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Dozens Of Black Employees Said They Faced Racism At Planned Parenthood, An Internal Audit Found

Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood’s first Black president in decades, vowed to make changes in response to the audit, which was obtained by BuzzFeed News.

Posted on October 9, 2020, at 3:51 p.m. ET

Saul Loeb / Getty Images

A Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis.

Black employees at Planned Parenthood’s national wing feel that they have been held to a different standard than the organization’s white employees and that they are often expected to work more and given less leeway, an internal assessment obtained by BuzzFeed News found.

The assessment, which was commissioned by Planned Parenthood, was presented over a video meeting to Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s (PPFA) employee resource group Network of Black Associates on Wednesday. It was based on interviews conducted over the summer with 64 current and 12 former Black Planned Parenthood employees in all divisions and levels of PPFA. A contracted group called Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA) conducted and presented the assessment, which overall found that the organization’s Black employees feel that Planned Parenthood’s treatment of them internally does not line up with its social justice–driven mission.

Black employees told AORTA they regularly experienced acts of racism and anti-Blackness from their white colleagues but found that when they reported problems to human resources, there was “no meaningful consequence or accountability for racial harm,” a slide in the presentation read. The employees said they had been experiencing these issues and bringing them to management’s attention for years, but felt that little had been done to change the problems.

“The urgency of this moment, the urgency of the reckoning that we’ve all known was coming … the deep urgency of what we need to do inside of [Planned Parenthood], stepping into leadership in this moment, I have never felt more urgent, and I’ve never actually felt more free,” Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson, who is Black and has served as president for just over four months, said at the beginning of the meeting. “And I want that feeling of freedom to give us all the covers to do the work that we need to do.”

Johnson took over as acting president of Planned Parenthood in 2019, following the dramatic dismissal of the reproductive rights giant’s former president, Leana Wen.

AORTA’s findings line up with an investigation published by BuzzFeed News in August, which detailed allegations of racism and discrimination at Planned Parenthood’s state affiliate chapters, as well as at NARAL Pro-Choice America, another major reproductive rights group. Twenty-six sources at both organizations told BuzzFeed News at the time that they regularly faced racism at work and were belittled by their bosses, while their non-Black colleagues were not, and felt they often had nowhere to turn for help with these issues. They also said they were unable to move up within the organization, while their white colleagues were promoted.

Each of Planned Parenthood’s 49 state affiliates is run independently from each other and from PPFA, the national healthcare provider and advocacy organization. AORTA’s assessment pertained only to employees of PPFA, but the issues faced by Black staffers were strikingly similar to those on the affiliate level.

In response to a request for comment, PPFA provided BuzzFeed News with extensive information on its efforts to improve pay equity and transparency, including several kinds of audits and reviews analyzing pay by race and gender. It also pointed to its recognition of staff unions in their Washington, DC, and Miami offices. PPFA also referred to information provided to BuzzFeed News in August, which detailed the extensive "diversity, equity, and inclusion" (DEI) work the organization has been doing for the past few years. This included many kinds of DEI and race equity trainings for staffers and managers, an annual “Solidarity Conference” for staffers of color nationwide, and one-on-one coaching and classes with AORTA, including a “study circle on Black Feminism,” which focuses on intersectionality.

“Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s leadership is committed to confronting the organization’s legacy of white supremacy head on, and the cultural assessment conducted by AORTA is an important component of the comprehensive and meaningful work we are undertaking to create belonging and equity,” Melanie Newman, Planned Parenthood’s head of communications and culture, wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News on Friday. “Leaking the cultural assessment findings is a breach of trust and of the intended safe space for Black colleagues to be seen, heard, and understood. Holding leadership accountable publicly is welcome; but abusing the trust of colleagues is harmful to the culture change work that is underway.”

The Planned Parenthood employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News this week said that they greatly appreciated Wednesday’s presentation; they found it validating and satisfying to see their experiences in print and understand that they are not alone. However, they said, the issues AORTA found have existed for years, and it’s hard for them to believe that this newest effort will actually create change.

