An open letter from the former, truly bold and independent voices of the International Women’s Health Coalition
Date: July 6, 2020
To: Kathleen Regan, Board Chair, International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC)
From: Former Black and women of color IWHC staff members
Content warning: Institutional racism, sexual abuse, trauma, and workplace toxicity
We are deeply moved by the uprisings to dismantle white supremacy and liberate Black lives across the United States and the world. We are also inspired by our brave peers who have exposed institutional anti-Blackness and racism at fellow reproductive rights and international women’s organizations. We, as former Black women and women of color (WOC) staff at IWHC, have collectively chosen to break our silence to publicly name the institutional racism and bullying we faced, so that it can no longer be willfully ignored. The stark hypocrisy between IWHC’s recent statement titled “Black Lives Matter” and the utter lack of accountability and tangible actions taken by the organization is palpable.
We have consistently found ourselves facing an institutional culture that inherently dismisses and discriminates against us. The current President, Françoise Girard, has knowingly upheld this culture of intimidation and humiliation. This has been an open secret for far too long. In fact, public Glassdoor reviews dating back to 2011 corroborate this. Reviewers mention an “office environment of intimidation,” with “heinous management practices” that do “not live up to ethical feminist leadership.” The reviews go on to say that “almost all senior staff or officer level employees are well off white women” with “very little diversity.”
IWHC’s recent BLM statement acknowledges that its “commitment to creating an environment of inclusion, support, and belonging can only be achieved by dismantling the oppressive systems that privilege whiteness,” and states that IWHC “will actively work within ourselves, our communities, and our movements to end the oppression of Black people and uphold the human rights of all.” An organization cannot “stand in solidarity with activists fighting for racial justice” without acknowledging its own policies, practices, and the behaviors of its leadership that have perpetuated racism and caused harm. As a white-led organization that purports to want to dismantle white supremacy, IWHC first needs to conduct a reconciliation process and provide reparations to those who have been impacted. A BLM statement is not enough.
We stand united in our call for IWHC’s long overdue institutional transformation. Here are some of the public occurrences and patterns of behavior that have occurred at IWHC over the years:
The Board of Directors entrenches and enables institutional racism.
Many of IWHC’s board members are wealthy white women and men who have been protected by the organization when they have made racist and reprehensible comments. Sadly, there is a complete lack of accountability and a resistance to self-reflection and learning exhibited from the board.
At IWHC’s 2019 Annual Dinner on April 10, honoree and former Board Chair Marlene Hess gave a white saviorism speech in front of an audience of more than 300 of IWHC’s supporters where she recounted her recent board trip to Brazil. She depicted IWHC grantee partners using racist stereotypes and derogatory language. She described the women she visited as “grizzled up.” This included making explicit remarks regarding girls experiencing sexual violence at the hands of male family members.
This incident was deeply traumatizing for us, especially survivors, not to mention some dinner attendees. Unfortunately, staff had already heard this story not long before at an IWHC board meeting during which the then Board Chair remarked on the “miserable” lives of the women she visited. At that time, staff provided critical feedback to multiple members of the Senior Management Team (SMT), including the current Vice President of Development and Communications. Yet instead of denouncing this racist incident and engaging in a growth-oriented dialogue with the then Board Chair, it was rationalized. The President herself remarked to one of us who raised a concern, something to the effect of “staff need to have a thicker skin.” Ultimately, a decision was made by the SMT that non-management level staff could no longer attend board meetings to avoid “tension and emotionality,” according to the Vice President of Programs.
The unrepresentative board has undue power and influence. For example, in January 2018, IWHC staff collectively defined our new organizational values through a two-day facilitated retreat and subsequent cross-team discussions to conceptualize the value statements. However, after the President presented the final value statements to the board, the board unilaterally removed the word “intersectional” from our “feminism” value. When staff asked for the rationale, the President explained that the board felt “uncomfortable” with the term.
We find it disingenuous and dangerous to purport being a feminist SRHR organization with a “bold and independent voice” when IWHC has a board that refuses to use inclusive language when discussing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Some board members have vocally expressed at multiple board meetings their discomfort with using the words: intersectionality, feminism, abortion, redistribution of resources, people of color, indigenous, and pregnant people. For example, at the Strategic Planning Kick-off Retreat in 2019, the former Board Chair threatened to pull funding for what she perceived as mission drift if IWHC was to focus more on marginalized groups.
The structure and staffing of IWHC replicates systems of oppression.
