Metro Weekly

Sultan Shakir departing as executive director of SMYAL on Dec. 31

Shakir reflects on legacy, expresses confidence in leadership team's ability to keep D.C.-based youth service organization thriving.

SMYAL Executive Director Sultan Shakir — Photo: Todd Franson

On December 31, Sultan Shakir, the executive director of Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, will depart from the organization, closing a seven-year chapter of his life during which he oversaw the growth of one of the D.C. metropolitan area’s leading organizations serving LGBTQ youth.

Details about Shakir’s next role have not yet been made public, and will be announced in the coming weeks.

Since taking over the helm of SMYAL in August 2014, Shakir has overseen the launch of the direct service organization’s Youth Housing Program, including a 2-year transitional program and a 6-year extended transitional living program that provides housing, food, case management, and other wrap-around services such as mental health counseling to homeless or housing-insecure youth aged 18 to 24. The program currently comprises five programmatic models serving more than 60 youth residents.

Under Shakir’s tenure, SMYAL also bolstered its youth leadership programming, creating the Youth Leadership Awards, which, over the past six years, have provided more than 41 LGBTQ students with over $100,000 in financial aid to help continue their educational pursuits. SMYAL has also created “Little SMYALS,” an innovative group geared toward LGBTQ-identifying youth aged 6-12, and has established a new Clinical Services Department that provides affirming and accessible mental health counseling and crisis intervention services free of charge.

“While we are sad to see Sultan leave, we wish him nothing but the same success in his new endeavor as he had at
SMYAL. His leadership and vision enabled SMYAL to expand greatly needed services to LGBTQ youth in the DC metro area throughout his tenure,” Rob Cogorno, the chair of SMYAL’s Board of Directors, said in a statement. “The Board of Directors is confident in the strength of the organization, thanks to the incredible and continuous support we receive from our community and partners.”

The SMYAL Board of Directors will launch an executive search beginning in January and expects to name a new executive director by the summer of 2022. During the leadership transition, the board will name an interim executive director, who will work with SMYAL Deputy Executive Director Jorge Membreño and other members of the organization’s management team to oversee day-to-day operations, programming, and the organization’s financial development.

Speaking with Metro Weekly, Shakir reflected on his time leading SMYAL, particularly the organization’s growth and its expansion of services and programming available to LGBTQ youth.

“I’m very clear that SMYAL is a different organization today than when I started, and is able to provide a much broader range and depth of services,” he says. “One highlight is definitely the Little SMYALs program, which is a space where young people can come and just be okay as themselves. That’s just so rare, for anybody, to be in a space where you know everyone around you loves you for who you are.

“Looking at how the organization has grown over the past seven years, and the really solid position that it’s in today, now would be a time where I’m sure I could transition out without it having any negative impact on the organization,” he adds. “At the same time, there’s been a really amazing opportunity that opened up to support another really great organization and its growth and development. I can’t say too much about it now, but there are still some really great opportunities to serve a community that I love.”

Related: Amid troubling survey findings, SMYAL offers LGBTQ youth an affirming environment

Reflecting on some of SMYAL’s major initiatives over the past few years, Shakir says he’s proud of what the organization has been able to accomplish.

“The housing program is also a highlight, to have gone from an organization that never provided housing to now operating what I believe is one of the largest and most comprehensive LGBTQ youth housing programs on the East Coast, with the exception of New York, I think is a huge accomplishment, and a huge testament to the organization’s ability to take on really big challenges like housing and homelessness,” he adds. 

“I also think another real testament to the organization and its ability is the fact that it can take on this work and also not just meet the needs of youth, but work to shift the space. And what I mean by that is folks who work at the organization aren’t just trying to make youth feel okay about the things that they’re struggling with. They are really great at working with you to say, ‘Okay, how can we change this space so other youth don’t have to go through this again?'”

Shakir also expressed confidence that the leadership team currently in place would be able to maintain the organization’s short- and long-term stability and viability.

“There have been a number of organizations in D.C. that have fallen when the executive director has left because the organization has been built upon the personality of that executive director. [But] SMYAL has never been built based on my personality,” he says, his voice breaking slightly. “I’ve been fortunate to help shape SMYAL, but it’s never been about me.

Photo courtesy of SMYAL.

“When you look at the staff as a whole — there are too many to name one-by-one — they are all just such strong professionals,” he adds. “If you look at who’s in place at SMYAL, you’ll see Jorge Membreño as deputy executive director, who is one of the most brilliant thinkers when it comes to how to support young people from a clinical perspective and really look at some of the intersections of issues from housing to education, where he also has a background, to issues of food insecurity, to engaging and being safe in the community. His ability to shape programing that meets the needs of very diverse youth is, I think, unparalleled.

“You also have Adalphie Johnson, who has really been instrumental in helping SMYAL look at how to support a broader range of youth. It’s been her leadership that has really helped SMYAL expand the scope of its work that really makes young people feel so loved and so welcomed and so affirmed. And so knowing that we’ll still have somebody like her around to make sure SMYAL is being that incredibly warm space for young people is something that gives me really strong confidence that SMYAL will continue to be a leader in this space.”

Shakir also praised the organization’s donors for their support, noting that the organization enjoys support not only from individuals, but larger foundations like the Cafritz Foundation, the Greater Washington Community Foundation, and the Kiwanis Club of Washington, D.C, which provided $100,000 to SMYAL to assist the launch of the Clinical Services Department in October.

“Part of what has me so emotional [about leaving] is thinking about the great people who I’ve gotten to work with and who have supported this work,” he says. “I’ve been able to work with the staff and community and youth leaders and donors, to really expand the scope and the depth of the work that SMYAL does to support LGBTQ youth.”

While he defers to SMYAL’s Board of Directors when it comes to naming his replacement, and the types of traits that the board may be looking for in a new executive director, Shakir does have some advice for his successor.

“My advice would be to work with the incredibly strong team that’s at SMYAL, which not only includes the staff, but includes the voices of the youth we serve, from our Youth Fellows to our Youth Leadership Awardees to other young people who come to the program but don’t consider themselves leaders,” he says. “Young people will tell you what they need, and you need a staff that is really good at listening and can bring together the resources to help meet those needs. And SMYAL has that in place.”

See also:

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Trans Jeopardy! player Amy Schneider makes history competing in Tournament of Champions

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