How The Wing's Empire Was Built On Trauma, Racism, and Neglect

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How The Wing's Empire Was Built On Trauma, Racism, and Neglect

On June 1, the women-only social club and coworking space The Wing shared an Instagram post that read “Black Lives Matter” in bold, yellow lettering. The graphic was a far cry from the millennial pink and muted tones that have defined The Wing’s aesthetic since it first opened in 2016, but the message, sent in solidarity with “protestors who are putting their voices and bodies on the line,” was more typical of The Wing, which regards itself as a progressive feminist space.

“The Wing unilaterally condemns all racist and state-sanctioned violence against Black communities,” the post continued. “We stand with the protestors who are putting their voices and bodies on the line to advocate for the dire change that we need in this country.” (The post also announced that The Wing will donate $200,000 to Color of Change, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Brooklyn Bail Fund.)

The post ended on a defiant note: “We are angry, we are grieving, and we are with you. Black Lives Matter.”

Former and current Wing employees are calling bullshit. In interviews with Jezebel, 11 people who have been employed by the corporation allege it fostered a climate of racist mistreatment in the workplace, and that it spanned from now-former CEO Audrey Gelman on down to individual members of the space.

“If they cared, they would have blacklisted members who were being rude to us and racist,” says Johana Broughton, a black former Wing employee who worked at the SoHo location from August 2018 until she was let go in February 2019. “Because they’re looking at us like we’re supposed to be the maid.”

Black women have built The Wing. They bus tables, make coffee, wash dishes, keep the space tidy, and pour wine for white women. And they’re expected to do it all while being quiet and invisible lest they chip away at The Wing’s pretty pink reputation as a women’s only paradise.

Women who have worked in various Wing locations, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, all told Jezebel a similar story: Lower level staffers believed they were treated poorly, and while the company appeared to value its white members and staff, The Wing treated its black and Latinx employees with disdain. Both current and former employees spoke with Jezebel about the systemic racism, poor management, the culture of fear they experienced at the company, and the intimidating nondisclosure agreements that left many too apprehensive to speak out about the trauma they endured.

Jezebel sent representatives of The Wing a detailed request for comment on these allegations of discrimination, to which they did not directly respond. Instead, they forwarded an email sent to members yesterday that said they were “focused on how we move forward and rebuild a safer community that is a sustainable business and has the right roots required for the mission at hand. We want to get on with our plans of bringing women together for the greater good.”

But black women truly built The Wing, and they’re ready to tear it all down.

Accusations of racism at The Wing aren’t new. In August 2019, Zora reported that two black members were accosted by a white guest over a parking spot at the Wing’s West Hollywood location; the black members were given a free meal by way of an apology. In March, New York Times Magazine published a deep dive into The Wing’s growth and the growing disillusionment among staffers who regularly experienced casual racism from members and staff alike (“One [white member] eyed a photo board of Wing employees and remarked, ‘There’s a lot of colored girls that work here.’”). But according to Jezebel’s sources, the depths of racism, exploitation, and neglect are bigger than these two stories.

“It’s just really shocking that they promote all this stuff and they throw it in our faces that they give a fuck when they really don’t,” says Tahirah Jarrett, who worked at The Wing from December 2017 until she quit in August 2018.

For Jarrett, a job at The Wing was a bit of dream come true. “I was really looking forward to working in a space like The Wing, this magical place where all these feminist women would roam,” Jarrett says.

But the magic wore off quickly. It started when she was moved from the front desk of The Wing’s Dumbo location to the back of house. She went from fluffing pillows and offering guests water to spending most of her days doing food prep and washing dishes. The move felt suspicious to Jarrett, she says, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker: At least she didn’t have to interact as much with the members anymore, who, she says, were unpleasant. And besides, she was assured by a general manager that she had a future within the company.

According to Jarrett, her manager suggested that getting a position in The Wing’s corporate sphere, known as HQ, was within her reach if she displayed enough tenacity. So Jarrett prepped: When she wasn’t bussing tables, she says, she was developing an event coordinating pitch. When The Wing was looking to hire employees from within to work and train at their upcoming London location, Jarrett jumped at the opportunity, using her dual citizenship and British passport as a selling point. She was repeatedly told that an opportunity was waiting for her, including possibly the London location, but says she was given the runaround by managers and human resources.

