senate at this point. After this past session, Mark Strama was approached by one of the senators to carry that legislation going into 2011. She showed her interest in doing that. I’m not at liberty to say who that is yet, because the landscape changes between now and 2011 anyway, but again it goes to show you that there’s an understanding of the importance of these issues, and that people are not fearful of signing on either as an author or a sponsor of bills that are pro-equality.
DV: Is there still a risk of anti-gay legislation?
P.S.: "There’s always going to be a risk of that. It depends on who is elected, who’s still going to be in there. You always run the risk, depending on the political landscape at the time. Sometimes it’s posturing for someone’s electorate, if they’re from a more conservative district, or what they perceive as a more conservative district. So I think that’s where in the past, we’ve really addressed it as it bubbles up or we think it’s happening. We really kind of address it immediately as an effective strategy to quell any support or it gaining momentum, and I think that’s what happened in 2007, when we called out [Rep.] Warren Chisum, when he discussed in a very general way restrictions on gay and lesbian foster parenting.
We met with him and had a good conversation with him around that, but it really was an opportunity for us to work with our allies and let them know this was a possibility, and they helped us to watch out for that, and it didn’t happen."
DV: What is the biggest challenge facing your successor?
P.S.: "This is something that the board and the staff has consistent conversation about. I don’t want to give a beauty pageant answer, but it sounds like one: The challenges are the same as the opportunities. The size of the state is the challenge, and the size of the staff currently. We have six staff members for a state of 24 million. That’s something that we’re aggressively working on now. Trying to grow our programs and seek support from our members and from other entities in order to get more people in the field, is our first focus. That’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity, because we have a lot of people we can reach out to who want to become involved with the organization. And I think that’s been the exciting thing for me. It’s kind of hard for me to leave, with people contacting us on a more consistent basis, as we strengthen our work, wanting to become involved. So we’re looking at ways to engage people at a high-level volunteer level so they feel empowered to do this work. Ultimately we are the communicators and liaisons to our legislators, but we really need to effectively engage our members to do this work at home, whether it’s a phone call or whether it’s a visit or whether it’s a letter or whether it’s an e-mail, in order for their legislator to feel like they’re supported back home and feel like they can be supportive of pro-equality issues."
DV: What would be your parting message to the LGBT community in Texas?
P.S.: "I think there are a couple of messages. The first one is that Equality Texas is in a very strong position, in terms of how we have built an organization that can be proactive in the work that we’re doing, and engaging not only our members but also our legislative allies to move forward on equality issues and to move forward on equality for Texans of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The second part is, because of this legacy, we encourage people to become further engaged with the organization, to stay attuned to opportunities that we’re going to be developing as part of our annual work plan, to lobby and meet with our state legislators, to become involved with campaigns, and to develop relationships with our representatives and senators prior to the 2011 session, and become educated on the issues that we know we can move forward on. And also to continue to support us financially as much as you can. Every little bit counts. We have an aggressive plan for 2010 that we feel strongly about, and we have a very, very strong, statewide Board of Directors that is committed to the mission, and a very competent staff. We’re looking forward to the next person coming in an taking it to the next level. I’m excited to see that."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 15, 2010.