Transformation Project calls termination of state contract ‘unwarranted’

Transgender advocacy group had already hired new position when agreement was canceled

By: - December 20, 2022 4:53 pm
A protester displays a sign at the "Stop Criminalizing Trans Existence" protest in Sioux Falls on Feb. 1, 2020. The protest was in response to bills introduced during the 2020 legislative session. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

A protester displays a sign at the “Stop Criminalizing Trans Existence” protest in Sioux Falls on Feb. 1, 2020. The protest was in response to bills introduced during the 2020 legislative session. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

A nonprofit advocacy organization for transgender South Dakotans says it has fulfilled its contractual obligations with the state and is calling the state’s termination of the contract “unwarranted.”

In a letter Friday, Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration terminated its contract with The Transformation Project, alleging numerous contract violations committed by the group. Meanwhile, the governor’s spokesman told the conservative media outlet that first reported on the letter that Noem does not support the group’s efforts or “dividing our youth with radical ideologies.”

Executive Director of the Transformation Project Susan Williams said in an open letter Tuesday that the group is seeking legal advice to remedy “the circumstance,” adding that the organization has been under “intense scrutiny from online publications that peddle falsehoods about transgender people and perpetuate harm and discrimination against them.”

“We are also deeply concerned by the appearance that the termination of this contract stems not from our actions, but as a result of the population we serve,” Williams said.

Meanwhile, the secretary of the state Department of Health announced her retirement Monday amid unconfirmed speculation that the two events could be related.

The contract helped The Transformation Project hire a community health worker, using about $136,000 in federal funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A community health worker (CHW) is a frontline public health and social services worker who is “a trusted member” of the community served. A CHW helps connect South Dakotans to public services.

12.20.2022 Open Letter – CHW


How the money has been used so far

The award to The Transformation Project aligned with one of the goals of the federal grant funding program’s benchmarks. The LGBTQ community is among those listed as potential targets for assistance in the grant’s documentation. 

The state’s online financial reporting system says The Transformation Project has received about $23,000 in payments from the state so far this fiscal year. 

The Transformation Project hired Jack Fonder this fall for the CHW position, Williams told South Dakota Searchlight.

Fonder, who is a member of the LGBTQ community, was hired to provide critical services like health system navigation, health promotion and coaching, and education to people The Transformation Project serves, including transgender, gender non-conforming and the broader LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit community.

“We are the entity they trust to help them navigate through the complexities of the health care and social services systems,” Williams said in the open letter.

The Transformation Project has been an outspoken advocacy group for transgender youth in South Dakota, as the demographic faces discrimination and hostility, leading to depression, isolation and suicidal thoughts, experts say. 

For example, 80% of LGBTQ youth report they’ve experience discrimination for their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to The Transformation Project. 53% of LGBTQ youth in South Dakota have seriously considered suicide in the past year; 19% report attempting suicide in the same timeframe, which is higher than overall South Dakota youth. About 75% of LGBTQ youth also report experiencing anxiety and 58% report symptoms of depression.

Transgender adults are four times as likely as cisgender heterosexual adults to report making at least one suicide attempt in their life.

Contesting alleged breaches of contract

Williams told South Dakota Searchlight that Fonder is still with The Transformation Project and graduated from a CHW program Tuesday — just days after the state terminated the contract. The state cited, among many other alleged breaches of contract, that the organization hadn’t created a CHW program with “at least one certificate-level CHW.”

The CHW certificate program at Southeast Technical College requires 16 credits, which is at least one semester of work.

The letter also alleged that the infrastructure for the CHW program wasn’t set up, two quarterly reports weren’t filed, program success stories hadn’t been provided and that the organization didn’t participate in the CHW Collaborative of South Dakota annual conference in April 2022, even though the contract began in June.

The position hadn’t been hired until Sept. 6, Williams said, and the contract reveals that the document wasn’t signed by both parties until September.

Noem spokesman Ian Fury said the Governor’s Office could not respond to South Dakota Searchlight’s request for comment because of “the threat of pending litigation.”

Earlier this week, Fury provided a statement from Noem to The Daily Signal, a conservative media outlet.

“South Dakota does not support this organization’s efforts, and state government should not be participating in them,” the statement said. “We should not be dividing our youth with radical ideologies. We should treat every single individual equally as a human being.”

Fury added in his comments to The Daily Signal that the state is reviewing all Department of Health contracts and that the contract was signed without Noem’s prior knowledge or approval. 

South Dakota Voices for Peace and the Union Gospel Mission, both based in Sioux Falls, are among the other organizations that have CHW contracts with the state, but their leaders said they had not received calls from the Department of Health questioning their compliance with their contract requirements as of Monday.

Williams, of The Transformation Project, said the group is “reviewing all available options.”

“To put it simply, we received a grant to establish a CHW program and we did just that,” Williams said in the open letter. “We complied with all aspects of the contract and are heartbroken at what we believe are inaccurate descriptions of our work. We are further devastated because it is patently obvious that the transgender and broader LGBQ2S community in South Dakota faces health disparities that could be improved under this grant – precisely what was intended in the first place.”

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Makenzie Huber
Makenzie Huber

Makenzie Huber is a lifelong South Dakotan whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent five years as a journalist with experience reporting on workforce, development and business issues within the state.