Toxic Cultures: The Worst Kept Secret In The Progressive Movement

In 2012, when I was just starting out as a community organizer in the immigration movement, I had lunch with a fellow community organizer Anabelle*, who was transitioning out of her role. I told her all about my passion for immigration reform, and how I had been working my entire life to have a chance to work in this sector.

“How’s your co-workers?” — she asked.

“Great! I’m so excited, I think we’re going to be great friends!”

Her face had a pained look.

“Look” — she said, “one thing you need to know, is that some of these people, especially your directors/bosses are NOT your friends.”

“Oh”, I said, taken aback. I thought this was unusual. After all, I had just gotten fired from Whole Foods six months earlier, in a horrible experience that was a result of an awful toxic culture that did not align with their values. No matter how much assistance I had asked for, I did not receive the proper training needed to perform my job well, and in the end, I was fired by my three supervisors in an incredible spectacle of intimidation, and paraded through the store as if I was found guilty of a serious offense that warranted termination.

So again, it was definitely unusual that I was being warned three days into my career of toxic behaviors that may arise from working in the nonprofit sector: I mean — is it THAT hard for people doing good work to be actual good people?

The answer unfortunately, the majority of the time, is yes. I always remembered Anabelle’s* early warning, and why she had taken the opportunity to be so blunt and straightforward with me. Because toxic culture infests our progressive movements: we just don’t hear about it, because it’s whispered about at conferences, spoken about at gatherings, or on a Friday night hanging out at Chili’s. Yes, you toxic nonprofit directors, we endlessly talk about how your values don’t add up with your actions.

During my time as a community organizer, being part of a cohort in my home region, I witnessed my fair share of toxic behaviors coming from different progressive groups: however in the end, the wins we were getting were outweighing the challenges of toxic cultures in our workplaces — which weren’t that bad — but it definitely still bothered me needing to balance any type of toxicity in a space that is designed to generate social good. Also, the leadership during my time was mostly older folks leading — so we also chalked it up to a generational divide we could maybe one day be able to help break through.

Today, younger leadership has taken the reigns in some spaces: but the toxic cultures at times I’ve heard have become even worse, which leads me to believe toxic culture is a syndrome — and the worst kept secret in progressive spaces.

In 2015, I experienced the worst of it though. So here’s the thing. I can’t talk about it openly, as there was non-disclosure paperwork — but I’ll do my best to describe my experience without violating those terms (which I hate).

So imagine this: you work your whole career to get to what you think is the NBA* of your sector, a wildly popular organization that is supposedly on the cutting edge of the work you do. And because in our progressive circles we tend to protect those organizations/people that have the most influence, you don’t get to hear about the awful toxic culture that already exists, which include misogyny, cultural insensitivity, ageism, and an existing culture of white supremacy (which I used to be skeptical about until I experienced firsthand).

So you arrive to this organization — and bam — you get hit with the cold hard truth: the organization you expected to most live up to their values is a complete front in this sense. And of course, just like at Whole Foods early in my career, you end up getting terminated in the absolute most humiliating way, after months of speaking up and asking for better leadership and direction. I’ve thought about leaving a review on Glassdoor, to warn others, but ultimately I’ve decided against it multiple times. Oh, and just take a look at the high turnover rate — but who’s going to go against the organization that is wildly successful in mainstream media?

Oh and now I take anti-anxiety medication: thanks a lot NBA*.

That experience nearly crushed my spirit, but it is the reason why I started an online show called The @HendelMedia Project: I wanted to create a space for authentic conversations — conversations about mental health, bad leadership, toxic cultures — and the stories are there, everyone is just scared to get fired, belongs to a marginalized community under attack, simply just leave, or like me, are silenced through paperwork. It really is the worst kept secret in our movements, and the reason why I believe we haven’t won immigration reform and ultimately got walloped in the elections: our movements don’t always treat their own people well, so how TF do we encourage constructive conversations around race and immigration in divided communities across the nation?

I mean come on, I expect this shit out of business and corporate culture, not social justice and immigration reform.

Several articles have come out about unexpected toxic work cultures in the news over the past few months: Uber, Thinx, that just have revealed jaw dropping accounts — but I was inspired to write this because of Masha Mendieta’s Medium article “The Secret Sexism of Arturo Carmona, Candidate for CD34” — detailing the toxic work culture, allegations of sexual harassment, and the intimidation that I fully believe is a cancer in our movements that is continuing to hurt not only the work, but the good people that are dedicating their lives, but sacrificing their mental health for good causes — that ultimately threaten to destroy their livelihoods and their careers.

Just like Masha’s account — it may be hard to come to terms with the fact that some of our most progressive leaders/organizations are filled with toxicity — but ultimately it is a much needed warning, so hopefully you don’t go through the same.