How an Ousted CEO Built a Culture of 'Covert Racism' and Fear at Planned Parenthood's Largest Affiliate

How an Ousted CEO Built a Culture of 'Covert Racism' and Fear at Planned Parenthood's Largest Affiliate

When Michelle Adams began working in January of 2017 as the customer service manager at Planned Parenthood’s Brooklyn health clinic, she was excited to work at an organization that served largely women of color, and in particular Black women like herself.

“Everyone was mission-driven, there was a sense of trust,” Adams said of her first several months on the job, a period that happened to coincide with the end of CEO Joan Malin’s tenure. But Malin left in 2017, and when Laura McQuade, the former head of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, became the new CEO of Planned Parenthood of New York City, Adams quickly felt a shift in the organization’s culture. Part of it stemmed from a promotion that required Adams to move from the Brooklyn clinic, which was largely staffed by people of color, to the organization’s administrative office—a “largely white space,” as she put it. “People of color are at the frontlines, but as you go through the ranks, it becomes whitewashed,” Adams said. (Planned Parenthood New York City is now Planned Parenthood Greater New York, after a recent merger with several other state affiliates.)

But Adams pinned most of the blame on McQuade, who instituted what she described as a toxic “mean girl” culture and an environment suffused with “covert racism.”

On Tuesday, the board of Planned Parenthood Greater New York announced that they had “parted ways” with McQuade, news that came after a largely internal staff organizing effort spilled out into the public. Staff concerns against McQuade included accusations of racism and bullying, as well as charges that she had instituted a revenue-driven, assembly-line approach to PPGNY clinics–one that put patients, and in particular Black and other patients of color, at potential risk. McQuade’s ouster has led to a further reckoning at Planned Parenthood, a purportedly progressive organization, about who is valued and what work is prioritized, and why the toxic leadership of McQuade was allowed to continue for so long. In response to Jezebel’s request for comment, McQuade referred us to her interview in the New York Times, in which she denied the allegations made against her, adding that “this is not the time to refute them.”

But according to the accounts of numerous current and former staff, that’s clearly not the case.

“Don’t go against her, don’t challenge her publicly, I can’t protect you.”

In Adams’s new role as director of clinical administration, she was often the only person of color present in meetings with McQuade and other higher-level staff. And what Adams observed of McQuade’s work style alarmed her. “These are women who are highly educated in these meetings, and they are cowering at the sight of this person,” Adams told me. “She would cut people off by slicing her throat. It’s the feeling like, if I don’t tap dance correctly, it’s off with my head.” Kate Steinle, most recently PPGNY’s Associate Vice President of Clinical Implementation, said McQuade often berated her colleagues in public spaces and meetings. Among Steinle’s colleagues, she said, “there was this sense of doom.” Adams’s supervisor had felt the need to warn Adams about McQuade, telling her, as she recalled, “Don’t go against her, don’t challenge her publicly, I can’t protect you.”

Equally alarming to Adams were the ideas that McQuade pushed in meetings: she suggested pushing Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis medication, or PrEP, on people during their abortion procedures, a move she believed McQuade embraced less out of concern for the health of their largely Black and Latinx clients than out of an eagerness to claim their affiliate was leading the way for women of color to use PrEP. McQuade also floated an initiative to encourage the use of long-term contraceptives, like IUDs, in schools whose students were largely Black and Latinx. Adams described McQuade’s initiative as “white saviorism.” “You’re talking about public schools where black and brown children are because they’re so hypersexual and need to be controlled?” Adams said. “It’s a direct link to the history of forced sterilization.”

Concerns about McQuade’s allegedly abusive behavior became so widespread that the board hired an outside law firm to investigate her conduct, according to internal emails viewed by Jezebel.

McQuade’s managerial actions soon began alarming staffers. She decided to lay off all the staff at the organization’s call center and outsource that work, for instance, and spearheaded initiatives that staff felt disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx staff as well as patients. Staffers say these concerns were repeatedly brought up in town hall meetings and to the board, as well as to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. But nothing seemed to change.

“White supremacy is still so embedded into the function of the organization.”

When McQuade laid off or furloughed 28 percent of the PPGNY staff in April, and temporarily closed the Planned Parenthood clinics in the Bronx and Queens—a move staffers felt was particularly galling during a pandemic that was disproportionately impacting Black and Latinx communities—it was, for many staffers, the final straw. McQuade claimed the cuts were a necessary response to the new financial realities brought on by the covid-19 pandemic, but staffers were upset that McQuade and other senior management had refused to cut their own salaries in order to lessen the impact of the cuts, and had rebuffed offers by employees to voluntarily reduce their hours and pay to keep as many of their colleagues employed as possible.

