Institutional Equity and the Humanist Movement

5 leaders of the American Humanist Associations' Social Justice Alliances resigned. What can we learn?

Earlier this week, 5 leaders of the American Humanist Association’s social justice Alliances - adjunct organizations which promote the inclusion of marginalized groups in the work of the AHA - resigned their positions in protest. [Correction: 6 resigned, 5 co-signed the recent open letter.] Their reasons were detailed at length in an open letter published March 12, and include:

  • The refusal of the AHA Board to allow a representative of the Alliances to be part of the Search Committee tasked with replacing the outgoing Executive Director.

  • The lack of a clear rationale, on the part of the AHA, for this decision.

  • Poor and hurtful communication on the part of AHA board members in response to Alliance leaders’ concerns.

  • The ongoing effects of white supremacy culture within the AHA.

As the leader of a large and influential AHA chapter, I have many thoughts. My hope here is to be fair and open to the criticisms and experience of the 5 who resigned (I know them all, some well), while also fair to the AHA as an institution I respect and wish to continue to support. I want to say at the outset, though, that white supremacy culture is definitely at play within the AHA, and in the Humanist movement at large (my own organization included). The work of dismantling it is all our work.

Also, these are five fantastic people and their decision to step away from the AHA is a major loss - and a major failure - for the organization. Beyond the institutional embarrassment of dealing with a conflict like this in public, this is just a terrible loss for the AHA and, potentially, for the Humanist movement - so it’s worth thinking about what went wrong in depth. So here are my personal musings on this situation, partly as an encouragement to me to improve my leadership skills so I can try to avoid similar situations in the future. I write from the initial assumption that all involved have pure motives and want the best for the organizations they serve and the Humanist movement as a whole.

Institutional Change is Difficult and Often Frustrating

Before I took on a leadership role in an organization, I had rather naïve view of institutional change: I would come in with new ideas, and through the power of my personality and my superior persuasiveness, things would quickly change. Now I understand that institutional change is often difficult, slow, messy, and frustrating. Any organization of any size is made up of a lot of people with conflicting ideas and interests, and securing change means managing complex interpersonal relationships as well as intransigent institutional mechanisms.

One individual - even the executive director or board president of a nonprofit - has limited influence over how an institution operates. An ED with a clear vision and good structures can still expect institutional change of any magnitude to take years, because that is how long it takes for institutional structures to change, and how long it takes to bring in new volunteers and members who support a change in direction. This is difficult, slow work, in ways that are not always apparent from outside.

I now have some sympathy, then, for leaders within organizations who face criticism about how slowly institutional change is happening. As much as we might like a change to happen, we cannot make major changes happen immediately while remaining appropriately responsible to our membership. I had no concept of that before being in a leadership position myself, and now I know it very well. So I entirely get both the frustration of those agitating for institutional change (been there! Am there!) and the frustration of organizational leaders who feel they are doing their best to make desired changes happen (been there! Am there!).

I wish we spoke about this more, because I think being honest about the real pace of organizational change would give people more realistic expectations, and lead to fewer harmed relationships. I frequently speak to my congregation about our change-making processes because I believe that when everyone knows what it takes to change things, people have more realistic expectations and are less likely to be frustrated. When I read the open letter from the five resignees, I see frustration about the pace of organizational change. In general (though not necessarily in this case - keep reading) I think that this sort of frustration can be lessened through good communication about change-making processes.

Poor Decision-Making

That said, it seems to me that the Board of the AHA made a bad decision. It is frankly baffling to me that the board chose not to include a representative of the Alliances on the Search Committee. I have been on Search Committees and I have hired new staff, and often you have to beg people to give their time to support the hiring process. So to have a group of committed volunteers come to you and say “Please let us help with this!” is a godsend, and to turn them down seems to me odd.

I note that there were concerns expressed by one board member about a potential conflict of interest were a member of the Alliances themselves apply for the ED position. Conflicts of interest must of course be carefully managed in any hiring process, to ensure its integrity. But there are well-established protocols to manage conflicts of interest during a hiring process: the affected board member could just excuse themselves when that candidate is being considered, for instance (I have done this myself when I have served on search committees). Furthermore, given that organized Humanism is a very small world, it is conceivable that many of the applicants could be known to members of the Committee. So this is not a convincing reason to keep a representative of the Alliances from participating in the search.

If the concern was broader - a worry that the Alliances wished to exert undue control over the process somehow - then 1) that seems paranoid and 2) there are measures in place to limit the influence any single individual might have on a search process. A single representative, with a single vote on the committee, is not going to be able to exert any greater influence on the process than anybody else. So without any additional information (we must acknowledge that we have not yet heard from the Board) I can see no reason why the Board would deny the Alliances’ request, especially when presented by multiple leading volunteers within the organization.

