The entire staff of a Burlington-based sexual violence prevention nonprofit resigned Friday in protest of its executive director.
Eight employees at HOPE Works said they would not return to work after a three-week strike, contending that its board did not address their concerns in good faith. They had lodged complaints against executive director Cathleen Barkley alleging racism and homophobia, ineffectual leadership, and threats against employee organizing.
Barkley and the organization's board of directors "have shown us time and again that they do not in fact share the vision we have for building a better organization," the employees wrote in a statement. "They have prioritized the optics of their public relations efforts over the basic humanity requested by staff to engage in a collaborative process."
Seven Days reached out to Barkley, and Nicole Ravlin, a partner at People Making Good PR, which has taken over communications for the nonprofit, responded. The organization had been serving an average of 75 survivors of sexual violence each month, according to Ravlin.
Staffers said they decided to resign after months of complaints and building frustration. On December 10, employees filed a formal grievance against the organization's leadership with the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which forwarded the complaint to the Vermont Attorney General's Office.
The 39-page document, which staff made public, details a litany of allegations against Barkley and months of apparent conflict with staff. Barkley repeatedly told staff she was burnt out and wanted to leave the organization, the complaint says. On December 7, she threatened to fire the entire staff when they tried to organize against a proposal to sell developer Eric Farrell land for an access road along North Avenue, according to Jas Wheeler, one of the former employees.
Charity Clark, chief of staff for the AG's office, said she could not comment on whether it would pursue the complaint.
The staff went on strike on December 16. They demanded a reorganization of the board of directors and Barkley's removal. Since then, they started a GoFundMe campaign to cover expenses, and have raised more than $16,000. "We heard from our community that they are with us and that they understand the choice we’ve made," Wheeler said.
The board asked staff to return to work Friday. The board brought in a management consultant specializing in workplace communication to investigate the employee grievances. Barkley agreed to go on administrative leave during the investigation, according to Ravlin.
A temporary director, Susan Leonard, took the helm of the organization and as of Friday was the only employee.
Instead of showing up to the office Friday, staff handed in their letters of resignation, saying that the board's efforts were insufficient. Board members "continue to minimize, dismiss, invalidate our experiences," Wheeler said.
Later Friday, the number listed on the HOPE Works website was inactive.
Meanwhile, the organization is trying to maintain operations. Leonard will stay on for a month, with the option to extend her contract, according to Ravlin. If Barkley doesn't return to the job, the organization will hire a new director.
Trained volunteers filled in gaps during the strike, and per diem clinicians were seeing patients, according to Ravlin. She said the board plans to hire more staff, but that it was too early to say what the future of the organization holds.
"It's going to take more than 10 or 12 hours to have a plan in place," she said. "Will we rebuild it exactly as it was? I'm not sure. But will we rebuild it [to serve] survivors? One thousand percent."