The leadership at IWHC mirrors and further perpetuates the same problematic behavior exhibited by its board. Firstly, the President fosters a toxic and racist organizational culture with almost all the power held in the hands of white women at the top of the organization. The President unilaterally shut down a staff attempt to develop a racial justice book club, grabbed notes out of one of our hands without permission to verify our presentation, and berated another WOC staff member over an all-staff email chain, to name a few examples.
The white women on SMT continually exhibit their own problematic behavior that remains unaddressed even when brought to the attention of Human Resources. For example, a former Director of Development openly yelled at and chastised her junior report of color repeatedly, including in front of other employees. This same Director once asked one of us to make sure that grantee partners wore their “costumes” to the Annual Dinner. In addition, multiple colleagues that have worked with the current Director of Grantmaking and International Partnerships attest to her describing us as “condescending,” “rude,” giving off “vibes,” and having “hidden agendas.” During discussions on institutional racism, she has attempted to shut down conversations by stating, “I already understand” and “I feel attacked.”
IWHC’s organizational value of “generosity of spirit” was often weaponized against us. This value was developed to help soothe the toxic work environment and lack of trust amongst staff. It was routinely invoked for us to uphold whenever white staff made mistakes. Yet, we rarely received that same generosity if we made a mistake. For example, there were numerous instances where multiple managers signed off on a project or decision, only to turn around and blame one of us when a problem arose. When white junior staff made mistakes, leadership somehow managed to return to their mantra about generosity of spirit.
Institutional racism impacted our everyday lived experiences at IWHC, causing racial trauma we continue to grapple with long after leaving the organization.
We experienced microaggressions from white staff at all levels within the organization. White staff have mocked their colleagues’ accents, ongoingly misgendered IWHC grantee partners, and laughed at the idea of using gender pronouns in personal introductions. In addition, one white staff member joked openly about an imaginary pin-up calendar of male diplomats. The joke turned heteronormative, as she scoffed when someone mentioned, “what about women?” These examples represent just a few instances where white privilege allowed white staff to behave in ways that at best disregarded boundaries and identities, and at worst were xenophobic, homophobic and transphobic.
We have endured countless hours of extra labor to over prepare for perfection, to strategize to be heard, and to support each other as a result of the psychological trauma and gaslighting we’ve encountered. We have spent time and money in therapy and other remedies simply to do our jobs. On the other hand, we have witnessed white staff cruise through meetings, routinely misplace their notes, put their feet up on desks, and co-opt our bilateral work meetings to offload their personal emotional baggage.
Without formal consent, IWHC has been using a photo of a former Black staff member in development materials, although she has not worked at the organization for several years. On another occasion, a former Black staff member was invited to a meeting with an institutional donor to highlight her experience at the AWID Black Feminisms Forum. This was at a point when the donor was shifting their gender justice strategy to include racial justice. Both of these acts feel deeply tokenizing.
Following the 2016 election in the United States, IWHC changed its outward-facing language around reproductive rights to “reproductive justice.” This was despite no organizational alignment around reproductive justice values, nor an acknowledgement of those of us who pushed these agendas internally, nor those who originally coined the terms. IWHC has also been strategically positioning itself as a feminist “movement building” organization that centers the most marginalized. However, in one glaring instance, IWHC booked a convening room up a flight of stairs with no elevator in which one participant, who was specifically invited to attend, was unable to access. In other instances, white staff have openly discussed their discomfort with new parents and visibly pregnant people as participants. We interpreted this to be performative allyship and the co-optation of thought leadership of Black and WOC-led organizations.
Persistent lack of commitment from leadership to tackle institutional racism.
Over the years, there have been several misinformed attempts at all-staff meetings to dialogue about racism and how it affects us and our work. The trauma we have collectively experienced as a result of these poorly facilitated meetings and conversations, where white feelings and guilt are centered, indicates that the negative impacts far outweigh intentions. We know that trauma-informed facilitation requires skill and expertise — for that not to occur to leadership indicates naïveté at best and endangerment at worst.
A year after IWHC received a grant specifically to do work on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and after this specific value was prioritized for action through the values clarification work, IWHC had only barely begun a process to address these deep-rooted problems. The glacial pace of IWHC’s institutional response illustrates the persistent lack of commitment from leadership. There is an assumption by leadership that IWHC can simply implement actions now to “integrate DEI” without a reconciliation process. This presumption of being handed a fresh start is yet another materialization of the entrenched privilege and power that disregards years of harm.