That an additional member was added to the Search Committee after the Alliances’ request for representation was denied further demonstrates that this was an extremely poor decision, since it can only give the impression that there was no block in principle to adding more people to the Committee if the reasons for doing so were considered sufficiently strong. This sends the message to the representatives of the Alliances that they in particular were being kept from playing a role in the process.

Bad Communication

Bad communication seems to be a major driver of this situation. The 5 resignees felt devalued and disrespected at multiple points in the process, including when the Board President seemed to dismiss their concerns about the culture of the AHA; their concerns about comments from a board member they perceived to be offensive; and of course their desire for representation on the search committee.

This is a major failure of leadership. It is not necessary to make a judgment about the validity of the 5’s feelings here: they were all people who had donated a lot of their time and energy to the AHA, and deserved to be made to feel valued and respected. Ideally, every member of an organization should feel valued and respected, but especially your high-profile volunteers who have given a huge amount. To make these individuals feel so deeply disrespected and unheard that they leave the organization is a huge problem, and an indication that there needs to be introspection on the part of the AHA’s board.

Lack of Clarity Regarding the Role of the Alliances

It seems there was a lack of clarity regarding the role the Alliances were expected to play in the organization. Stephanie Zvan, atheist organizer and blogger, expressed this well in a Facebook post on the topic:

[W]hat I see in the situation is mostly a collision of conflicting expectations. The letter says early that there's been a history of conflict around the role of the Alliances, and that seems to be what blew this situation up.

The contrasts in expectations are stark. The list of harms done tells me the Alliance members expected their role was to radically restructure power and decision-making at AHA. The board's quoted responses express that they believe the Alliances work for AHA through the exec in a much more top-down arrangement, one that brings questions of conflict of interest into play. The exec's expectations are fairly opaque in the letter, but I see stated shared goals without practical support from the exec, who could have facilitated a much smoother experience.

This is a recipe for disaster.

Indeed. You never want different parts of your organization to come to fundamentally different - and incompatible - understandings regarding the role they are expected to play. Even with the best of intentions this will cause frustration and disappointment, especially if one group is expecting to have much more influence than they are in fact being invited to wield.

In my view, the Alliances should always have played a significant role in setting the AHA’s strategic direction: they were the bodies most clearly tasked with representing the voices of marginalized populations, populations which have historically been marginalized within Humanism as well as within society more broadly. But at the very least if the board had a different vision for their role, that vision should have been clearly communicated so that volunteers understood what measure of influence they could expect to wield.

Allegations of Bullying Were Dismissed

During the communications between the Board and the representatives of the Alliances, allegations of bullying were made against an AHA board member. These allegations were not treated with the seriousness they deserve. Regardless of the merit of any specific accusations of bullying, all accusations have to be treated seriously for the ultimate benefit of the complainant and the accused.

It is damaging to everyone in an organization if accusations of bullying are not taken seriously: the complainant will feel as if their concerns are dismissed (as in this case it seems they were), which fosters an environment in which genuine bullies feel they can behave with impunity. At the same time, people accused unfairly are not given a formal avenue to respond, which can harm their reputation and, perhaps, their career. A casual attitude towards such complaints serves no one, even if complaints are found to have no merit. (I am not in a position to judge the merits of this accusation from the evidence presented, and neither would it be appropriate for me to do so.)

White Supremacy Culture

This is perhaps the nub of the issue, and I can find little to disagree with in the detailed analysis the open letter provides. Indeed, in over four pages the authors give one of the most comprehensive and compelling accounts I’ve ever read of how white supremacy culture operates in an organization. I have some quibbles with elements of the “White Supremacy Culture in Organizations” document from which they draw their definitions (I think in some areas it is undertheorized and unconvincing), but there is no doubt that all the elements the authors identify in their letter seem to be at play in the interaction they are analyzing, and all are damaging to the health of an organization.

Some will no doubt resist the characterization of these organizational defects as anything to do with race and racism. To engage that discussion would take another long post (or series of posts!). Suffice to say here that whether you believe the organizational defects described are due to white supremacy culture or not, everyone should agree that they are significant problems which need to be addressed.

The action requests that conclude the letter are reasonable and actionable. They should, in my view, be enacted in full.

Lots to Learn

This has been a long meditation, but it is only by thinking deeply about our failures that we make the most of the chances they offer for growth. This is as true for organizations as for individuals, and I hope the AHA takes the opportunity to learn from this. The process of developing more equitable institutions is hampered when conflicts like this arise, but can be furthered once more if those conflicts are approached in a spirit of growth and learning.