Nothing could have prepared Celena Morrison for her first month on the job.
In late-March, rumors were spreading across Philadelphia of impending furloughs and business closures. Despite the panic, Morrison was just getting familiar with her new office — City Hall. Her boss? Mayor Jim Kenney.
That only lasted a little over a week. The office part, that is.
For the past nine months, Philadelphia’s newly-appointed executive director of LGBT Affairs has been calling the shots entirely from home, serving as the top link between Philly’s LGBTQ+ community and the Kenney administration. City Hall has remained shuttered throughout the pandemic, weathering a turbulent period of lockdowns, reopenings and more lockdowns.
From home, Morrison’s new commute is definitely cozier. But don’t think for a second that the challenges of 2020 have slowed her down.
“It’s pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of,” Morrison said.
“If you had told me that I would be capable of running a local government office from my dining room, I’d have laughed at you.”
From that dining room, Morrison has emerged as a voice of hope in turbulent times. In June, she represented the LGBTQ+ community during an unprecedented Pride Month. Racial justice protests were exploding down Broad Street, while the sound of Juneteenth fireworks echoed in the distance. That same month, her office proudly raised the BIPOC-inclusive More Color More Pride flag outside of City Hall. It flew next to the Trans Pride flag — at half-mast in remembrance of the multiple transgender women murdered in Philadelphia last year alone.
“I’ve always been a little bossy, but I didn’t always think I could be the boss.”– Celena Morrison
Learning to lead remotely was a challenge for Morrison. She’s the type of leader who knocks on doors instead of sending emails. If your phone number is in your signature, you can bet she’s calling instead of waiting around for a response. In that regard, joining the ranks of City Hall via Zoom meetings was a major hurdle. She’s not shy to acknowledge that getting things done in politics is always easier when you know the right people.
“I don’t want to have to wait, I need someone on it. The community is in need,” explained Morrison.
When asked if she always saw these innate type-A qualities leading to an executive director position, she laughed.
“I’ve always been a little bossy, but I didn’t always think I could be the boss.”
Still, it’s a no-brainer that Morrison was tapped for the position. Morrison brings with her a decade of grassroots experience — her previous role was director of programs at the William Way LGBTQ+ Community Center. Before that, she was a specialist at the Mazzoni Center, providing support to transgender community members.
From July 2019 until this past March, the LGBT Affairs role in Kenney’s administration remained vacant, maintained by two dedicated coordinators in the absence of leadership — “I was blessed and really lucky to have them,” Morrison said.
Morrison’s deep connection to the community brings much-needed perspective to the way LGBTQ+ issues are handled in city government. Morrison is a Black woman, as well as openly transgender. In the near-uniform cisgender environment of politics, this intersection of identities gives Morrison a unique understanding of the hardships faced by marginalized groups in Philadelphia.
LGBTQ+ residents in Philadelphia are often more likely to experience homelessness, poverty, and mental illness, issues only exacerbated by the economic pitfalls of the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, one of her first initiatives in office was to create a “Coping during COVID” guide specifically for the LGBTQ+ community. The guide details housing opportunities, health-care resources, COVID testing sites, free meal locations and legal resources.
“I’ve been there, I’ve experienced the same things they’re experiencing now,” says Morrison of her community.
“I’m able to connect to them on a deeper level and I draw from the work that I’ve done at different organizations. I draw from the stories I’ve had. I carry all those things with me when I do my work. It’s because of this community that I’ve remained in for so long.”
This past Christmas, Morrison’s office was to partner with the William Way Community center to co-host a holiday dinner drive for those experiencing hunger — safely, of course. Pre-packaged holiday meals were to be distributed by volunteers in what’s being dubbed as “Holiday Meals To Go.”
Perhaps most notable of Morrison’s achievements in 2020 is her work with District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office in the handling of cases involving violence against trans people. In June, the body of 27-year-old Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a Black transgender woman, was recovered from the banks of the Schuykill River. Her murderer would be arrested months later.
Then, in September, 29-year-old Riah Milton, another Black transgender woman, was shot and killed in West Philadelphia. Her murderer was also arrested. According to the Human Rights campaign, 41 transgender or gender non-conforming people were killed in the U.S. this year, with Black trans women being disporportionaly targeted.
Alongside members of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Morrison led conversations with Krasner’s office in November to educate it on transgender issues. One topic brought up was the dangerous role of the trans panic defense in murder trials. According to the American Bar Association, this commonly used legal strategy seeks to partially or completely excuse crimes such as murder and assault on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction. Pennsylvania is one of 39 states that does not legally prohibit the use of the panic defense in courtrooms.
“They’re interested in learning and they’re wanting to make a change. They’ve acknowledged it’s 2020, this is the year of perfect vision. I don’t think any of us can ignore the things that we see very clearly now.”– Celena Morrison
“I have been part of some really transparent and really tough conversations with big decision makers, and we brought them these issues that the community has been talking about for a long time. But now these conversations are happening with the folks that really need to hear them,” said Morrison.
She was also pleased to find that Krasner’s office initiated the conversations and training, not the other way around.
“They’re interested in learning and they’re wanting to make a change. They’ve acknowledged it’s 2020, this is the year of perfect vision. I don’t think any of us can ignore the things that we see very clearly now.”
Morrison understands that these issues affect community members the most. Following Fells’ murder in June, her office hosted a virtual community grieving session. Another grieving session was held following Green’s death as well. Anyone experiencing sadness and pain over the losses was invited to attend, share their experiences and vent frustrations.
“So many lives have been lost to this anti-trans violence, that I’m not sure what the fix is,” said Morrison.
“But we have to start working on it to figure it out.”
Now in the new year, Morrison plans to bolster the office by hiring a deputy director. She also plans to grow the commission on LGBT affairs — its officers serve as community liaisons between the LGBT community and Morrison. She’s planning a major push to get this off the ground, utilizing digital outreach and social media to get on the screens of residents, many who are still stuck at home.
“I want the community to be aware of who it is that they need to share their voices with in order to reach my office,” she stressed.
Aside from running a government office, Morrison’s quarantine looks familiar to anyone who’s spent the bulk of last year hunkered down indoors. She takes walks and runs to grab fresh air, and her foster puppy — a French bulldog — has kept her hands full.
But mainly, 2020 was just another challenge for Morrison to overcome.
She told PW: “Like so many things, it’s allowed me to just adjust and figure out – how am I gonna make this work?”