Racist comments from board members. A contractor referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.” Failing to take staff complaints seriously.
It may sound like life at a stodgy, backward corporate office, but workers say that’s what it’s like at a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Pennsylvania.
This week, the entire staff of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Pennsylvania signed onto an open letter asking Executive Director Emily Callen to step down over allegations of racism and mismanagement. More than 900 others, including several state legislators, signed onto the document, which accuses Callen of repeating racist stereotypes and tokenizing staff and board members of color.
On Tuesday night, after this article was first published, Callen offered her resignation to the board, according to an email from board Chair Dayle Steinberg to staff that was reviewed by The Daily Beast. In a statement, the board of directors said it would appoint new interim leadership and conduct an internal audit shortly.
The staff members, who have been organizing under the name Save PPPA, issued their own statement declaring that—despite their biggest demand being met— the fight was far from over.
“The staff at PPPA is committed to fighting white supremacy in our workplace,” they said.
The allegations came amid a restructuring at the Harrisburg-headquartered organization that would eliminate several positions, including one held by a Black woman organizer, while making permanent the role held by a white communications director.
In an email to staff reviewed by The Daily Beast, board Chair Dayle Steinberg said the reorganization was the result of pandemic budget cuts and the loss of a major grant in 2019. But staffers say the move was designed to remove Callen’s most vocal critics, noting that she has refused to cut her six-figure salary to make up for any losses.
“The history of white supremacy in this organization is scary as shit enough, but now we’re living in it. And this is exactly what we’re fighting against,” said Ky Ciccone, a field organizer in Pittsburgh. “This organization has a lot of work to do, and we are really, really fighting to do that work.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the national organization called the allegations in the letter “concerning” and urged the group to conduct a full investigation. The PPPA board of directors announced earlier this week that it would work closely with the senior leadership team to launch a “deep examination” of the issues raised in the open letter.
“The Board of Directors of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates (PPPA) is committed to racial equity and an inclusive environment for all who work on behalf of our mission, and we take the PPPA staff’s charges of racism and inequity seriously,” the board said. Callen declined to comment.
PPPA is Planned Parenthood’s advocacy and outreach arm in Pennsylvania, which coordinates with the state's 20 clinics to raise public awareness of reproductive rights issues and push its legislative agenda. The group has organized rallies against the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and in favor of counting every vote in this month's election. It also successfully campaigned for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has vetoed numerous anti-abortion bills passed by the legislature.
It has also, in the eyes of some reproductive rights advocates, made some serious missteps. This spring, Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania PAC chose to endorse Adam Ravenstahl, a state representative who only recently decided to vote in favor of abortion rights, over a woman candidate who had always supported them. Later in the cycle, the group sent out a mailer featuring a couple who said they “don’t support abortion personally,” upsetting a number of staffers.
But employees interviewed by The Daily Beast said the problems were even more pressing when it came to issues of race. Several staffers said it took a week—and a letter from the entire organizing team—to convince Callen to even internally acknowledge the death of George Floyd. Others recalled a conference call in which a contractor called undocumented immigrants “illegals” and the executive director said nothing.
Signe Espinoza, PPPA’s policy director, said she was present during a meeting last month when someone brought up the controversial 1950s birth control trials in which doctors tested the then-experimental pill on women in Puerto Rico’s housing projects. Espinoza says an older male board member insinuated that the incident didn’t matter because Puerto Ricans weren’t considered U.S. citizens at the time. Espinoza, who is Puerto Rican, wrote a long letter to Callen and Steinberg about the incident and said several other staffers called for the male board member to be removed. She says the executives promised to speak with the board member, but more than a month later, they still have not.
Other employees complained that Callen often failed to use gender-inclusive language in official communications—words like “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”—even when repeatedly reminded. Aspen Christian, the group’s digital organizer, said this failure to change her behavior, even when asked repeatedly, was the most frustrating part of Callen’s tenure.
“She doesn’t understand what accountability is,” Christian said. “We’ve given her so many opportunities to own up to the fact that what she’s doing is not OK, and she’s just like, ‘Thank you for saying that.’”
“That’s kind of the cherry on top, right?” Christian added. “You’re doing all these terrible things and then you’re going to be so dismissive.”
But staffers emphasized that the problems did not begin and end with Callen. Some noted that a Black state field director left the organization last year—shortly before Callen joined—because of issues with racism. The CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, which was accused by employees this summer of creating an “unsafe” environment for employees of color, still sits on the organization’s board. At PPPA, one staffer said, “there’s a culture of incompetent white ladies failing upwards.”
The problems are also not isolated to Pennsylvania. Planned Parenthood of Greater New York removed its CEO this summer after staffers wrote multiple open letters accusing her of racist behavior. More than two dozen employees at Planned Parenthood affiliates and abortion advocacy group NARAL later spoke to Buzzfeed News about what they said was a culture of racism in their workplaces, which prevented them from getting promotions or having their ideas heard. More broadly, the organization has struggled to reckon with the history of founder Margaret Sanger’s participation in the eugenics movement.
In its statement, the PPPA board promised to invest in anti-racist training for the board of directors, executive director, and the senior leadership team. It also vowed to conduct an audit of all external and internal communications and review and revise its hiring practices. A meeting with an outside facilitator to address the issues raised in the later is set for Wednesday.
“Our country remains in the midst of a long-overdue racial justice reckoning—one that includes Planned Parenthood,” said Melanie Newman, senior vice president of communications at Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “We know we cannot address structural racism or white supremacy in this country without addressing our own, including the ways in which we have not adequately supported the staff who make our work possible or policies that have reinforced inequity.”
The staffers, meanwhile, said they would continue to organize until Callen is removed and the workers get a seat at the table.
“I genuinely think they thought this would go away after a couple days because they fundamentally don't have respect for us,” said Christine O'Donovan-Zavada, a regional field director in central Pennsylvania. “Across the board, it’s people in leadership telling us, ‘This is just the way things are.’”
“We just want a say,” she added. “We want to be able to guide decision-making along with an executive director who is actually committed to listening to us.”