“They were brainwashing us into thinking that there was hope,” Jarrett says. The last straw for Jarrett was when she told her colleagues that she had to go to the hospital one day after falling ill. Jarrett says a manager blew up her phone all day, goading her to offer a reason why she wasn’t at work.

Jarrett finally told her what was going on: She just had a miscarriage. The message she received from her manager, she says, was less than encouraging. Jarrett paraphrases the response: “I’m really sorry you’re going through this… if you’re not coming in, call us. Don’t wait too late.” She quit the next day.

Jarrett, and several other employees across The Wing’s locations, say that they never managed to be considered anything more than “the help.” Many of the employees who worked service jobs at The Wing were non-white, specifically black, whereas they say the members of the expensive networking space were predominantly white.

And it went beyond mere perceptions.

“A member was with the guest, and the guest was like, ‘Oh, should we move our plates?’” says Rose McAleese, a former West Hollywood Wing employee who—like many Wing employees—worked as “space staff,” a nebulous position tasked with carrying out a variety of miscellaneous jobs from day to day, from greeting guests to serving coffee and scrubbing toilets. “The [member] was like, ‘Oh, no, no’ and gestured toward me and another employee and said, ‘The help will get it. Hahaha.’”

Rude, entitled members, former staffers say, were part and parcel of working at The Wing. A former Chicago staff member who requested anonymity says that a member once quibbled with a black transgender employee about the grammatical incorrectness of their preferred pronouns: They/Them. In an email to Jezebel, this former employee also recalled a moment during Black History Month when the staff decided to screen Love and Basketball, to the displeasure of a white member.

“[She] had a fit and complained to front desk staff about how she does not pay for the noise and distraction of the movie and she was trying to get work done,” the employee says. Evening movie screenings are a regular feature at every Wing location.

Dionna Edmondson, a black woman who worked at the SoHo location in New York, says that a white member once had a temper tantrum over an empty pot of coffee.

“I was taking a woman’s order, and we were having a conversation, and this lady comes and was like, ‘You guys are out of coffee,’” Edmondson says. “I’m like, okay, as soon as I’m done taking her order—there’s another pot on—I’ll gladly bring it out, just give me a second.”

This apparently wasn’t good enough. The woman, who was white, said she was in a rush, but Edmondson says she wasn’t moved. She told the woman that she had to finish dealing with her current customer first.

“She slams her cup down and walks away,” Edmondson says. “Little microaggressions like that happened all the time. Like, what? Freaking out over some free coffee?” But Wing staffers say they were encouraged to approach members with a “the customer’s always right” ethos, no matter the cost.

An employee from The Wing’s Boston location told Jezebel that there were pillars at The Wing that they were to work and live by, called “the Isms.”

“The first one, and the one that was stressed most often, was called ‘love thy member,’” the Boston employee says. “It was essentially saying that the members come first above everything else, and that everything we do is to increase the experience and wellness of the members in our space. It was kind of always implied to us that that came at our expense.”

Another space staff member from Chicago, who also requested anonymity, corroborates this pattern of behavior. According to the staffer, a local influencer once allegedly quit The Wing because she did not feel safe in the presence of a black staff member who privately messaged her about her white privilege. The influencer was also said to be notoriously rude to black and brown employees. This staffer also indicated that Wing co-founder Lauren Kassan had a lengthy phone call with the influencer after this incident. Kassan did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, the former staffers say, the message was more than clear: Treat the members with absolute deference—because without them, their cash, and their prestige, The Wing isn’t a headline-making network, or a place where people like Hillary Clinton, Gabrielle Union, and Greta Gerwig give talks and host exclusive screenings.

As members belittled employees, management allegedly did little to intervene. Though employees say that the company kept a file shared across locations called the “policy offender log,” where members who had behaved poorly were listed, it might as well have been a blank Excel document—employees say that action was rarely if ever taken against members who landed on this list.

Or guests for that matter—powerful white guests, that is. There’s no clearer example of this than the 2019 parking lot incident at the Los Angeles location.

