One of Utah’s Finest: Brandie Balken to leave Equality Utah

Just shy of her fifth anniversary as executive director of Equality Utah, Brandie Balken announced she will be leaving in August to assume a new position with the Gill Foundation, one of the nation’s largest funders of LGBT equality work.

“My service as the executive director of Equality Utah has been the most rewarding and challenging of my life. As a lifelong Utahn it has been extraordinary to witness the astounding change in public opinion, and in public policy,” Balken said. “I am so honored to have had the opportunity to do this work at this amazing time, having benefited from the hard work and sacrifice of my predecessors — and countless others in this incredible community.

“Together we have accomplished some wonderful things. Although I am sad that I will not be here to witness it, I know that Utah will continue to build on its gains in providing fairness, freedom and opportunity for all. I know, with the dedication, commitment and resilience of this community, and the drive and savvy of my colleagues at Equality Utah, the best is yet to come. Get ready Utah, the future is knocking,” Balken continued.

Brandie’s service and dedication to Utah’s LGBT community has been as inspired as it has been effective.  Under her leadership, Equality Utah has more than doubled in capacity and successfully lobbied for the passage of more than 35 LGBT-inclusive policies on local and state levels,” said Equality Utah Board Chair Clifford Rosky. “Brandie’s expertise, grace and compassion have truly transformed the landscape for LGBT equality in Utah, and we very much look forward to seeing her work continue on the national stage.”

“In light of everything that Brandie has achieved in the last five years, it’s hardly surprising to see her moving on to the national stage.  She has already been serving as the co-chair of the board of directors of Equality Federation for years, and her work in Utah has garnered attention from national organizations and activists across the United States,” Rosky continued.

Shortly after she was named interim director of Equality Utah in July of 2009, succeeding Mike Thompson, the group announced the transition of its Common Ground Initiative from an effort to pass legislation at the state legislature to working with municipalities in the state to pass local ordinances. The effort was wildly successful, as 19 communities passed ordinances in all areas of the state, from Salt Lake City to St. George, to Moab to Price.

In 2010, the organization was honored with Change.org’s Top 10 “Gay Rights Heroes of 2010” after securing its goal of 10 city ordinances in the first year. Also in 2010, Balken was named QSaltLake‘s Person of the Year and was featured on the cover of the January issue.

In 2012, Philanthropedia, a division of GuideStar which reports on U.S. nonprofits, ranked the group seventh among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and ally organizations that had a high impact on their local community. Balken was also named by the organization as a top leader.

Over the years, the organization helped many endorsed candidates from both sides of the aisle in their goal of a “fair and just Utah.” The group raised funds through personal donations and the annual Allies Dinner, which has grown dramatically since 2009, filling the largest ballroom in the state. The group expanded the dinner to include one each year in St. George.

EU has also worked to forge relationships with politicians and other leaders at all levels of the state. Their reach of influence extends from senators to representatives to school leaders to the Utah Driver License Division.

“Utah is a better place because of Brandie’s dedication, hard work and her talents,” Salt Lake City Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians said in a statement. “She will be missed, but will now be able to continue to affect change on a national level, which benefits so many more people. We extend our sincere gratitude and congratulations to Brandie.”

“I cannot imagine going through the events of the past year, without knowing that Brandie and Cliff and Equality Utah had my back,” said Restore Our Humanity director Mark Lawrence. “We have become not only a village but a new light in the universe and without Brandie and her work, that light would be much dimmer.”

“Brandie Balken has been one of the greatest leaders of LGBTQ equality in Utah that has ever been my privilege to know. We all owe her a huge debt of gratitude,” said activist Eric Ethington.

When Ben Williams finally finishes his Utah LGBT history, Brandie will go down as one of the great ones. With legislators, her velvet touch masked in a backbone of steel. And organizationally, she is Fortune 400 material,” said Sen. James Dabakis. “I saw her steel side one day in a meeting where it was suggested that if she dropped the ‘T’ from ‘LGBT,’ she might get a statewide nondiscrimination bill passed. She icely said, ‘That, my friend, is going nowhere.'”

Brandie is a class act. She knows how to engage issues with compassion and intelligence,” said activist Troy Williams. “As marriage equality becomes the norm, our movement is now shifting toward LGBT nondiscrimination work. There is no one better qualified than Brandie to move this work across the country. Utah’s loss is the nation’s gain. We love and miss her already.”

Marina Gomberg has been named interim director as the board finds a permanent replacement for the position. Gomberg is a communications manager at the University of Utah and was a director of development and marketing at the Utah Pride Center for five years. She and her wife, Elenor Heyborne, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the State of Utah seeking to recognize the over 1,300 couples married during the 17 days that marriage was legal in the state.

“Marina has deep roots in the LGBT community of Utah and strong communication and leadership skills.  We look forward to utilizing her talents in this capacity while we conduct a thorough, comprehensive search for our next executive director,” Rosky said. “As always, Equality Utah remains fully committed to the growth of our robust programming.  Working together, the board and the staff will continue to raise awareness about the experiences of transgender Utahns, achieve nondiscrimination protections in employment and housing, and win the freedom to marry for all Utahns.”

Rosky is excited about where Equality Utah is, and where it plans to be in the near future.

“This is an exciting time for Equality Utah and the LGBT movement. We are stronger than ever. We are about to win marriage equality in all 50 states, and our public education and fundraising campaign to support the Kitchen lawsuit that has played a significant role in that effort and served as a model for coalitions formed in other states. We have won the passage of more than 35 LGBT-inclusive policies at the state and local level, which protect millions of Utahns from discrimination in employment, housing and schools,” Rosky said. “We are excited to launch our new trans* awareness project, and to bring Laverne Cox as our special guest at then EU Allies Dinner this year. We have a lot of great new things planned for the upcoming year, and we are thrilled to find a new leader to keep moving us forward.”

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