Former Employees Say Bosses at National Center for Transgender Equality Fostered Culture of Racism

Former Employees Say Bosses at National Center for Transgender Equality Fostered Culture of Racism

At the beginning of the year, the National Center for Transgender Equality, one of the nation’s largest trans civil rights organizations, appeared, outwardly, to be thriving. Their budget had ballooned from just over half a million dollars in 2009 to over two million less than a decade later, and they had a staff of more than 20, their largest ever. The organization was gearing up for its 2020 U.S. Transgender Survey, a detailed census of trans people that had, upon its initial release in 2015, quickly become a much-cited and important resource. As the only policy shop based in Washington D.C. that focused solely on trans advocacy, NCTE was regularly quoted, including by Jezebel, in stories involving trans civil rights issues. Under a Trump administration that has made the rollback of trans rights a priority, their work felt—and was, and continues to be—incredibly vital.

But unbeknownst to most, especially to people outside of the small and tight-knit trans advocacy community, many staffers were increasingly alarmed over what they viewed as the organization’s callous treatment of people of color, among other problems they had steadily observed and experienced. For several years, according to former staffers Jezebel spoke with and as reported by NewNowNext, staff at the National Center for Transgender Equality had been pushing their senior management, Mara Keisling and Lisa Mottet, to take their concerns around the organization’s culture seriously, which ranged from what they describe as institutional racism and a revolving door for staffers of color to a frenetic pace that was increasingly unsustainable.

Several months into Donald Trump’s presidency, several staff members had sent a detailed memo, which Jezebel obtained, to Keisling, the executive director, and Mottet, her deputy, writing that “office morale is tangibly low” and that “staff physical and mental health is suffering.” The letter asked for better accommodations for staffers with disabilities, as well as policies that would take the pressure off of a staff that felt overworked and under constant pressure. Around that time, they also began organizing a union with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, a process that, according to staffers pushing for the union as well as union officials, was repeatedly stymied and stalled by management, a charge that NCTE’s management has denied.

In recent months, what had been a private, internal effort spearheaded by now former staffers has become very public, putting NCTE’s work, and possibly its future, in jeopardy. In August, a majority of staff walked out in protest over the firing of a black trans employee, the latest in what several staffers who have departed NCTE told Jezebel is a long-standing pattern of mistreatment of staff of color. After staff members demanded that Keisling and Mottet resign, the leadership subsequently refused, instead offering buyouts. Internal sources characterized this effort to Jezebel as an attempt to decimate the nascent union, as well as to push staff agitating for change out of the organization. After a number of departures earlier this year, and the latest round of buyouts, only seven people remain at NCTE, a gutting of an organization at the worst possible time for both NCTE and the trans community it serves.

In an open letter published Friday in Out, former staff members laid out the reasons they left, highlighting management’s alleged union busting, as well as leadership’s treatment of staff of color. They continued:

Those of us now on the outside of the organization know these issues began long before this year. Over the last decade, it’s been abundantly clear that members of the executive team hold an inconsistent and irreconcilable view of how to make the organization itself a strong social justice movement — including recognition of a union and steps needed to ensure NCTE itself is an equitable place for people of color, people with disabilities, and other marginalized members of the transgender community.

The Nonprofit Professional Employees Union has since filed a formal grievance with the National Labor Relations Board over what the NPEU’s Kayla Blado called “classic union busting” tactics and for, as NPEU’s statement put it, “discharging all employees in the bargaining unit, in retaliation against the staff asking for voluntary recognition of their union.” “According to NCTE’s own statistics, trans workers face higher levels of discrimination at work,” Blado told Jezebel. “They’re basically making the problem worse. They’re doing a disservice to their mission to help transgender workers.”

In an interview with Jezebel, Keisling blamed some of what she called the organization’s “inadequacies” on the challenges of running a quickly growing organization without proper human resource systems in place, and during a time when attacks on trans people are coming from all sides. Yet the reasons NCTE is imploding are not unique to NCTE, but rather have played out in many supposedly progressive organizations in recent years whose leadership has been unwilling or slow to match their organization’s stated ideals to its internal workings. Housing Works leadership is currently fighting the unionization efforts of its staff, leading more than 100 employees to stage a walkout at the end of October. Earlier in 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center was forced to belatedly reckon with longstanding complaints by staff of racial and gender discrimination, as well as sexual harassment allegations against its founder Morris Dees, who was ultimately fired. And last year, Lambda Legal’s CEO resigned amidst complaints of resistance to the staff union’s demands and unaddressed issues of racial equity. But none of this has occurred in a vacuum. As one former NCTE staffer put it to Jezebel, “This has been a long time coming.”