In an open letter sent on June 18, hundreds of current and former staffers detailed a litany of complaints against McQuade, whom they described as a “toxic leader” and a “Trumpian” “autocrat,” and demanded that she be removed as CEO. The letter painted a damning portrait of McQuade’s leadership, saying that she was abusive and created a culture of intimidation and fear; had engaged in financial mismanagement that “fundamentally threaten[s] the fiscal and operational viability of Planned Parenthood’s largest affiliate;” and displayed an unwillingness to address chronic issues of “systemic racism, pay inequity, and lack of upward mobility for Black staff,” issues which the staffers wrote have worsened in the few years she has led the organization.

The day after the staffers sent the letter, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s acting president and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson issued a thinly veiled warning, writing that the allegations of McQuade’s behavior “do not align with Planned Parenthood’s standards or our values” and that “we expect the Planned Parenthood Greater New York Board of Directors to hold themselves accountable.” The writing was on the wall, and on Tuesday, the board, which stood firmly behind McQuade after the release of the staff open letter, announced that McQuade would be departing. In an email sent to staff on Wednesday, the board wrote, “We recognize that our actions—or inactions—have contributed to people’s hurt and frustration. We take responsibility for that, and for the work ahead.” The board chair did not respond to a detailed list of questions Jezebel sent about McQuade’s tenure. When asked the same questions, PPGNY instead replied with a short statement from a spokesperson: “During Laura’s tenure, PPGNY made some important operational changes. But growing concerns raised by our staff made her continued leadership untenable. Our employees are on the front lines of some of the most critical health care work in the country and we recognize we must make some changes to ensure our clinicians and center staff continue to feel supported in meeting the needs of all patients.”

With McQuade now gone, the half-dozen current and former staffers who spoke with Jezebel are cautiously optimistic that working conditions will improve, and that Planned Parenthood Greater New York can better fulfill its mission. But they recognize that fixing the problems at PPGNY will require more than just the ouster of its CEO. As one Black PPGNY clinician who wishes to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution told Jezebel, she had wanted to work at Planned Parenthood since she was a teenager, where she felt she could “serve women who looked like me.” But, she said, “white supremacy is still so embedded into the function of the organization.”

According to several current and former Black staffers, while McQuade pushed a series of initiatives during her tenure meant to address issues of racial equity within the organization, those were largely cosmetic, relying on a series of consultants who released reports with recommendations that, in their minds, went nowhere. (Jezebel has independently reviewed some of these reports, which reflected the types of bland promises to do better that are typical of so-called “diversity, equity, and inclusion” efforts.) Several current and former staffers told me they felt that from the beginning, McQuade pushed what one described as a “for-profit” model, shifts that disproportionately burdened people of color, both staff and patients. It “became very corporate,” Adams told Jezebel. “It was a push to become a hospital, or as much like a hospital as we could be.”

One of those initiatives was a push to increase the number of patients served by each clinic, a change justified by the fact that it would increase access, but “was really a business decision,” one Black clinician in Queens, who was furloughed in April, told Jezebel. “The number of patients people were expected to see felt wholly unachievable,” she added. Clinic staffers felt that protocols weren’t put into place to allow them to manage their increased workloads safely; they increasingly began to feel rushed and said that patient care was in decline.

For many of the Black staffers, their investment in providing quality reproductive care for other Black women and women of color is what had led them to want to work at Planned Parenthood, work that they felt was increasingly difficult. “As a Black woman, it’s incredibly, incredibly important to me to serve my Black patients, because I know that the medical system has not been good to us in any capacity for hundreds of years,” one Black clinician in New York City said. “I want to be able to take a good amount of time with my patients and I want them to feel like they were being listened to. But in my head, I’m thinking I have to make my numbers.”

It’s easy to see why McQuade might want to focus on boosting revenue. When she began as CEO, according to staffers, Planned Parenthood of New York City had a budget surplus of $18 million; after the merger with other New York state affiliates, Planned Parenthood of Greater New York came into 2020 with a projected deficit of $6 million for the first half of the year. Though McQuade found funds to take on large building renovations and hire expensive consultants, staffers often felt they didn’t have the resources or support to adequately do their work. As one staffer put it, “It was strange to have fancy new coffee machines and be like, ‘I don’t have tampons for the homeless shelter I’m going to tonight.’”

