I Saw the CEO of Time’s Up Gloss Over Harassment at the Southern Poverty Law Center
After her work on behalf of Andrew Cuomo was exposed, Tina Tchen said she’d “never participate in or condone” efforts to undermine survivors. I’d already seen her doing just that.
It has been 124 days since the last time I was raped.
I had seen this man before, and he had already disrespected my boundaries. I was adamant about using a condom during sex and he was adamantly opposed. So much so, he removed the condom during sex and proceeded to insert himself inside me without protection. I let it slide, and was resolved that the next time I would be firm. When the next time came, he was upset with me and argued that we had done it before. I repeatedly told him no. By the time he moved his penis towards me again and said “let me just tease it,” I just wanted him to shut up. I didn’t expect him to try to enter me again without protection. I blocked him on everything before he had even taken a step out of my apartment, cried all night, and explained away in my head what he had done. It took me time before I recognized my experience for what it was.
Even then, I never made a report to the police, because I knew that in the judicial process I would be the one to lose. Even while working at a group “dedicated to… seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society,” I had already seen how people and systems supposedly brought in to ensure justice and accountability were instead used to cover up for the organization.
I thought of all that after New York’s attorney general released her report confirming the allegations of harassment and assault 11 women have leveled at Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and detailing the work of his allies including both the board chair and the chief of Time’s Up to push back against his accusers. The board chair, Robbie Kaplan, left the group shortly after the report was released but the group’s head, Tina Tchen, is still there.
Unfortunately, I am familiar with Tchen. I was an employee of the Southern Poverty Law Center when Tchen was hired as a consultant in March of 2019 to engage in a comprehensive investigation of the SPLC workplace in the wake of allegations of a culture of anti-Black racism and sexual harassment that rocked the organization.
When Tchen arrived, just after founder Morris Dees had been fired and several board members had resigned, her reputation preceded her and my colleagues and I expected justice. She was lauded by the SPLC Board Chair as an “expert on workplace culture and diversity and inclusion issues,” and someone who would hold the perpetrators of sexual and racial harassment within the organization accountable. But we would soon be disappointed.
Almost immediately, the staff found that there was a lack of transparency around the investigation process. She made no commitment to put her findings into writing as it became abundantly clear to many of us that she had been hired to protect the reputation of the SPLC, and not to enact or recommend changes that would benefit staff—changes that we desperately needed. Sensing that something was off, staff in the satellite office where I worked refused to share stories of our trauma with Tchen until we felt we were meaningfully included and our concerns were addressed. We protested her visit to our office and spoke powerfully and forcefully about our pain and concerns. She was unmoved. The investigative process moved forward, but she never returned to speak with us.
Upon the completion of Tchen’s investigation, she produced rudimentary recommendations, despite staff advocacy for accountability and robust organizational reforms. After hours upon hours of hard conversations, reflection, and the sharing of very real, unfiltered, trauma and pain on the part of staff, we were met with a combative presentation at an all-staff retreat where Tchen took to the stage to discuss the closure of the investigation and her findings. She regurgitated watered-down versions of our ideas as if they were innovative, talked about how she was there to provide organizational accountability as opposed to individual accountability, and scoffed at staff members’ calls for a meaningful process of truth and reconciliation. If she produced any written recommendations, we certainly never saw them.
(In a statement sent to the Daily Beast after this article was posted, Tchen said: "SPLC hired me to conduct a review of the organization's culture and to provide recommendations for change in the wake of the resignation of the founder of the organization, Morris Dees, and several senior leaders. Our work was discussed in all staff, and individual office staff gatherings throughout our process, and led to a series of changes in the board, leadership and culture at SPLC. None of that work was done to undermine or overlook the experiences of survivors at SPLC that were shared with us.")
Months after her gave us that disappointing presentation, Tchen was named as the new CEO of Time’s Up Now and the Time’s Up Foundation, in a model of how Black women have been left behind behind in the MeToo movement that we started. The Black women of the SPLC, which I left in 2020 after five years, had our experiences reduced to a line on Tchen’s résumé.
In her recent pseudo-apology for Time’s Up’s work on behalf of Cuomo, Tchen said she would “never participate in or condone” any effort to undermine survivors.
But she had already done that at the SPLC before offering her help to Cuomo. We should not allow her to fail us any longer.
This article has been updated with a statement from Tchen.