Jezebel spoke with several former NCTE staffers, all of whom requested anonymity, citing concerns over finding new employment as well as the consequences of speaking publicly. NCTE, even at its height earlier this year, was not the largest trans rights and trans-led advocacy organization (that would be the Transgender Law Center, based in Oakland), nor is it engaged in frontline organizing work (those would be, largely, local organizations who are even further marginalized within the broader LGBTQ movement). But given its mission to “provide a powerful transgender advocacy presence in Washington, DC,” NCTE has come to be seen by many outside of the small world of trans civil rights organizing as, in the words of a Reuters reporter, the “leading U.S. transgender advocacy group.” Former staff know how high the stakes are for themselves and their broader community, but are unified in their belief that for NCTE—and any trans rights organization—to be effective, it must must take issues of racial justice and intersectionality seriously. “Most of us are trans people. We are personally impacted by the work that we were doing and we understand how important it is to push back on the Trump administration and to fight against the rollback of our rights and to try to give the community a rallying point,” one former staffer said.

They added, “I came to NCTE hoping to learn from the best and brightest leaders that exist in the trans movement. I came hoping to make my own small mark and contribute in some small way to our liberation. And to have this happen, to have the veil pulled off, and to see that even in specific trans spaces, and specifically trans movements, that we do this to ourselves, is shocking and heartbreaking.”

While NCTE staff had been organizing at least since 2016 according to a Facebook post by a former staffer, a series of incidents occurred this year to compel staffers to take more drastic action. In June, DeShanna Neal, a black activist mother of a trans daughter who had been hired for a part-time position in 2017 to organize parents of trans children, left the organization after a series of incidents in which former staff say Neal, who uses they pronouns, was sidelined, unfairly accused of making racist comments about a white colleague, and told that they had “created a hostile work environment.” Without specifically mentioning Neal’s name, Keisling confirmed to Jezebel that an incident had occurred in which staffers had “reported race-related comments they were concerned about from the other,” and that neither had been formally disciplined. But the stress resulting from that accusation, and the manner in which management handled it, former staffers say, led Neal to develop fibromyalgia. According to sources, when they requested disability accommodations as well as leave through the Family Medical and Leave Act, NCTE’s leadership was slow to address their needs and asked for additional documentation to prove they needed support, a process that Keisling defended as standard practice. Neal departed NCTE shortly after. To one former staffer, the organization’s treatment of Neal was a “particularly egregious example of NCTE’s anti-black bias.”

Another staffer told Jezebel they had to take unpaid time off to recover from a transition-related medical procedure, which shocked them. “This is the country’s foremost trans advocacy organization, and they weren’t even looking after their employees seeking affirming care,” they said. Keisling, in an interview with Jezebel, pointed to steps the organization’s leadership had taken to address the staffer’s concerns, noting that during the last year, NCTE had instituted a better comp time policy and that staff averaged about a 43-hour workweek. Keisling also cited the implementation of a racial justice plan that included trainings for all staff, a revamped interview process, as well as racial justice coaches for Keisling and Mottet, both of whom are white. “Do we have racial equity problems? Absolutely. I don’t know an organization that doesn’t,” Keisling said. “We have deep, deep racial justice values here, which doesn’t mean we don’t do everything right. We try, sometimes we fail, and we learn.”

According to former staff, however, the plan Keisling referenced did not lead to substantial change. As for the unionization effort, sources involved in the process told Jezebel that they believed management was intentionally dragging their feet by arguing that mid-level managers should not be included in the unit. Keisling refutes the claim that NCTE leaders were opposed to the union. “We have constantly told them we want to recognize the union,” she said, saying she had been told that it was a “generally bad” idea to include supervisors in a bargaining unit. (The NPEU’s Blado pointed to several non-profits, including her own, as well as SumOfUs and the Democracy Collaborative, that include staff with supervisory roles in their unions.)

But it was what former staffers viewed as Keisling and Mottet’s seeming inability to substantively address issues of racial inequality within the organization that was most concerning, they said. And events came to a head on August 16, when Lissette Miller, a black Latinx trans staffer who was in charge of coordinating the group’s much-vaunted U.S. Transgender Survey for 2020, was unceremoniously fired by the group’s director of finance and operations in the middle of the office. Another staffer of color working on implementing the survey had by then quit due to disagreements with management, leading to fears that the survey, a massive project requiring an immense amount of time and effort, would not be completed in time. Keisling declined to comment on the specifics of Miller’s departure, telling Jezebel, “We did everything as carefully, as appropriately, and as decently as we could in every case,” though she added, “Sometimes people have to leave organizations, and it is always hard.” When Miller was fired, it made staffers realize that steps proposed by management, like hiring a diversity consultant, wouldn’t be enough, according to sources.