Another widely criticized move by McQuade was her decision to extend clinic hours from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., forcing staff—who in New York City were largely women of color—to adapt to longer hours without consideration of their needs, like childcare or their personal safety. “Everyone had to stay,” the Queens clinician said. “From the front desk staff to the financial counselor. Everyone was staying until the last patient leaves.” She and others also saw it as a racial equity issue, given that the majority of medical assistants and other clinic staffers were Black and other women of color, who had long been paid what they viewed as insufficient wages. When the idea of extending clinic hours was initially raised, according to staffers, they were not going to be compensated for working the new evening hours; staff say they had to raise concerns before senior management agreed to pay them for working outside of what was previously considered their normal working day. And the increased pay that eventually materialized didn’t make up for the disrespect and potential disruption of working the late hours, staffers said.

All of these changes led to serious concerns about patient care and safety, unrealistic expectations, and unrealistic workloads. A new performance-based system of determining raises was used as a way to deny most people pay increases, despite, as one staffer put it, her work becoming her “whole life” in order to meet her goals. But when staff brought their concerns to McQuade, other members of the senior leadership team, and to the board, they were largely brushed aside. According to several members of staff, McQuade would use what one described as a “fake focus back on the community” to dismiss their complaints. As one staffer put it, she would “use coded language that made it seem like we’re serving these poor black and brown people, and you need to stop being lazy.”

“For me, this is really about treating people like they’re disposable, and using Black staff for our labor and then discarding us,” the Queens clinician said. She added, “It’s very much in the playbook of white supremacy.”

These issues were not limited to health clinics. One now-laid-off employee in the Education Department told Jezebel that for a series of weekend events in Black and Latinx communities that began in the fall of 2019, the staff was “aggressively encouraged” to volunteer for these all-day events, without pay.

“A lot of people had a hard time doing it because they had kids, or other jobs”— other jobs, she noted, that people needed because their pay was fairly low. But several employees felt pressured to sign up to volunteer because, as she put it, “it felt like a thing they couldn’t not sign up for.” She added, “We’re saying we’re on the side of equity and fairness, but our own staff was not feeling that way.”

She recalled that during a meeting, she and her team were asked by managers why some people didn’t volunteer, which she felt was a way to question their commitment to their work. “It made us feel selfish for centering our own concerns,” she said. The meeting became so heated, she said, that one of her colleagues began crying and left the room to go to the bathroom. “When she came back, she apologized. And [her managers] were like, you’re weaponizing your tears,” she remembered.

What came out of those events troubled her too. During those events, many participants gave feedback about wanting to change the name of Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Health Center in Manhattan, given Sanger’s eugenicist views. Staff supported the name change as well, but according to the Education Department staffer, McQuade gave a “tone deaf” speech at one event about Sanger, and her name still remains. “Nothing happened with that,” she said. “It felt like it was lip service.”

“This is really about treating people like they’re disposable, and using Black staff for our labor and then discarding us.”

Many of the staffers I spoke with said they were hesitant to speak publicly about their experience, given the attacks on Planned Parenthood from anti-abortion activists and Republican elected officials. To speak out about internal issues within the organization can provide easily weaponized fodder for those who would love nothing more than for Planned Parenthood to not exist. As Melissa Gira Grant wrote in the New Republic, “In the best of political times, it would be a challenge for many workers in non-profit organizations with a progressive mission to voice public criticisms. When that organization is the subject of the kind of destructive moral panic and targeted political attacks Planned Parenthood has faced, it can feel dangerous.” But that potential danger is part of what allowed the culture of abuse to persist, one that if allowed to continue, staffers worried, ultimately puts the critical services the organization provides at risk. And, as the staffers wrote in the open letter, this fear of how dissent would be manipulated by bad-faith actors “has allowed our leadership to stoke fear that public expression of internal dysfunctions might threaten access to care.”

But everyone I spoke with said they did so because they care deeply about the work they do and the mission of the organization, which they believe has the capacity to change for the better. And it goes beyond just getting rid of McQuade. “For the same reason that getting rid of Aunt Jemima on syrup isn’t enough, the issue is fundamentally a structural issue,” one Black staffer said.

“Planned Parenthood attracts a lot of amazing people because it seems to be the only place you can work that’s explicitly feminist health care work with abortion providers,” one of the clinicians Jezebel spoke with said. But, she added, “Planned Parenthood isn’t doing a good job of serving our patients or community or the staff. They just happened to be the big name.”

She added, “There’s no such thing as being too big to fail. This is a time to reimagine what’s possible.”

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