Dear FL NOW,
This is an important message from Victoria Steele, a National NOW Board Member, and Arizona Senator. Since our Southern District does not have an elected board member who is also a woman of color, I feel it is important to uplift her message. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.
Dear NOW Sisters and Brothers,
There comes a time when it is good to take a breath, step back and state the obvious.
In the past three years since Toni Van Pelt has taken office as the President of NOW, two Vice-Presidents, Gilda Yazzie and then the woman chosen to replace her, Christian Nunes have both accused President Van Pelt of racism.
Four NOW staff members left their jobs in the past six months, each stating that racism played a role in their departure.
Meanwhile, the President has allowed the Communications Manager to maintain her position even after she reportedly posted racist comments on social media about a black man, potentially endangering the man’s life. How is this any different from the case of Amy Cooper, a White woman, calling the police on a Black man as he was birdwatching in Central Park? This story outraged the public, yet, this staff member is still employed as NOW’s Online Digital Manager.
This situation is untenable.
I’ve read the many letters from Toni’s supporters some of whom characterize the work of those of us responding to multiple complaints of racist behavior as "misguided." Still others, complain that the claims of racism are false and are tearing NOW apart.
Let me be clear: It is the racist behaviors and not "charges of racism" that are tearing NOW apart. Surely, you are not suggesting that anyone who experiences racism at NOW should keep their mouth shut for the good of the organization.
Others have suggested we be silent and only say nice things during our board meeting so as to not rock the boat with our outrage over the numerous stories of people claiming to have been discriminated against by our President.
I’d like you to know how profoundly this affects me both, personally and professionally.
As a State Senator and a leader in the fight to have Arizona ratify the ERA, I cannot sit back and say that after three years of complaints of racism at the head of this organization, we are still just endeavoring to do better. We should have done better years ago. We should be leading on this issue…not hoping to ward-off a public relations crisis. The public perception of this problem is accurate and damning and so is the reality of the situation. We cannot, we must not, wait any longer for NOW to lead on the topic of social justice.
As an elected official, I am taking a stand for justice. If our current president is not removed for her racist behaviors, I will be vilified by my constituents. They will accuse me of being complicit in racism and they would be right. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines complicit as helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way.
Recently, I attended a vigil for George Floyd along with thousands of my friends and neighbors in Tucson. I could not bear to face those same people if they knew I was part of an organization that tolerated these kinds of actions.
Word has already gotten out of this and my friends have begun calling me. They are watching closely to see what I will do.
As a Native woman I find it difficult to explain how deeply this hurts me. I helped create the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force in Arizona. The data we have gathered shows the reason for the epidemic of stolen sisters, is systemic racism. This is personal for me.
So, when my sister, the current Vice President of NOW, a Black Woman with two Master’s degrees including an MBA, told me she has been discriminated against by the President of NOW, it was painful to hear. My first inclination was to listen with an open heart…not to ignore, dismiss or disparage her, and certainly not to question her motives. But that is what is happening to her.
A friend of mine was raped and I am helping her fight a misogynistic police department that is slut-shaming her. They took a rape victim and re-victimized her – leaving the perpetrator off the hook.
How is this situation any different? Why aren’t we believing and trusting women?
The only reason this has not hit the media in a big way yet, is because there is so much news right now…but it will and when the broader public knows about it, I want to be able to hold my head up and say yes, we have had a problem but we are taking decisive steps to address it and we will continue to root out racism where ever we find it.
I am disappointed in how this issue has been dealt with over the past three years – but now, it is up to us to deal with it differently, in a good way – not in a way that allows these ugly issues of racial inequality and injustice to linger just below the surface, ripping away at the fabric of the feminist movement.
I take seriously my role as a leader in the women’s movement. I am accountable to people everywhere and never before has the call been clearer: We have an opportunity and an obligation to begin ridding this organization of racism. It starts with removing Toni Van Pelt as President – anything less is to be complicit.
It doesn’t matter if you believe the charges of racism, the mere existence of so many charges means that a change in leadership is necessary.
Removing the president is the floor, not the ceiling (to quote Cory Booker). It is necessary, but not really sufficient. One would have hoped that Ms. Van Pelt would have stepped down for the good of the organization – to not make this about her, but to allow NOW to begin to heal and progress beyond where we find ourselves today.
A social media meme that’s trending now, really hits home for me: “If you’re tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired people are of experiencing it. #BlackLivesMatter”
It is significant that all four of the women of color on the board have joined in calling for this president to resign. You must pay attention to them.
I implore you to see this situation for what it is, an opportunity to stand up for social justice and against racism. What has been happening here is not just. And in the words of the great Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I know I join all of you in our dedication to improving the integrity, strength, and effectiveness of our beloved National Organization for Women.
NOW Board Member – Western District
Arizona State Senator – District 9