Days after George Floyd was killed at the hands of police in Minneapolis, the National YoungArts Foundation did what a lot of organizations and corporations were doing: It posted a statement of solidarity on Instagram.
In the May 28 post, the Miami-based nonprofit, which awards emerging high-school artists and provides them with ongoing professional opportunities and mentorship, shared a short film about police brutality produced by YoungArts alumni in 2016.
"YoungArts stands against racial injustices, and we are here with and for our community," the foundation wrote in the caption. "We see you and your work, and we humbly support those who are working, through art, on the frontlines or otherwise, for inclusion, equity and an end to this violence."
While the first few responses were positive — a flood of black hearts, claps, and fire emojis — one comment from a Black alumna of YoungArts suggested the organization had not adequately confronted its own proverbial skeletons in the closet.
"Love this work but I'm finding this post REAL IRONIC and I know y'all know why," commented Delali Ayivor, a 2011 YoungArts winner in writing who went on to work for the foundation's communications department from February 2017 to June 2018.
Two days later, Ayivor posted an open letter to YoungArts on her personal website in which she recounted a series of "instances of racialized discrimination" she says she reported to two executives during her time working at the foundation's headquarters in the old Bacardi Tower on Biscayne Boulevard.
"It is an honor and privilege to be in most every room I've been in during a YoungArts program. But it is precisely because I have this deep love for YoungArts that I must speak out today," Ayivor wrote. "YoungArts cannot claim to be an anti-racist organization in any meaningful way."
The bulk of the allegations are against a white female vice president at YoungArts. Ayivor, who is Ghanian-American and spent her childhood split between the continents, says at various points the woman asked her if people in Africa have houses, wore a bindi to a public YoungArts event, and instructed the marketing team to put people of color on the cover of YoungArts materials because she felt donors would be "more likely" to open their wallets.
Ayivor says that after she reported the incidents to higher-ups, the woman was informed of the allegations and denied having made the comments. Ayivor also says her supervisor told her to keep quiet about the discrimination because it "reflected poorly" on her.
Ultimately, Ayivor says, "[w]hile I got a few shady comments in solidarity, I also got no meaningful action for the very valid claims I had."
The letter quickly gained steam on social media among YoungArts alumni, many of whom demanded that the organization publicly respond. Instead, the foundation followed up on June 12 with a lengthy Instagram post, describing its internal anti-racist and diversity initiatives but not mentioning Ayivor. The statement was met with overwhelming disappointment from a young generation of alumni and other friends of Ayivor who'd hoped YoungArts would provide a direct response and issue an apology.
"I read Delali's open letter and was truly just so enraged," says Tyler Rabinowitz, a 2011 YoungArts winner in cinematic arts who worked on the short film about police brutality that the foundation posted in May. "This conversation has been so mishandled, unfortunately, by an organization that I continue to hold out hope for and have always believed in."
Buoyed by the momentum of recent protests for Black equality, Ayivor and Rabinowitz have joined forces with a handful of other YoungArts alumni to create what they call a "public accountability campaign."
Members of the campaign, dubbed the Equitable Futures Collective, launched a website on Juneteenth. The site contains the open letter from Ayivor, a community vision statement for YoungArts, a list of action items for the organization, and an archive to which others are encouraged to add their own experiences of discrimination. Two more open letters alleging incidents of racial insensitivity and censorship — from Shalita Grant, a 2006 YoungArts winner in theater, and from Danny Rothschild, a 2011 YoungArts winner in writing — are included in the archive.
"I really didn't have much of an agenda other than letting it all out," Ayivor, who is 27, tells New Times. "Once I started to see how bad the institutional response was, I started to think, 'OK, what is it we can do that can directly address this issue?'"
The Equitable Futures Collective aims to force an open dialogue with the leadership at YoungArts.
But the foundation isn't interested in a public reckoning.