Naima, who worked as Deputy Chief of Staff at The Wing and prefers to keep her last name private, tells Jezebel that management in West Hollywood initially banned the belligerent woman for the parking lot affair. But she wasn’t banned for long.

“She said that she was very well connected in West Hollywood and that she would give a lot of trouble to The Wing if she remained banned,” Naima says. “So quickly, the leadership team said, ‘Let’s unban her.’ They didn’t try to mediate the situation, they just reversed the decision that the West Hollywood management team made because they were threatened.”

Perhaps there’s no better illustration of the dynamic between members and space staff than a series of comments on Edmondson’s Instagram post from former employees about the best rooms to cry in while working at different locations. “And this is our pump room for new moms,” one wrote, giving a mock-tour of the space. “But I use it to eat my lunch and cry because we have no staff break room and when I try to eat in the space members will harass me or literally TRY TO TAKE MY FOOD FROM ME THINKING IT’S THEIRS.”

But accusations of racism and ill-treatment weren’t just leveled against members: The 11 people I spoke to said that space managers and people who worked in HQ were complicit in creating a toxic workplace for employees, particularly for black women. A manager from the Los Angeles Wing, who did not want to be named in this story, alleges that “accusations of racism within white leadership or involving white members […] was covered up and ignored.”

“White feminism is thinking that because you created an all-woman workplace, that all your problems are solved,” the Los Angeles manager says. “There is a refusal and denial to acknowledge the intersections of oppression that continue to affect and traumatize the black and brown colleagues that we have at The Wing. And that’s why it was so hard for people to work there. Even when they would raise their voice, there was just this culture of white silence that perpetuated the entire company.”

Attempts by HQ to address racism, these employees say, were hamhanded and inefficient. According to McAleese, two white colleagues were caught using the N-word. (She says the two eventually left The Wing for unrelated reasons and were no longer with the company by the time mass layoffs hit in March.) After the L.A. incident, well-meaning but tepid meetings about race were held at every Wing location that were of little value to the black and brown space staffers.

But the Chicago location was at the center of several accusations of racism: In September 2019, according to former employees, five white managers were abruptly sacked after staffers complained of racism they experienced by these managers—including the alleged use of blaccents and snide responses to staffers who wanted to create a Latinx club at The Wing—but there was no transparency about their termination. Their positions were vacant for months, leaving the staff—underpaid, overworked—to pick up the slack.

Additionally, two Chicago staffers told Jezebel that black employees initially did not receive key FOBs which gave employees access to the building for opening and closing shifts. Employees cited this as both an equality issue and a safety concern; one black employee was allegedly harassed by police officers while waiting to be buzzed into the building.

“This company literally put black lives in danger by not giving them access to the building,” one of the staffers wrote via e-mail. By the time The Wing closed due to covid-19, two black women who worked as kitchen openers and closers still did not have access to the key FOBs.

Meanwhile, complaints by black staffers about threats to their safety were roundly ignored. McAleese says that a man who washed dishes at the West Hollywood location regularly made derogatory statements about women and made violent remarks toward a queer employee.

“Every time we complained about him, our GM would say, ‘He’s from Compton, he’s a black man in America, he doesn’t know any better,” McAleese says.

Carissa Phelan, a black queer space staffer at the Los Angeles location, says that she understands the way homophobia is normalized in black communities and that she is empathetic to the fact that the man’s reality may be very different than that of the white women who make up the majority of The Wing. But she believes having sensitivity to whatever nuances might have been at play excused the lack of serious action.

“He said so many awful things, so many just offensive things to so many different people, and every time it was just a little slap on the wrist and on he went,” Phelan alleges.

Back in Chicago, employees say that managers did not sufficiently protect a black kitchen employee who complained about receiving sexually harassing comments from a mail carrier. “Managers ensured they would no longer allow him in the building, but alas, nothing was done and he continued to complete deliveries,” says a Chicago employee who did not want her name published.

And in New York, black employees watched as less qualified white colleagues landed coveted positions. Hiring from within was a rarity, they say, especially for lower-level employees.