“I imagine that little of it will be surprising to you that the collective experience of Black staff at Planned Parenthood is as heavy as it is,” Autumn Brown, an AORTA staff member who presented the findings said at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, a recording of which was obtained by BuzzFeed News. “What we were looking for was to understand ... what is the collective experience of being Black at Planned Parenthood? Because regardless of the individual facts of the individual incidences, if we have enough incidences that look like X, we know that that means Y.”

Around 60 people tuned into the meeting, according to employees who were on the call. This was the first time the findings were being presented, and AORTA and Planned Parenthood are preparing abridged versions to present in larger staff meetings, as well as presentations for Planned Parenthood’s board and leadership. Johnson, head of HR Dannette Hill, and George Walker, the group’s vice president of DEI, were present at the meeting, along with PPFA's other Black senior leaders.

“I first want to say this has been a three-year journey. We have been fighting for the opportunity to do this cultural assessment for years. It wasn't possible under other presidents,” Hill said, adding that HR had asked for an assessment like AORTA's in the past but wasn’t able to move forward with it until Johnson took over. She also referenced “the power of having Alexis here as a partner who is not just in the movement, but understanding of the importance of this work.”

Johnson, who spoke only at the top of the meeting, promised her staff that the changes would happen.

“There was not a thing that I saw [in the assessment] that I wasn't familiar with in my own life ... or even here at Planned Parenthood, quite frankly,” Johnson said. “It really means a lot that you all opened up in this way. I never want our pain to be either in vain or just to check a box.”

To be clear, the incredible Black, Latina, and other staff of color who fight relentlessly for sexual and reproductive health and access to abortion shouldn’t also have to do the extra work of fighting racial hierarchy –– and we owe them a debt of gratitude. Thank you.

Wednesday’s presentation did not provide specific anecdotes from the survey because, Brown said, “there's so few Black employees at Planned Parenthood that we wanted to remove any information that might be clearly identifiable.” (Black staff make up about 18% of PPFA's 556 employees, the organization told BuzzFeed News.) Instead, AORTA divided its findings into the eight most common experiences recounted by Black employees.

“One of the first things that emerged in our conversations with you all was this sense of being over-scrutinized,” Brown said.

Employees said they felt they were “placed under greater scrutiny than white colleagues, both in terms of how Black staff are perceived at work, as well as the number of hours they work,” one of the slides said. Brown told staff that there were “lots of stories” of Black employees being expected to put in “extraordinary hours of work” even if they were going through a family crisis, she recounted, while white employees were given more leeway.

“There is a real felt sense that it's okay for your white colleagues, especially white women in your organization, to behave some kind of way, and no one's gonna say anything to them about it,” Brown elaborated, “to behave in ways that, were Black women to behave in those ways, they would be fired.”

Two Planned Parenthood employees who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution from the organization told BuzzFeed News that the “over-scrutiny” detailed by Brown was very familiar to them, as well as another phenomenon AORTA discovered was common: The “childification” of Black and brown employees.

Childification, Brown explained, means the “persistent treatment of Black people as children or adolescents who are unable to accomplish work independently, and viewed uniformly, such that they cannot be differentiated from one another.”

This is similar to the concept of microaggressions, Brown explained, and included white employees confusing their Black colleagues’ names, or having their appearance commented on and their hair touched without consent, “as though they are an object to be viewed and commented on, as though they are not there,” she said.

Black staffers told AORTA that they felt Planned Parenthood had uneven promotion and hiring practices and that there were “folks who witnessed their white colleagues being given promotions more quickly despite having similar qualifications and similar performance” to Black employees, Brown said. She added that many Black members of staff felt they were limited in their roles and the kind of work they were assigned by “racialized assumptions.”

A pervasive problem expressed by Planned Parenthood employees interviewed by AORTA, and one that was frequently expressed by affiliate staffers to BuzzFeed News in August, is what Brown referred to as the “double-mindedness” of white Planned Parenthood employees: Employees think they cannot be perpetrators of racism or discrimination because of the work they do and the work Planned Parenthood does to fight “gender-based oppression,” the slide says.