Board chairwoman Sarah Arison tells New Times that YoungArts has brought on a third-party consultant to conduct an internal investigation into Ayivor's allegations and is continuing its work with the Maven Leadership Collective, a Miami-based diversity coaching group that was hired earlier this year.
"This is stuff we do because of who we are," Arison says. "We don't publicize it because this is not a PR stunt for us."
The tension between public conversation and private accounting is surely happening in workplaces across the U.S. this summer as businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations are called on the carpet for institutional racism. While a younger cohort of social-media-savvy millennials and Gen Z'ers is demanding public conversations and apologies for discrimination and inequity, many established brands seem reluctant to take clear ownership of past mistakes, preferring to deploy old-school strategies of denying, deflecting, or issuing boilerplate statements.
"[T]he platitudinous word soup deployed from various brands online felt even more at odds with reality than usual," E. Alex Jung wrote in an essay published last month in New York magazine. "Companies wanted people to know that they were on the right side of history, regardless of their own histories."
What the Equitable Futures Collective is attempting, then, could be a test case for other organizations amid the new racial-justice movement: What would it look like for a legacy brand to confront its own institutional racism out in the open? Could it, as the Equitable Futures Collective envisions, not only survive, but emerge even stronger?
Leaders of the collective don't want their activism categorized or written off as a component of so-called cancel culture. To the contrary, they say their mission is to spearhead a community-led movement for radical change at YoungArts and the broader arts world, embracing that things might get messy or contentious on the path to progress.
"I think a big hope for this is we need to do away with the PR damage control, and we need to normalize accountability," Rabinowitz says.
"We're not trying to call out here — we're trying to call in," adds Miriam King, a former YoungArts staffer and 2000 winner in theater.
Ayivor, too, is clear that she's advocating for the transformation of YoungArts, not for its destruction. The organizers — most of whom are in their mid- to late 20s — see their work as an act of tough love in service of an institution they readily admit has propelled their artistic careers.
"Everyone here is creating this incredible opportunity for YoungArts," says Rothschild. "This is really a gift for YoungArts that someone is doing the work for them and guiding them."
Predictably, YoungArts does not see the outside initiative as a gift. At one point during a conversation with New Times, a PR consultant for the foundation went as far as to call it "bullying." Arison, the board chairwoman, says YoungArts has tried to privately engage with Ayivor without success.
"Unfortunately with regards to Delali, it's a little bit hard for me, quite frankly, to believe that this is coming from a place of goodwill and collaboration, because she has been publicly lying and misrepresenting our interactions with her repeatedly," Arison says. "The intentions are questionable."
It's understandable that Arison would be fiercely protective of YoungArts. Her grandparents, Carnival Cruise Line founder Ted Arison and his wife, Lin, founded the nonprofit in 1981, and her family's fortune continues to provide the majority of the organization's funding, including more than $6.7 million of the $10.3 million in contributions YoungArts reported to the Internal Revenue Service for the year 2017, the most recent publicly available filing.
Arison says her first impression of the Equitable Futures Collective website was that "the vast majority of [Ayivor's] action items were things that we have already been doing for a while." She points to YoungArts' recently posted inclusivity statement and to the diversity of its board of trustees, which she says includes two Black men, two Latina women, and an Asian woman who are voting members. (The board at-large includes two more Black men and two Latino men without voting power.) And Arison says the Maven Leadership Collective is leading internal efforts to help make the workplace more equitable.
Corey Davis, the executive director of Maven, tells New Times the behind-the-scenes work at YoungArts can't be rushed if the change is to be sustainable. While he could not get into specifics about any allegations of discrimination, he says he believes the nonprofit has a great deal of buy-in to Maven's work.
"For me, I think that one of the exciting parts about working with YoungArts is that they reached out for help, for support and assistance, very early on," Davis says. "And to me, I think that shows a commitment to learning."