“The white girls are coming in, getting promoted,” says Broughton. “Just reach. They never even work in this place before. They just reach. And all of a sudden, they’re event lead.”

Wing founder and former chief executive Audrey Gelman doesn’t have to think about money. While her space staffers begged her for modest pay bumps, she has raised a cool $118 million in funding and has meticulously built the beginnings of the humble empire spanning two continents in just four years. The news that Gelman resigned from her position as CEO of The Wing on Thursday morning still came as a surprise.

In an e-mail obtained by tech reporter Kara Swisher, Gelman wrote, “This decision is the right thing for the business, and the best way to bring The Wing along into a long overdue era of change.” Gelman announced that Kassan as well as The Wing’s Senior VP of Marketing, Celestine Maddy, and Senior Vice President of Operations, Ashley Peterson, will take over.

She continued: “This is a crucial step to creating a solution for the business. This moment calls for an expanded view of what The Wing will be and I could not feel more confident that this team will usher us into the future.”

(Gelman did not respond to Jezebel’s requests for comment; an email to her account at The Wing returned an autoresponse which said that “Audrey Gelman is no longer at The Wing” and referred to Lauren Kassan’s email for “further assistance.” Again, Kassan did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.)

I was in the middle of interviewing Broughton when the news broke. When I said that Gelman was out at The Wing, she cackled. “They are so funny,” Broughton said. “They literally just run scared. They don’t want to take any responsibility.”

Edmondson agreed.

“You’re just going to resign as a response?” Edmondson asked, incredulous. “Walk away, and leave everyone else with the mess?” She said that Gelman resigning didn’t solve anything

“Once she started getting backlash, instead of being a grown woman… this could have been the perfect example to show members, the world, white women who look up to you that she understands and is willing to fix these problems,” she said. “Own up to the shit that happened in the workspace and try to rectify it. That’s it, that’s all you had to do.”

“Capital, revenue, the advancement of white rich women, and overpriced furniture.”

Gelman didn’t receive high marks from the space staffers I spoke to. “Honestly, my entire experience at the Wing was so telling of where Audrey’s priorities are,” a Chicago employee told Jezebel via e-mail. “Capital, revenue, the advancement of white rich women, and overpriced furniture.”

The Gelman described in these interviews differs from the Gelman of the fluff pieces about her that have appeared in women’s publications every few months, often written by Wing members. Even relatively sardonic reads questioning the legitimacy of a feminist space running on an elitist model are tempered with glowing interpretations of the ever-ambitious Gelman. But in conversations with Jezebel, space staffers described Gelman as someone who cosplayed as the help every now and then while shadowing staffers, washing a few dishes, and making a cup of coffee. These space staffers say they were forced to be robotic in Gelman’s presence, lest she noticed anything out of sorts. And during a Q and A in Chicago, staffers who were present say she offered a tepid response when a black member voiced concerns that she was mistaken for a staffer by a white member of The Wing: She promised to do better, barely a step above a rhetorical “I hear you.”

But it’s not just space staffers who tired of Gelman’s reign: On Thursday, HQ employees organized a digital walkout not long after Gelman’s announcement. Called The Wing Walk Out, they released a lengthy statement regarding Gelman’s departure and the “incompetence and lack of accountability” by Wing leadership:

As employees of The Wing, we have been told over and over by our leadership that we’re a mission-driven company, even as the company’s actions consistently prove otherwise.In solidarity with so many of our colleagues — past, present, and in particular, the Black and brown people without whom The Wing would not exist —as a united group of employees, we are participating in a virtual walkout beginning today, Thursday, June 11, 2020.
We are frustrated and saddened by the incompetence and lack of accountability demonstrated time and time again by The Wing’s leadership. Last year, our co-founders admitted that their own biases, blind spots, willful ignorance, and conscious decision to prioritize growth led to a dysfunctional company structure and have had a lasting impact on the performance of our business.
Without transparency and clear growth paths for employees, these leadership decisions have disproportionately failed and continue to fail people of color at The Wing. A quick look at our social media reveals several detailed accounts from former space team members, most of whom are Black and brown people, about the abuse they endured in our spaces and the lack of support they received from The Wing’s leadership. The public perception of The Wing is at an all-time low — and rightfully so.