There is a “real sense that Planned Parenthood's externally stated racial equity values don't align with its internal commitment to supporting Black employees because the feedback from … Black staff has not been meaningfully addressed for years and years,” Brown said.

In fact, staff told AORTA, they felt that Planned Parenthood “uses legitimate external political threats” to the organization — like the threat of having its federal funding stripped, abortion clinic closures, and new anti-abortion laws — to create a “false sense of urgency” that allows for “bullying” behavior to thrive, in the name of getting things done during a pressing situation. This behavior “inhibits substantial change across the organization,” AORTA found.

These problems grew more painful for Black staffers with the isolation of the pandemic, and even more so over the summer, Brown said, as the protests over the police killings of Black people took over the country and Planned Parenthood took up more outward-facing solidarity work with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“That is having a real, eroding impact on Black staff, particularly those who are responsible for messaging,” Brown said adding, that “disconnect” between Planned Parenthood’s work and its internal treatment of Black employees “is becoming harder for folks to manage.”

Hill, the head of HR, acknowledged that her department had dealt with complaints. “It's not possible for you to know or understand the thousands of conversations we have in a year with leaders about their shit, about their behavior, about people on their staff and their behavior,” she said, adding that HR could be a partner to staff but couldn’t act alone. “There is a protection in this organization that must be permeated by us as a collective body about how far even HR can go in invoking consequences on someone for the way that they behave. … Certainly, HR has to be your partner and play a big role in it, but it will take all of us to shift this.”

The Planned Parenthood employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they admire their organization for conducting such a thorough and honest analysis, but they don’t trust it at large to actually make significant change unless it is held publicly accountable.

“This assessment was great but, what’s next? This assessment took three years to do. Are we gonna have to wait another three years before they implement any policies?” one of the employees said. “I don’t trust them to make these changes, because Planned Parenthood is filled with people who, because they do work in reproductive rights, think they can’t be racist or prejudice, but keep saying and doing racist things, and nothing is being done about it.”

Two employees told BuzzFeed News that Johnson has placed more Black women in Planned Parenthood’s executive leadership, but that the organization still wasn’t fixing the problem.

“Alexis has been pretty darn great, but it’s hard to tell if she understands the problems her staff of color continue to face under Black leadership, and that staff of color continue to leave all the time,” another employee said. “Just because you change the racial makeup of your leadership doesn’t mean that staff of color aren’t still experiencing the same problems.”

The management present ended the meeting with promises that these findings would lead to action. Hill said that they were working on being more transparent about their efforts to ensure pay equity, and that, with AORTA’s help, they were writing up new “fair treatment” in the workplace policies that would come from a “zero tolerance for racial harm” perspective, and make sure there was accountability that does not exist today.

“PPFA’s leadership has a responsibility to ensure that we practice what we tell others everyday: You are safe with us, this is a judgment-free environment, and it doesn't matter who you are, where you live, or who you love, you should have power over your life and your decisions,” Newman wrote in her email to BuzzFeed News Friday. “If that’s not what our staff are experiencing at work, it’s up to all of us to interrogate why that is, and work to change that.”

AORTA told BuzzFeed News in a statement Friday that PPFA is “is turning and facing the problem of white supremacy, which is as old as this country,” work that couldn’t be done without “courageous and bold leadership of so many incredible Black leaders in the repro movement, who have been pushing for change.” PPFA is “serious about combating systemic racism and anti-Black racism, as evidenced by the fact that they commissioned this study,” AORTA said.

“This is an organization that is wanting to do deep cultural change, and it requires a measure of trust to do so. It's disappointing that trust was broken in this case. For AORTA, the confidentiality and trust of the people who are a part of our processes is vital, and we take every possible measure to keep people’s stories confidential,” the statement continued. “We remain hopeful and inspired by Black folks throughout PPFA, at all levels of the organization, who are having bold conversations, and who are sticking with the process, in spite of how hard it is.”

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