Statement from SPD Staff

This letter, a collaboration among Small Press Distribution (SPD) Staff, is written to affirm the narrative of Damaged Book Worker, a former employee whose piece, “I was terrorized out of my job by Small Press Distribution,” was published on Medium on December 1st, 2020. This letter was written outside the view and oversight of the Executive Director (ED) and SPD Board, who issued their own public response on December 5th, with an update on December 11th and December 18th.

Our reasons for posting our own statement are as follows:

1. Our experiences, responses, and requests as Staff Members have so far been suppressed and ignored. This failure to listen to all voices and needs within the organization protects those in power who should be held accountable if any lasting change is to be accomplished.

As it stands, we have no confidence in SPD’s accountability process. At a four-hour Staff meeting held on December 7th, our Board President joined for a time toward the end and requested we consider SPD’s reputation before sharing our own responses publicly. It was requested that we keep any “frustrations” internal. This suggestion fails to acknowledge that attempts to resolve issues internally have failed year after year. This push towards silence repeats the same tactics of intimidation the organization’s used previously in issuing a Non-Disclosure Agreement to the former employee.

2. We are disappointed by the ED and SPD Board’s public statement and their delay and failure to address the issues raised by Damaged Book Worker. The focus of these statements is on payroll errors and fails to seriously grapple with the substance or critique of the former employee’s post. These statements gesture only to vague actions and accountability, passing responsibility to “collective effort.” There have been no efforts to investigate this case further, to denounce the behavior described or consider any of the allegations as violations of SPD’s rules of conduct, nor any efforts to see if the misconduct was also experienced by current or former staff. In a letter sent to Staff today, December 18th, the Board President said that “assessment,” “resolution,” and “mediation” will be in the hands of an independent third-party, which will be chosen by the Board.

During the Staff meeting on December 7th, many current Staff Members shared their own experiences of chronic misconduct — feeling bullied, harassed, or isolated — at SPD. These are alarming and explicit accounts, which justify more proactive and immediate change and signal a crisis.

3. We have a duty to each other, our former Staff Members, SPD, our publishers, readers, and their communities to accomplish real and significant change. We believe the ED and SPD Board have stood, and continue to stand, in the way of that change.

This letter has not been approved by the ED or SPD Board. Even though we fear retaliation, we share our perspectives so that the public might have a more transparent and complete view of the issues raised and the environment in which we work.

In their first public statement — which the ED asked Staff to review on their time off, including Saturday, shortly before it was posted online — the ED, Finance Director, and SPD Board state that “any meaningful response must be a collective effort and not a top-down solution.“ Yet nearly two weeks after Damaged Book Worker’s piece was published, Staff feedback had not been requested by the Board, nor had any of the proposals the Staff had generated voluntarily been passed along to the Board in full or in our own words. Only after Staff scheduled their own non-executive meeting, which the ED said should have been approved by him first, did the ED ask to pass along a Staff Member’s proposal to the Board. What the Board has been told has come primarily from a biased source, the ED, who was directly implicated in the former employee’s post, in closed-door meetings barring all other Staff Members. It seems responses and solutions must be Staff-led unless the Board and ED don’t like what Staff have to say or propose.

The proposals created by SPD Staff, to date, include:

1. A comprehensive letter from one Staff Member with 18 suggestions about how to address and/or resolve the wage violations, misconduct, and hostile culture the former employee details in their piece. Those suggestions range from conducting an independent audit or investigation into the wage violations, to the creation of a Staff committee free of management that can hear and present harassment charges to the Board, to revising the Employee Handbook.

2. A request by one Staff Member, which was seconded by another Staff Member, for the removal of Board members who went against the interests of SPD Staff by proposing the former employee sign an NDA (a measure unprecedented in the organization’s history), and those who made disrespectful or mocking comments against the former employee on social media. These anti-worker comments were visible to former and current Staff Members impacted, and in some cases traumatized, by the issues the former employee raised as well as publishers and authors. In his December 18th letter to Staff, the Board President says the Board “will seek to add a new member with particular passion and a strong voice in the areas of social justice and the evolving global workers movement.” However, it seems there will be no consequences for the Board members the Staff asked to be removed from the Board.

3. A proposal — which was researched, formally written, and compellingly argued by a Staff Member — to move the organization to a horizontal or holacratic structure with a more equitable pay structure.

Staff have expressed overwhelming support for such a structure, which we believe would resolve many of the issues raised, including the current reality that Staff who are given management titles don’t have power to carry out changes requested by Staff or to resolve grievances, even if the Staff are united in wanting these changes, without the ED and SPD Board’s cooperation and approval. It’s disingenuous to promote Staff into leadership positions without granting them power to shape the organization, and we fear promotions have been used as isolation tactics. In claiming that change and resolution can only come from an outside mediator, the ED and Board are denying the experience and expertise of Staff who run and know the organization best.