All of the above, plus the lack of opportunity for advancement and pay equity, lead to higher rates of turnover for Black women and women of color.
From our experience, white staff are routinely shown favoritism, and their time and energy is continually protected. The division of labor within IWHC is inequitable. Black women and WOC bear the brunt of the work with limited decision-making capacity, while being expected to manage upward. Black women and WOC contribute immensely to the organization, going above and beyond their job descriptions and pay scale to do so. Black women and WOC often balance incredible logistical and administrative workloads, with substantive content contribution, across multiple projects and teams, including at the institutional strengthening level. However, white staff members are disproportionately provided opportunities for visibility and are more likely to receive acknowledgement and compensation for their work. Opportunities for advancement or ownership are often actively taken away from Black women and WOC by leadership through the deprioritization of projects, vague budget shifts, or by handing projects over to a consultant or another staff member. Junior staff of color are told to be more ambitious and take initiative, but are often not given the support or financial compensation to do so.
There is currently a lack of transparency in salary, promotion, or career advancement opportunities. IWHC’s insistence on adhering to this ambiguity further corroborates the well-documented effects of gender and racial discrimination and other systemic obstacles that create a gender and racial wage gap and that negatively impact opportunities for nonprofit career advancement for WOC, especially for Black women.
There is furthermore no attempt to retain Black women and WOC as employees — we were made to feel expendable and replaceable, and that we should not feel anything but gratitude. We were told by leadership “if you don’t like it here, leave,” and “perhaps this isn’t the right fit for you.” High staff turnover among Black women and WOC not only results in the loss of valuable talent and knowledge, but also affects IWHC’s ability to be “trust-based grantmakers,” especially since most of IWHC’s grantee partners are Black women and WOC as well. In the past five years, 13 Black women and WOC have left IWHC, taking their wealth of knowledge, talent, and experience with them. This is significant for an organization that hovers around 30 full-time staff members.
Simply hiring “diverse candidates” or holding one-off trainings without first addressing existing institutional racism does not solve the problem. This is because there is an implicit expectation from leadership that Black women and WOC staff should expend extraordinary levels of emotional labor to assimilate or if they cannot, to leave. Furthermore, representation alone is a superficial outcome that we have seen weaponized to further white-led priorities, and representation alone does not guarantee feminist solidarity or a move toward equity, inclusion, and belonging.
We are calling for transformational change, and believe that our letter is a gift to the organization. We demand that:
- Marlene Hess and all board members who do not align with IWHC’s mission, IWHC President Françoise Girard; Yael Gottlieb, the Vice President of Development and Communications; the Vice President of Programs (moot); and Jessie Clyde, the Director of Grantmaking and International Partnerships step down immediately.
- IWHC publicly apologizes for participating in and upholding racist behaviors and willfully ignoring reports of our experiences.
- IWHC invests in and mandates a long-term anti-racism process for board, leadership, and all staff including a reconciliation and reparations process for all harmed.
- IWHC pays all staff thriving wages (at least $60k for entry level staff members) and provides equitable support within the organization, including but not limited to financial support for Black women and WOC staff to seek therapy and/or other healing services and professional mentorship opportunities outside of IWHC.
- IWHC releases the non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) of any former staff so they can speak their truth.
- IWHC restructures to allow for feminist leadership of Black, indigenous, WOC, trans and gender non-conforming people from the Global South.
- IWHC practices and sustains ethical and equitable hiring and staffing practices, including ceasing the practice of hiring interns and staff based on whether they are related to donors — these practices exemplify racism, classism, and nepotism. IWHC must adopt a transparent pay scale that describes the competencies needed at each level, and investigate and address racial disparities in promotions and staff departures.
- IWHC reflects on how co-opting the thought leadership of WOC and LGBTQI-led organizations and gentrifying global feminist movements could jeopardize much-needed funding for underresourced, grassroots feminist activists in the Global South.
- IWHC decolonizes its philanthropy by shifting funding away from elites within the Global South and bringing to the center those who have historically been pushed to the margins, specifically movements led by Black women, Indigenous women, young women, women with disabilities, and women from rural areas including trans and gender non-conforming people.
- IWHC equitably compensates grantee partners and affiliated advocates for their thought leadership and time dedicated to advancing IWHC’s advocacy goals, including providing speaker fees, compensating Advocacy in Practice participants, and intentionally shifting power to highlight IWHC grantee partners and Global South feminists as the go-to experts (rather than IWHC Global North-based staff).