While those efforts may have been sufficient decades, years, or perhaps even months ago, opening an internal investigation and signing on with a diversity coach might not be enough in today's cultural climate, says Mike Paul, a crisis-management consultant based in New York City who bills himself as the "Reputation Doctor."
"To have a trainer come in, to have an internal investigator — that doesn't mean anything to this group that is seeking much bigger things," he says. "You can try that. It's probably not going to work."
Paul says the nation is in the midst of a historic civil-rights movement that demands "tipping-point change." Social media is driving that movement, and he says entities that dismiss the voices of online dissenters are ignoring the current reality.
"Of course, what I tell all my clients — social media is media today," Paul says. "It could cancel your entire organization."
Generally speaking, in the era before social media, companies could control their own narratives, addressing grievances from employees or customers internally and — if they were lucky — quietly. But the internet has shifted that power dynamic, and for a generation raised with smartphones, social media has proven an effective tool to drum up the public support or anger necessary to effect change.
"I think that organizations, governments, and universities are going to have to start to listen to the younger generation more than they're accustomed to," says Jeff Dickerson, a crisis-communications adviser in Atlanta.
Part of the work of listening, Dickerson adds, is acknowledging when harm has been done and expressing contrition.
"The companies that do that are going to be more successful and going to be more credible with their customers, vendors, and employees," he says.
Members of the Equitable Futures Collective say a public apology from YoungArts to Ayivor would go a long way in regaining the trust of alumni.
"How are we going to get to healing if we never honor that we actually need to start a conversation?" Miriam King asks.
Absent that partnership, Ayivor says her goal in creating the collective is to open the discussion directly to the YoungArts community.
"We're trying to make ourselves legible not just to institutions but to our own community," she says. "We're all in this together. We all know you have these stories. Let's get into it. Let's not be silenced anymore."
Arison says YoungArts leaders have reached out to dozens of alumni and have not heard other accusations of racism. "There are only three instances of anybody complaining about anything," she says, referring to the three open letters posted on the Equitable Futures Collective website.
In reference to Ayivor's allegations, Arison says the CEO and HR contractor to whom Ayivor reported the incidents to in 2018 are no longer with the organization. Arison adds that YoungArts has since added a new full-time HR staff member.
She also expressed frustration that Ayivor had responded to an email from two YoungArts executives back in May by saying she did not want to discuss the accusations in her open letter.
"For us, it was sad that she didn't really want to have a conversation or engage in any way," Arison says.
Ayivor tells New Times she has spoken with a board member and had one conversation with YoungArts' third-party investigator since posting her open letter. But she says she's hesitant to work things out through internal channels because previous private conversations with YoungArts management about racial discrimination resulted in no meaningful action.
"This is something that was talked about in the office literally every single day," she says. "I'd be a lot less angry if anyone listened to me before."
For Ayivor, that anger has bubbled up in recent weeks as Black people across the U.S. publicly recount their experiences with racism. King says she believes YoungArts has unfairly sidelined Ayivor as an "angry Black woman for voicing her thoughts." Nevertheless, members of the collective say they have no tolerance for tone-policing.
"I just think at this point, why tone down motivation, passion, or just straight-up Blackness?" says Denzel Boyd, a 2014 YoungArts winner in visual arts.
In her first conversation with New Times, Ayivor immediately stated that she was going public "out of love." She made it clear that she owes much of her writing career to YoungArts and that the organization "is tied into every part of my life."
Back in June, before launching the Equitable Futures Collective, Ayivor and other members had hoped YoungArts would meet them halfway — that their history of partnership and collaboration would allow for a civil, if difficult, meeting of the minds. Several weeks later, that seems unlikely to transpire.
Despite the incremental gains in the fight for racial justice this summer, "Reputation Doctor" Mike Paul says the history books show that companies, governments, and other institutions do not go willingly to the bargaining table.
"The history shows that it is never friendly. Lasting change like that is usually messy," Paul says. "It's not going to be a collegial situation. It takes pressure. Pressure makes diamonds."
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