“[They were] publicly humiliated,” said one former staffer who was present when Miller was fired earlier this year. “At that point, it became, ‘Hey, let’s stop black people from being forced out of our organization,” they said of staff members’ mindset after Miller’s firing. “It came down to the simple fact of, we have to address this organization’s racism problems.”

Outraged over Miller’s firing, the majority of staff held an impromptu walkout that same day in protest. And they soon came to believe, as they wrote in their open letter published in Out, that the problems within the organization couldn’t be fixed by another consultant, or more promises from management to improve that they felt went nowhere, or even unionization. The operations and finance director had been put on administrative leave after he fired Miller, which didn’t satisfy the remaining staff. (Keisling declined to comment on this specific matter, but told Jezebel an outside law firm “determined no staff engaged in wrongdoing” during an investigation.) We really felt like their response was insufficient, so insufficient as to be insulting,” one staffer said. Keisling and Mottet, they now felt, had to go.

In a letter obtained by Jezebel that was sent to Keisling and Mottet in September, 10 staffers—most of whom have since left NCTE—requested that the two resign within 18 months. Listing what they felt were the failures of leadership to “recognize and pursue the priorities of many transgender people of color and to support the needs of marginalized staff,” the staffers added, “We have seen a damaging level of staff turnover, including a starkly disproportionate number of people of color terminated, pushed out, or otherwise separating from the organization. We’ve seen bridges burned between NCTE and leaders within Black and brown trans communities.” The letter cited the mishandling of the U.S. Transgender Survey, which depends on the willingness of trans interviewees to participate, as only the latest example.

“NCTE now needs leaders who have the trust of staff and are open to and capable of growing the organization to meet new challenges and needs​,” the letter continued. “It is time that we have new leaders who exemplify the inclusive, humble leadership and the racial and economic justice principles that must be at the core of our work.”

According to Keisling, by that point, the organization had already been working with a consultant on a plan to address some of the concerns that had repeatedly been raised by staff. On November 1, Keisling and Mottet unveiled what Keisling described as their “proposed plan forward,” which included buyouts for staff, as well as the hiring of additional organizational consultants. That plan, said one former staffer, blindsided the staff.

“All of a sudden, they told us to clear our schedules for a Friday afternoon, November 1, and that’s when they laid out their plan,” they said. “It was shocking how insufficient their plan was.” They characterized the tenor of the meeting as, “If you can’t get on board, there’s the door.” Keisling described the buyouts as a way to move NCTE forward with staff that would, as she put it, “embrace” the necessary changes. “We realized, and some of the staff expressed that, there were some staff members who weren’t up for the next part of the journey, who didn’t want to move forward, even with changes made,” Keisling said, adding, “We didn’t want to lose any staff.”

Few of NCTE’s staff were willing to take the buyout, which initially started off at five weeks of pay and required the signing of a non-disclosure agreement. After it was increased, and the NDA was dropped, eight ultimately took the buyout. “It was very much a move to get people who disagreed out of the organization,” one now-former staffer said. They accepted the buyout because it was clear to them that, as they put it, “things were not going to change.” As another staffer who left put it on Facebook, “Internally, staff have been pressing for years to see progress in this organization, but unfortunately Mara and Lisa have rejected any form of meaningful change, unionizing effort, and until recently, racial justice/sensitivity trainings.” Another recently departed staffer wrote, also on Facebook, “Transgender folks typically have a harder time finding jobs and yet in a place where they could be openly themselves, have insurance, (nearly) adequate pay they were leaving in droves. This is a point I brought up to management multiple times. How could we feel that we were doing things right when our turnover rate was that of a fast food restaurant?”

It’s not only the latest group of former staffers that is critical of the organization’s leadership. “The staff departure of the past week was after repeated internal and external trainings, and stated commitments from leadership to do better…and then not following through,” wrote a staff member who worked at NCTE from early 2016 until the beginning of 2019. “There are only so many times you can hear someone say, ‘We’re going to do better’ and then see them not actually change behavior, before you have to question whether they’re ever actually going to change.”