With this letter, SPD Staff would also like to propose the following:

1. A method by which former Staff and volunteers can submit their own experiences in their own words. It is necessary for the organization to undergo a reevaluation of workplace policy and to give these voices representation in the accountability process. With these testimonies, the ED and SPD Board would better understand the full scope of the issues raised by the former employee. (Current Staff plan to create this with or without the ED and SPD Board’s cooperation.)

2. A mode of communication to give SPD Staff Members direct access to the SPD Board. After complaints about lack of engagement, the ED created an internal email address for the Board President, but this still allows the Board President to filter Staff feedback to the Board, and vice versa, and does not create the kind of transparency we feel is needed for change. Staff Members also request a process to hold the Board accountable if we feel their actions are not in line with SPD’s mission.

3. A sense of urgency on the Board’s part in resolving the issues raised by the former employee and a specific timeline for when any action the Board proposes will be carried out. Staff weren’t given a timeline for actions the Board intends to take — adding a new Board member, hiring a third-party mediator, and hiring an HR service — until December 18th.

4. Communication about any investigations that have been initiated and are ongoing concerning the issues raised by the former employee, including the Department of Industrial Relations claim.

5. A resolution process be initiated with Damaged Book Worker that centers them and their experience and gives them an equal voice in a resolution.

We cannot lose sight of SPD’s mission: to bring readers independently published literature, emphasizing small press values — equity, experimentation and access. The failures described above harm SPD employees, but they also harm our organization’s purpose and those we serve. When SPD fails, it also fails hundreds of presses and our community.

It is undeniable that the majority of accusations of misconduct, by the former employee and by current employees, are directed at one individual: The current Executive Director of SPD. Our organization can’t fulfill its mission with an ED who has harmed former and current Staff with racist, sexist, and aphobic behavior. The current ED resorts to defensiveness, by his own admission, and excuses instead of accepting accountability whenever his behavior is brought to light. His misuse of power is proof that he can’t and shouldn’t be trusted with that power.

By harming or allowing those in power to harm marginalized people and by using their power to try to silence those who are marginalized — regardless of intent — the ED and Board have betrayed SPD’s mission, Staff, and those SPD is meant to serve.

We ask that the ED resign or the Board pursue termination. This is the least that can be done to show that the Board takes the issues at hand seriously and to recognize the sacrifices of former employees who were fired or left in frustration over these issues.

We’d like to thank Damaged Book Worker for their bravery in coming forward, and we hope we honor their vulnerability by voicing our own experiences.

One of the things that has caused current Staff pain is that the ED and Board’s statements and their request that Staff keep our frustrations internal creates an illusion of unity, especially among SPD leadership, that is in no way our reality. We want the public to know that we have received a full and sincere apology and commitment to accountability from some members of SPD leadership who have already initiated whatever changes they’re able to within the current structure, who provided a virtual safe place for Staff to meet outside of executive oversight, and have supported this letter-writing effort. Many of us have witnessed their advocacy on our behalf in the past and the ED and Board’s shutdown of that advocacy. The ED and Board have not made this visible to the public.

The problems listed above are all evidence that the current organizational structure of SPD is also in opposition to our mission: specifically, to emphasize the values of equity, experimentation, and access. There is no equity in the current structure. Those in power have shown an unwillingness to embrace experimentation by ignoring and dismissing Staff’s compelling arguments to move to a horizontal or holacratic structure — both now and in the past — and to resolve disparities in pay, and as the one paid most in the current structure, the ED has the least incentive to do so. And, as already mentioned, Staff have no real or unbiased access to the Board. According to the current Employee Handbook, grievances must first go to the ED, which is problematic if the grievance is with the ED and/or Staff do not feel safe or comfortable taking issues to the ED.

We feel this public statement is the only way to make our experiences, some of which corroborate the former employee’s own experiences as detailed in the Medium piece, our proposals, and our needs known. Instead of a commitment to helplessness, excuses, and blame-shifting, we want to see a commitment to accountability and change. We want action that actually solves the issues at hand, not evasion disguised as action, or action that is merely performative. This means we don’t want the ED to simply be replaced but want instead structural and organizational change. If an HR person or HR department is added, we don’t want that person or department to serve as a new way to evade accountability and silence or erase complaints.

An apology without accountability is empty, and “We’re sorry, but…” is no apology.

We want to emphasize that we don’t consent to the Board or ED speaking for us or on our behalf, and we refuse to be bullied or incentivized into silence. We ask that the Board and ED stop using words like “staff-led” and “collective effort” when their responses have been anything but. We are the ones keeping SPD running, and we deserve an equal seat and voice at the table.

Signed,

We, 10 of 13 SPD Staff Members, are signing anonymously in honor of Damaged Book Worker’s choice to sign anonymously. We feel anonymous complaints should be taken just as seriously as any other complaint and that those who come forward anonymously should be shown respect.

The following former volunteers and staff members have also asked to sign this letter:

Anonymous Former Staff Member

Anonymous Former Staff Member

Anonymous Former Staff Member

Anonymous Former Staff Member

Anonymous Former Staff Member

Anonymous Former Staff Member

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