Elephant in the Zoom
The Democratic Party is simultaneously trying to muscle through whatever pieces of its agenda it can in the remaining months of their trifecta in Washington, while fending off not just a red wave in 2022 but a potential return of Donald Trump to the White House.
Yet the progressive advocacy infrastructure, which has been built up over the decades with hundreds of millions of dollars and the sweat and tears of millions of volunteers, is barely playing a role in what is perhaps the most pivotal moment of our lives.
The cause is a culture clash playing out inside each of these institutions that represents a profound break from the typical, baseline infighting most organizations are accustomed to. If you work inside a progressive organization – or any organization, for that matter – you probably have some sense of what I’m talking about, and you also know, to borrow from the title of the story, that it’s become the elephant in the Zoom, so to speak.
I have a new story up on this phenomenon, an it’s very long, but hopefully worth your time.
Getting a story like this out to readers is a challenge, because even many people who appreciate it will be very reluctant to share it publicly, lest they become suspected of harboring unthinkable thoughts. Others who take joy in the misery of progressives will share it gleefully – which will then transitively discredit it in a cycle of guilt by association. Critics, meanwhile, will only screen shot the headline or a line or two and won’t link to the piece, while criticizing a caricature of the article. That’s how I’ve seen these cycles play out before, at least. Hopefully we’re moving into a healthier place, though, and I want this to be my contribution toward that forward progress.
So I urge you to give it a read and share it widely, as I’ve tried to be fair, and I think that this quote from a movement leader says it well: “To be honest with you, this is the biggest problem on the left over the last six years. This is so big. And it's like abuse in the family — it's the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. And you have to be super sensitive about who the messengers are.”
The Elephant in the Zoom
Everyone acknowledged that Zoom was less than ideal as a forum for a heartfelt conversation on systemic racism and policing. But the meeting was urgent, and, a little more than two months into the Covid-19 lockdown, it would have to do.
During the first week of June 2020, teams of workers and their managers came together across the country to share how they were responding to the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and to chart out what — if anything — their own company or nonprofit could do to contribute toward the reckoning with racial injustice that was rapidly taking shape.
On June 2, one such huddle was organized by the Washington, D.C., office of the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rights movement’s premier research organization.
Heather Boonstra, vice president of public policy, began by asking how people were “finding equilibrium” — one of the details we know because it was later shared by staff with Prism, an outlet that focuses on social justice advocacy.
She talked about the role systemic racism plays in society and the ways that Guttmacher’s work can counter it. Staff suggestions, though, turned inward, Prism reported, “including loosening deadlines and implementing more proactive and explicit policies for leave without penalty.” They suggested additional racial equity trainings, noting that a previous facilitator had said the last round had not included sufficient time “to cover everything.” With no Black staff in the D.C. unit, it was suggested that “Guttmacher do something tangible for Black employees in other divisions.”
Behind Boonstra’s and the staff’s responses to the killing was a fundamentally different understanding of the moment. For Boonstra and others of her generation, the focus should be on the work of the nonprofit: What could Guttmacher, with an annual budget of nearly $30 million, do now to make the world a better place? For her staff, that question had to be answered at home first: What could they do to make Guttmacher a better place? Too often, they believed, managers exploited the moral commitment staff felt toward their mission, allowing workplace abuses to go unchecked.
The belief was widespread. In the eyes of group leaders dealing with similar moments, staff were ignoring the mission and focusing only on themselves, using a moment of public awakening to smuggle through standard grievances cloaked in the language of social justice. Often, as was the case at Guttmacher, they played into the very dynamics they were fighting against, directing their complaints at leaders of color. Guttmacher was run at the time, and still is today, by a Black woman, Dr. Herminia Palacio. “The most zealous ones at my organization when it comes to race are white,” said one Black executive director at a different organization, asking for anonymity so as not to provoke a response from that staff.
These starkly divergent views would produce dramatic schisms throughout the progressive world in the coming year. At Guttmacher, this process would rip the organization apart. Boonstra, unlike many managers at the time, didn’t sugarcoat how she felt about the staff’s response to the killing.
“I’m here to talk about George Floyd and the other African American men who have been beaten up by society,” she told her staff, not “workplace problems.” Boonstra told them she was “disappointed,” that they were being “self centered.” The staff was appalled enough by the exchange to relay it to Prism.
The human resources department and board of directors, in consultation with outside counsel, were brought in to investigate complaints that flowed from the meeting, including accusations that certain staff members had been tokenized, promoted, and then demoted on the basis of race. The resulting report was unsatisfying to many of the staff.
“What we have learned is that there is a group of people with strong opinions about a particular supervisor, the new leadership, and a change in strategic priorities,” said a Guttmacher statement summarizing the findings. “Those staff have a point of view. Complaints were duly investigated and nothing raised to the level of abuse or discrimination. Rather, what we saw was distrust, disagreement, and discontent with management decisions they simply did not like.”
A Prism reporter reached a widely respected Guttmacher board member, Pamela Merritt, a Black woman and a leading reproductive justice activist, while the Supreme Court oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization were going on last December, a year and a half after the Floyd meeting. She offered the most delicate rebuttal of the staff complaints possible.
“I have been in this movement space long enough to respect how people choose to describe their personal experience and validate that experience, even if I don’t necessarily agree that that’s what they experienced,” Merritt said. “It seems like there’s a conflation between not reaching the conclusion that people want and not doing due diligence on the allegations, which simply is not true.” Boonstra did not respond to a request to talk from either Prism or The Intercept.
The six months since then have only seen a ratcheting up of the tension, with more internal disputes spilling into public and amplified by a well-funded anonymous operation called ReproJobs, whose Twitter and Instagram feeds have pounded away at the organization’s management. “If your reproductive justice organization isn’t Black and brown it’s white supremacy in heels co-opting a WOC movement,” blared a typical missive from one of its Instagram stories. The news, in May 2022, that Roe v. Wade would almost certainly be overturned did nothing to temper the raging battle.
That the institute has spent the course of the Biden administration paralyzed makes it typical of not just the abortion rights community — Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and other reproductive health organizations had similarly been locked in knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations, most often breaking down along staff-versus-managment lines. It’s also true of the progressive advocacy space across the board, which has, more or less, effectively ceased to function. The Sierra Club, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives, Human Rights Campaign, Time’s Up, the Sunrise Movement, and many other organizations have seen wrenching and debilitating turmoil in the past couple years.
In fact, it’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult. It even reached the National Audubon Society, as Politico reported in August 2021:
Following a botched diversity meeting, a highly critical employee survey and the resignations of two top diversity and inclusion officials, the 600,000-member National Audubon Society is confronting allegations that it maintains a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color, according to interviews with 13 current and former staff members.
Twitter, as the saying goes, may not be real life, but in a world of remote work, Slack very much is. And Twitter, Slack, Zoom, and the office space, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former executive directors of advocacy organizations, are now mixing in a way that is no longer able to be ignored by a progressive movement that wants organizations to be able to function. The executive directors largely spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of angering staff or donors.
“To be honest with you, this is the biggest problem on the left over the last six years,” one concluded. “This is so big. And it's like abuse in the family — it's the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. And you have to be super sensitive about who the messengers are.”
For a number of obvious and intersecting reasons — my race, gender, and generation — I am not the perfect messenger. But here it goes anyway.