LEAP Director Resigns; Fernandez Returns

Paul Bass PhotoThomas MacMillan PhotoThe board of LEAP, one of New Haven’s signature youth programs, has asked its executive director to resign and replaced her with former mayoral candidate Henry Fernandez.

Esther Massie (pictured above at a 2013 mayoral campaign event), who has run the Jefferson Street-based program for the past three years, learned of her fate at the end of work Friday afternoon. Board Chair Ann Baker Pepe came to the building to request that she resign immediately and not return to the building on Monday.

Massie and the board clashed over whether to undertake a long-term strategic plan.

Fernandez scheduled a noon staff meeting Monday to tell the crew that he is the new interim boss.

It is a return engagement for Fernandez. He served as the 22-year-old agency’s first executive director back in 1992. Through 1999 he built it into a nationally recognized after-school and summer academics and recreational program matching urban kids and with college student and college grad mentors. His success with LEAP formed a key part of his campaign bio last year when he ran in New Haven’s Democratic mayoral primary (which he lost to Toni Harp).

Massie declined comment Monday. A graduate of Wilbur Cross High School who holds degrees from Wesleyan and Columbia, Massie first worked for LEAP at as a counselor in the Westville Manor public-housing development. At the age of 22 she ran LEAP’s former New London program.  As LEAP’s executive director, Massie was one of two-co-founders (along with Joanne Sciulli of Solar Youth) of a group called YODA in which female heads of seven social-service groups work together to build all their organizations rather than compete for dollars.

Paul Bass PhotoLEAP, which operates out of four locations, is now in the process of hiring staff and recruiting children for its summer programs. Fernandez, who is 45, said Monday the board asked him to serve six months, not just running the organization but helping in the development of a long-term strategy.

“I love LEAP. When I was approached by the board about their need for an intermediate director, I felt had to say yes,” Fernandez said. “There really is no other organization that has that kind of pull on me. Also, there are so many challenges that New Haven is facing right now—obviously the issues of violence but also the community pulling together around education reform and the kind of opportunities that that represents. So I’m hopeful that at the end of the six months that we can have a really great team in place to run LEAP and be serving more children more hours in all sorts of new ways.”

Fernandez said he will continue to run his consulting business while serving as LEAP’s interim director.

Fernandez declined to reveal his salary for the six-month appointment. Nor did board chair Pepe.

In a conversation Monday, Pepe stressed that Massie “has done a great job for LEAP in loads of ways.”

“We’ve been really fortunate to have her. She has increased the number of kids we serve. She has opened a fourth site. She is a really positive presence in the New Haven community,” Pepe said.

“The reason for the change is that the board and Esther ended up on opposite sides about the best way to move ahead in trying to ensure that LEAP is relevant and has as much impact in the future as it has for the past 20 years. We worked together quite effectively over the last three years. This point of difference was something we couldn’t get around. We were committed to getting some external help to make sure that as we strategically plan, we are going to ensure that LEAP still has relevance and impact. There have been a lot of changes in New Haven for the past 22 years.”


Tags: , ,

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: Razzie on May 5, 2014  12:14pm

He-e’ s Ba-a-ack!!!!

posted by: Wooster Squared on May 5, 2014  12:38pm

I really hope this means we’ll see more of Xavier in the comments section here.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Henry run for Mayor again. He’s still running Facebook ads.

posted by: webblog on May 5, 2014  12:41pm

“Esther Massie (pictured above at a 2013 mayoral campaign event), who has run the Jefferson Street-based program for the past three years, learned of her fate at the end of work Friday afternoon. Board Chair Ann Baker Pepe came to the building to request that she resign immediately and not return to the building on Monday”.


A very un-professional approach to resolve a disagreement by the board and Ms. Pepe, to end Ms. Massie’s employment.

Makes it sound like she lied, provided false reports, or stole something. Makes her appear negligent.

Nevertheless, Henry is the guy who can hold this outfit together in the interim.

posted by: RHeerema on May 5, 2014  1:46pm

Esther Massie has been a good friend & powerful colleague in the work to support youth success in our community.  I’m so sad to see this news.

posted by: getyourfactstraight on May 5, 2014  2:24pm

After reading the article and a few comments I am happy for LEAP that Henry is willing to hold down fort until they find someone new. It made me cringe the way they let the director go. Not nice, it seems. It isn’t as if she did something grossly negligent while she was director. And as far as comments about Henry running for mayor again???? He couldn’t garner enough support the first time and will not garner enough if he decides to run again. Ofcourse if it was just him and Toni Harp going head on then and only then would he have a shot at winning. She to me is a one termer. Or at least I hope so.

posted by: kenneth_krayeske on May 5, 2014  3:28pm

The transparency activist in me wants to know how much Mr. Fernandez will earn for his six months. I hate that LEAP will make us wait for their 990s to come out on Guidestar to understand the dollars and sense of this contractual arrangement. LEAP will have to release the information at some point. Why not now?

