Nine national board members of the National Organization for Women are calling on the president, Toni Van Pelt, to resign after a Daily Beast investigation revealed a pattern of racism at the storied women rights group.
The revolt comes as the organization’s black vice president says she has also been the subject of discrimination and tokenism—and was not even personally consulted before NOW sent out a statement on the death of George Floyd.
“I was so upset and mad I called my mom crying,” Christian Nunes told The Daily Beast.
As The Daily Beast reported this week, interviews and internal documents show Van Pelt was accused of racist behavior by more than fifteen former NOW staffers and interns. Her former vice president, Gilda Yazzie, has filed a racial discrimination lawsuit accusing Van Pelt of pushing her out of her role, in part because she is a Native American woman.
In an email to the entire board sent shortly before The Daily Beast story was published, the nine board members said that the organization “should be led by an individual who has the full confidence of its leadership and members to not only carry out but also represent the mission of the organization.”
“It has become clear to us that President Toni Van Pelt no longer has that confidence and we respectfully request she resign within 24 hours,” they wrote.
There are 17 people on the national board. Twelve votes are required to forcibly remove the president from her position.
State chapter leaders were also organizing a call Saturday night to draft a letter calling on Van Pelt to resign, according to emails reviewed by The Daily Beast.
Van Pelt did not respond to texts, calls, or emails, and NOW also did not reply to requests for comment.
On Friday, after The Daily Beast inquired about the racism accusations, Van Pelt sent an email to all NOW Board members, state presidents, staff and PAC members apologizing for any hurt she had caused and committing to five action items to improve racial justice within the organization.
“All Black Lives matter,” she wrote. “As a White woman, I’ll never understand the experiences of women of color. I challenge myself to address structural racism and recognize that this is a lifelong, ongoing process. I do understand it is critical to acknowledge my own privilege and strive to be a better ally. As the leader of NOW, and a leader within the intersectional feminist movement, I must hold myself and our organization accountable to do more.”
On Saturday, however, Vice President Christian Nunes—a black woman who took over the role of vice president after Yazzie left—said more needs to be done to address the problems at the organization. Nunes told The Daily Beast she had experienced almost the exact same pattern of discrimination Yazzie described since taking office.
“I thought that I was really going to be able to help this organization,” Nunes said. “But ultimately I feel like I've just been a token.”
“When I communicate my experience, people want to give me [Van Pelt’s] resume and tell what NAACP meetings she’s been to,” Nunes added. “But you can’t tell me this isn’t my experience. You can’t tell me this isn’t real.”
Nunes said that while her tenure at NOW started well, she began experiencing retaliation as soon as she pushed back on what she saw as racism within the organization. (In one particularly upsetting incident, she said, Van Pelt put her head on a desk and fell asleep during a racial justice training.)
In recent months, Nunes said, she has been left out of executive meetings, excluded from budget discussions, and seen almost all of her responsibilities reassigned to white women in the organization. A former employee who worked closely with Nunes told The Daily Beast she had also witnessed this treatment. “Slowly but surely, you could see Christian’s power, her role, her opportunity to even speak be taken away," she said.
When the organization issued a statement on the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers earlier this month, Nunes says, she was not asked to help craft it. She says she saw the statement at the same time all the other members did, when it was sent out under the subject line “‘I Can’t Breathe’ — We All Can’t Breathe”—a phrase reminiscent of the right-wing rallying cry, “All lives matter.”
“I try to be professional and not talk about it to other people because I'm trying to handle it the right way… but that hasn’t worked,” Nunes said.
“When it comes down to it, some in power are just not listening and would rather believe that the black vice president has communication issues and it’s just not working, rather than believe I am experiencing racial discrimination,” she added.
After Nunes and multiple other members complained about the statement, NOW removed it and replaced it with a different one quoting the vice president.
In 2018, 15 former employees signed onto a 2018 letter accusing Van Pelt of racist behavior—including referring to NOW’s social media director, an Asian-American woman, as the “IT person;” talking over women of color in meetings and conference calls; and asking staffers of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, “What’s her name? Punjabi?” The staffers also claimed Van Pelt told two of them that she had only chosen Yazzie as a running mate because she needed a woman of color in order to win.
Yazzie, meanwhile, claims in her lawsuit that Van Pelt pushed her out of her responsibilities, then scapegoated her to the national board for financial issues that were outside her purview. In one incident, Yazzie claims, Van Pelt chased her around the office, screaming, “You won’t be here for three years!” Despite her repeated complaints of a hostile work environment, the board voted to remove Yazzie in May of last year.
“They wanted me, but they wanted me as a token,” Yazzie previously told The Daily Beast. “They did not want me as a full, functioning vice president.”
Board member Cheryl Wapes'a-Mayes, a Native American woman, told The Daily Beast that she, too, had faced discrimination from Van Pelt. She called on the entire executive team—including Nunes—to step aside for their role in Yazzie’s ouster.
“I want the executive committee that is in place to leave right now and let us heal,” she said. “The racism isn’t going to go away. It’s systemic and it dates way, way back. But we can start healing and deal with this in a meaningful manner.”