Resignation cites science group’s ‘traumatic’ culture on race

By Jeremy P. Jacobs | 06/08/2020 01:09 PM EDT

An African American staff member of the Union of Concerned Scientists has penned a resignation letter that sharply criticizes the nonprofit’s culture.

An African American staff member of the Union of Concerned Scientists has penned a resignation letter that sharply criticizes the nonprofit’s culture.

Ruth Tyson worked for nearly three years in the Cambridge, Mass.-based group’s food and environment program.

Ruth Tyson. Photo credit: Tyson/LinkedIn
Ruth Tyson. | Tyson/LinkedIn

She painted a picture of an office culture dominated by white men, and she sought to warn other people of color.


"The truth is," she wrote, "that while I’ve been able to connect with many wonderful people, and learn so much, it was really stressful and traumatic for me working here and I hope no other Black people ever have to share this pain."

Tyson came to the Union of Concerned Scientists with a deep interest in reforming the country’s food systems. After struggling to make enough money to live in Washington, D.C., she leapt at the job at UCS coordinating its Good Food for All coalition.

"It seemed perfect," she wrote. The organization was "committed to racial equity, environmental justice, and uplifting community voices in the federal policymaking process."

She quickly became disillusioned, however.

Tyson recalls being automatically put on every diversity panel because she is black and accused the nonprofit of only paying lip service to racial issues.

"[A]lthough the intention was to uplift voices from ‘marginalized communities,’ the majority of people participating were white," she wrote, referring to the food program. "They were working ‘for’ communities of color in some capacity, but not actually representing them."

Ken Kimmell, the group’s president, said in an interview that Tyson was a valued member of their team and that the letter has set off alarms at the organization.

"The main take home from the letter is that we had failed to create a workplace where everyone at UCS felt valued, included and respected," he said. "That is painful to hear but very important for us to hear."

UCS’s staff is composed of about 30% people of color, Kimmell said, and it is committed to taking steps to address the issues raised in Tyson’s letter "both in the short term and in the long term."

The widespread protests spurred by the killings of George Floyd and other unarmed African Americans have forced many groups in the environmental movement to grapple with their predominantly white staffs and a history of indifference on racial issues.

A comprehensive 2014 survey found that only 12% to 16% of the staffs of environmental groups, government agencies and foundations were people of color. Subsequent report cards by the diversity initiative Green 2.0 have found some groups have taken steps in the right direction — including hiring people of color for senior staff and board roles and requiring equity training — but there is still significant room for improvement (Greenwire, June 5).

UCS posted a letter on its website Friday acknowledging that for much of the organization’s 50-year history, it did not pay much attention to systemic racism in the environmental and scientific fields.

About a decade ago, that changed and the nonprofit "made efforts to diversify our staff by hiring more people of color."

"But in hindsight, we ignored the climate of microaggressions that existed among staff and leadership, and the deeper structural racism that has existed across UCS," Kimmell wrote. "For too many staff of color, that made their experiences at UCS transactional, unnecessarily difficult, and unfulfilling."

That appears to describe Tyson’s experience at the organization, though she also describes outright aggressive behavior. She recalls an instance of bringing her partner, who is also black, to the office, only to have her accused of stealing office supplies.

And she criticized the group for not endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement sooner.

"[I]n acknowledgement of social conditions influencing our work, the leadership team repeatedly referenced the youth climate movement, the women’s movement, science rising, and others by name but refused to acknowledge Black Lives Matter," she wrote.

"I felt so unseen. I felt so unappreciated," she said. "I had given the majority of my waking hours to this organization and they refused to acknowledge that my life mattered."