posted by: markcbm on May 5, 2014  4:02pm

LEAP - and New Haven, by extension - are lucky to have Mr. Fernandez back as director, even if it’s on an interim basis.

posted by: yupisaidit on May 5, 2014  5:50pm

Why am I not surprised that LEAP’s board of directors are not able to work with a talented, forward-thinking, community-minded, person of color? Ms. Massie will not have any difficulty landing an influential position in New Haven or beyond; alas her predecessors Erik Clemons, Che Dawson, and Mercedes Soto, all people of color, continue to lead innovative organizations and have had success on their own right. Could it be that the power brokers on LEAP’s board of directors, many of whom live outside of New Haven and are at least two generations removed from the very people the organization is designed to serve, have become ineffectual?  I can’t see how Mr. Fernandez will do any better with the current board given he’s following a talent cadre of impressive executives that are deeply connected to New Haven’s children and families.

LEAP receives a line-item allocation of $750,000 in the FY 14 and FY 15 of CT’s State Budget and has had similar and higher allocations in years past thanks to New Haven’s influential legislators in CT’s General Assembly. For an organization that primarily serves African American and Latino children through a combination of public and private funds, something needs to be said about a board that has deep pockets, is not diverse and inclusive, and fails to retain talented executives of color.

posted by: Xavier on May 5, 2014  10:24pm

One City Henry returns to the real place he was educated - the street, helping these kids leap over the obstacles of poverty and racism, just like One City Henry did.

One City Henry is no Peter Pan. One City Henry has grown and matured.

The last time One City Henry flirted with danger, danger got clingy. One City Henry remains the most interesting man in the world.

One City Henry knows if JC continues to fail to do his job, One City Henry is ready to take that position over too.

One City Henry once challenged his own reflection to a starring contest, on the 4th day, he won. One City Henry does not blink so he won’t miss a trick. One City Henry, the most interesting man in the world (and New Haven).

posted by: Theodora on May 5, 2014  10:28pm

Classy outfit. A local product who has “done a great job in loads of ways” is shown such disrespect. Doubt that many will forget this, Hank.

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on May 6, 2014  2:34am

Your “person of color” argument makes little sense given that Henry himself is African American.  Directors of these types of organizations rarely stay for long terms but there must be more to the story re: why Ms. Massie was so abruptly dismissed.

posted by: markcbm on May 6, 2014  6:43am


LEAP has had a number of great people serve as director who have since gone on to other things.  You conveniently managed to leave out the departure of Brad (whose last name I forget), who was a white guy who served as director in the early 2000s.  Did they fail to retain people of non-color, too?

“I can’t see how Mr. Fernandez will do any better with the current board given he’s following a talent cadre of impressive executives that are deeply connected to New Haven’s children and families.”

I can: not knocking the departed director, but perhaps Mr. Fernandez will help LEAP develop an effective strategic plan. Perhaps that plan will help LEAP return to the days when it was a strong, well-recognized influence on youth from New Haven’s communities - which is what LEAP was during Henry’s tenure there.

posted by: JoSkull:) on May 6, 2014  9:25am

The relationship between a Board and its Executive is like a marriage, and LEAP took the Henry VIII “off-with-her-head” way out.  A more professional, respectful transition was possible, that would not leave LEAP’s staff without its beloved ED or Program Director (who’s last day was also Friday) right before the crush of summer planning.  The LEAP board is disconnected from the program as much as it is from the New Haven community who knows Esther Massie as an amazing leader and collaborator beyond LEAP walls.

posted by: bereal on May 6, 2014  12:13pm

This was the perfect time for the Board to make this decision, and I applaud them for it!  Ms. Massie was not as “beloved” by staff as one person mentioned in their comment.  It is quite heartening to know that a visionary man will be leading the way for the next six months.  Way to go LEAP Board, and good luck Henry!  Things can finally begin to move forward now.

posted by: Brutus2011 on May 6, 2014  5:20pm

to Xavier:

One City Henry is not the most interesting man in New Haven.

But you well may be!


posted by: Xavier on May 6, 2014  6:21pm


Thank you, but I am not worthy of that designation.

One City Henry’s words carry so much weight, they would break a lesser man’s jaw.

One City Henry, what I would give to hear him speak publicly again on weighty matters that will reshape our city.

One City Henry is the most interesting man in New Haven.

posted by: THadari on May 7, 2014  11:08pm

As a YODA colleague, I am deeply saddened by our group’s loss of Esther. She was a key leader in our collective work to create a brighter future for our city’s youth. Esther is visionary, intelligent, dedicated, and genuine. It has always been easy to work with her, because she listens well and collaborates with humility and humor. As a born-and-bred New Haven native who also accumulated a wealth of experience in other cosmopolitan cities, she also brought a valuable and authentic perspective to our work in the city. Wherever Esther goes, I am confident that she will continue to inspire those around her and create a better world for us all.

posted by: getyourfactstraight on May 8, 2014  10:37am

Xavier, you are really silly with your comments. I especially liked the one about One City Henry being the most interesting person in the world. Wow, if I only knew that awhile ago!