The statement said that Gelman’s resignation is not enough to solve these “systemic” problems at The Wing, but it ended with an optimistic tone, imagining a revamped Wing that is “equitable, profitable, and representative of the values and causes we claim to uplift.”

Still, many former employees aren’t hoping for The Wing’s renewal, but rather its downfall, as they allege hypocrisy from HQ, management, and members in the wake of this mask-off moment for The Wing.

A lot of the people who are now, quote-unquote, standing in solidarity with the mistreatment of employees may have been mistreated by their bosses, but also perpetuated the system of oppression and mistreatment to the rest of their coworkers,” the Boston employee says. “As if they weren’t the same ones that were talking down to their employees of color.”

And some believe The Wing Walk Out missed the mark entirely. A competing initiative called Flew The Coup, comprised of former space staff employees, claims that no laid-off space staffers were consulted before Wing Walk Out, so they released a statement of their own:

As former space staff, our voices, experiences, and our collective trauma has been continusly excluded and disissed by The Wing narrative. Collectively, we have faced racism and anti-LGBTQIA rhetoric from management, HQ staff, and members. We have faced physical and psychological violence within the various Wing locations, and discrimination when attempting to move up within the company.
The Wing was build on the idea of being a “safe and inclusive space for the advancement of all women and non-binary individuals” and we have continuously seen the exact opposite of this mission. We deserve justice for the numerous unjustified terminations of our peers and for the many team members who HAD to quit just to escape the abuse.
If The Wing wants to continue to claim that Black Lives Matter to its online community, we demand to see them practice it in its spacs as well.

The Coup’s demands include the immediate dismissal of all nondisclosure agreements, $300,000 allocated to laid-off staffers with a focus on space staffers, and a grant for former space staffers who have had to receive mental health services due to their tenure at The Wing. The Wing has not responded.

If the last demand sounds like an exaggeration, according to some employees, it’s not. Edmondson said that she goes to therapy due to the psychological turmoil she experienced at The Wing. And according to The Coup’s Instagram stories, countless former Wing employees have sent messages to The Coup—anonymous and otherwise—detailing the exhausting grind, discrimination, and harassment that is coupled with being a Wing space staffer:

The Wing was the worst place I’ve ever worked. I was traumatized when I left. they devalued my worth so much my anxiety and panic took over my life.
We are cult survivors… So proud of everyone who was able to speak up!!!!! I’ve tried so hard to suppress the trauma since I quit 3 months ago and it’s truly a weight lifted off my shoulders being able to share just a snippet of my experience.
I was a former employee at The Wing and whenever you want to hear my experience when they tried to deny me maternity leave pay I am ready to blast off. […] I also was constantly harassed by white members and management never saw it as a priority to speak to members for their behaviors which led me to continuously feel unsafe at work
I knew I had to get out for my sanity, but on that same note, my biggest regret was leaving. I felt like I was abandoning everyone […] I can’t tell you how many times me and the other managers of Dumbo would “go for a walk” and literally just go around the block to cry. We would lock ourselves in an office with the lights off, sit on the floor and cry so the members wouldn’t see it.
Let’s talk about how the Event Curators were constantly told to ask community members to host events in the space for free. Asking women, WOC for FREE labor on a regular basis. But the company spends thousands (10k+ in some spaces) to do a book event with Demi Moore.

A culture of silence was pervasive. Staffers say that complaints were dismissed and often met with punishment; some recounted cut hours and dish duty for days at a time. Harassed staffers were encouraged to solve problems without help or guidance, leaving them adrift and fearful. Gelman’s mini-empire may have made her richer than ever, raised her media profile and social status enough to make any self-proclaimed girlboss proud, but many Wing staffers past and present agree: Gelman’s achievements were built on the exploitation and labor of black women above all else.

Still, McAleese reminded me in a text that Gelman may have fostered a toxic environment, but many other women helped it grow and fester. “I can’t stress this enough; Audrey is only one person,” she wrote. “And right now she’s a scapegoat to more fucked-up women still in HQ hiding behind her stepping down.”

Update 6/18/20: The Wing disputes the timeline of the opening of their London location.

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