For black staffers and other staffers of color, the disconnect between the organization’s stated ideals and how people in leadership roles operated was particularly galling. “It’s like the movie Get Out,” one former staffer told Jezebel. “Even from the beginning, what I had noticed [was] that they hired me to be that token person of color,” they said, adding that their ideas were often disregarded and criticized. Even their emails were scrutinized by Mottet, they said, for not following the organization’s style guide, which made them feel that, as they put it, “Lisa wanted me to talk like her, like a white person” and that “my way of speech was too black.” When asked to comment, Mottet wrote Jezebel, “I have never personally critiqued a single email or a staff person’s overall email style. It is a core value of mine and of NCTE that we value each staff member’s unique voice, including their personal speaking and writing style. No one on the management team, including myself, has or ever would communicate otherwise to an employee.”

The very public departure of NCTE’s staff, and the reasons why they left, have made public an “open secret” among the trans activist community, as one trans activist of color at a leading LGBTQ organization described it to Jezebel. The open secret, they said, is Keisling’s “major blind spot around intersectionality.”

“She’s basically a racist,” they said bluntly of Keisling, adding that they’re “not sure it’s intentional.” They said they had once interviewed with Keisling for an open position at NCTE, during which Keisling asked them, as they recalled it, how they intended to balance their “demographic” with their work if hired, an account that Keisling denies happened. “It felt like she was asking that I don’t want you to be active as a person of color,” they said, which they saw as a red flag. Keisling told Jezebel, “In our candidate interviews, we always make sure to ask about past experience working with racial and economic justice, as well each candidate’s commitment to embracing difference.”

Another critic of Keisling is Monica Roberts, a longtime advocate and black trans woman who blogs under the name TransGriot, and who was one of the co-founders in the 1990s of the now-defunct National Transgender Advocacy Coalition. Roberts recently asserted that in 2002, Keisling had called Roberts and another black trans woman an “uppity n-word” at a conference, a claim that Keisling has vehemently denied. “I certainly have my flaws,” Keisling told Jezebel. “As a white person, I can’t not have blind spots,” she said. But, she added, “I absolutely do not use that word, have never used that word. It isn’t in my heart, it isn’t in my head, I don’t know how else to say that.”

To the trans advocate Jezebel spoke with, a trans civil rights organization needs to prioritize the needs of trans people of color. “We talk a lot about how trans people of color are much more likely to face harm, to live in poverty, to resorting to criminalized forms of making a living,” they said, yet NCTE “has a leadership that’s completely alienated from that.”

“We have a debt to Mara,” they said, describing Keisling as a “giant of the movement.” But, they said, “It is time to move on and have new leadership that is younger and gets the community that it represents.”

But Keisling, and other members of NCTE’s leadership team, remain, for now. On Saturday, Keisling posted a statement on her social media accounts, refuting Roberts’s claim that Keisling had used a racial slur about her and another black trans woman, before acknowledging that both she and NCTE need to “constantly grow and change.” She added that in the “new chapter” for NCTE, management would be “increasing our focus on advancing racial equity” within the organization as they “systematically rebuild an organization that reflects all of our values.”

“We have made significant changes, but not enough,” Keisling told Jezebel. She stressed her and NCTE’s commitment to racial justice. “We cannot be effective unless our movement is an anti-racist movement,” she said. “We need to have a workplace where nobody feels like they’re slipping out because we don’t have the right things in place.” Keisling added, “We will scale back up. We have to continue doing trans work. Trans lives are at stake. I’m not going to wallow in what anybody calls me. We’re going to fix some real problems, and we’re going to continue doing some incredible trans work.”

Staffers who have remained believe that the organization’s leadership can right the ship. “This is a critical time for trans people, and Mara and NCTE’s other leaders have the commitment and experience to continue advocating for justice for the trans community,” Daniel Shad, NCTE’s Development Manager, told Jezebel in an email. “While there are challenges that need to be addressed, the leadership team has a clear plan to do so in a way that’s consistent with NCTE’s values. I’m fully committed to NCTE and know it is the right place to continue the critical work of achieving equity, opportunity and justice for the trans community.”

For former staff, however, who told Jezebel they have experienced years of similar promises with few concrete results, that’s not enough.

“If these issues at NCTE aren’t addressed, it’s going to happen again. They’ll staff back up, they’re going to make the same mistakes, and we’ll be right back here in the next couple of years,” a former staffer said. “And that’s not doing trans people any favors. There’s a better way to do this work and run these organizations. And it’s heartbreaking that the leaders of this movement can’t see that.”

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