The #metoo problem rocking the animal welfare movement is about more than men who treat women badly and the women who are now speaking out. It’s about toxic cultures, failures of leadership and a lack of accountability.
In the last three days, Christina Wilson, who still works at Mercy for Animals, and Jaya Bhumitra, who left in 2016 and now works at Animal Equality, came forward to accuse Nick Cooney, a prominent animal-welfare activist, of harassing and bullying them while he was executive vice president of MFA..
The timeline is important. Wilson’s troubles began in 2016, and Bhumitra’s go back to 2015. Both say they told managers about the problems with Cooney, who left MFA in November, only after donors complained about his behavior.
The women weren’t alone in suffering abuse from Cooney, insiders say. Krista Hiddema, a vice president at MFA, said: “Sadly Christina and Jaya are in good company – there are many other women who have similar experiences with Nick.”
Yesterday [Feb. 8], Nathan Runkle, the founder of MFA, apologized online to all three women, disclosing for the first time that he had asked for Cooney to resign after “a growing number of employees—both male and female—expressed their challenges in working with Nick to me.”
That said, it must be asked: Why was Cooney allowed to get away with his bad behavior for so long? Why did Runkle, the chief executive of MFA until very recently, Matt Rice, who is now the group’s president, Vandhala Bala, its general counsel, and Jake Morton, who oversaw HR, fail to protect women in the organization? To borrow a question made famous by Watergate, what did they know and when did they know it?
Before trying to tackle that question, let’s hear from the women. First, Christina Wilson, whose powerful FB post you can read here:
Nick Cooney’s history of abuse is an open secret, and sadly, a history with which I have firsthand experience.
In the summer of 2016, surrounded by at least a dozen of my coworkers in a large room, Nick ran up to me, gleefully asking who had walked in on him naked earlier that day in our shared accommodations. Finding the accused “voyeur” was quickly turned into a game. He skipped from person to person for a few moments, finally landing on me: “Did you walk in on me? Was it you?” He was drunk, sloppy, and giggling. Mortified, with my face turning noticeably hot, I looked away – he didn’t. “Did you see my penis?” he demanded again and again. His voice was loud, and, while his demeanour seemed giddy, his tone was turning serious. I could feel blood rush to my cheeks as my colleagues and friends turned to watch. Then even louder, he asked: “Do you want to see my penis?” Silence. Finally, he turned and skipped away. Just when I thought the most humiliating moment of my life was over, he called out from the doorway, “If you do, all you have to do is ask!”
She goes on to describe a pattern of bullying.
Throughout the majority of last year, I experienced Nick’s gender-based bullying on a near-daily basis….His actions have dehumanized me, degraded my confidence, devastated my mental health, and made me question my sanity, worth, and competence for the better part of a year.
Jaya Bhumitra’s FB post describes interactions with Cooney that she says were “fraught with stress and fear, creating an unbearable work climate.” They were not sexual in nature, but, as she notes, sexual harassment is not the only form of abuse that should be prohibited from workplaces. She says about Cooney:
He made me question my worth, ability, and sanity–an experience I have since learned is a pattern among numerous other women who have worked closely with Nick.
–Over time, Nick eroded my confidence by continually finding fault with my work, even when I had followed all his instructions; not listening to me when I spoke; undermining my authority and going over my head regarding decisions that were in my purview; belittling my ideas and contributions; and publicly and purposefully crediting others for my accomplishments.
–Nick behaved abrasively toward me when I refused to implement what I saw as unethical campaign actions, and discouraged me from seeking counsel from the legal or IT departments when I wanted to vet the liability of those actions to protect the organization.
… I was disappointed with how my situation with Nick was handled. I was forthcoming about my discomfort with Nick, and the only concrete attempt at resolution was an hour-long mediation call made at my suggestion, which was ultimately unsuccessful because Nick was unwilling to acknowledge any fault.
Bhumitra writes that told MFA’s leadership team, HR and general counsel that she was leaving “exclusively because of Nick’s sexism, emotional abuse and bullying.”
By phone yesterday, Bhumitra stressed to me, more than once, that she admires the work of MFA. “I’m friends with many people there, and I want to see them succeed. They are my colleagues in advocacy.” MFA has, in fact, done great undercover work exposing factory farms and built a strong following, particularly among celebrity vegans in Los Angeles, its home base.
But Bhumitra also said that Cooney “left a trail of hurt” because no one stood up to him. “It’s not just the perpetrators of these abuses who are the problem,” she said. “It’s the enablers as well.”
That brings us back to Nathan Runkle and Matt Rice, the guys in charge. Runkle deserves credit for apologizing to the three women, and Rice has put meaningful reforms into place. But it sure looks as if both were slow to confront Cooney, who joined MFA in 2013. Cooney is the founder or co-founder of The Humane League, the Good Food Institute and New Crop Capital. He’s said to be a good fundraiser, and although he’s only in his mid-30s, he’s written three books, including one called How to be Great at Doing Good. Seriously.
[I emailed Cooney yesterday,
but have not heard back. and his response is below. In a previous email, he told me he had a “perfectly clean HR record” and high ratings from most of people who worked for him, while admitting that his directness rubbed some the wrong way. “I need to do a better job of demonstrating caring in my communications,” he said.]
In a comment posted on the three women’s FB pages, Runkle wrote:
I’m sorry for the pain you experienced working with Nick. I failed you, and for that I offer a sincere apology.
While none of the complaints brought to my attention involved sexual misconduct, over time it became clear to me that Nick’s continued employment at MFA was untenable and contributed to an erosion of morale, trust and a feeling of safety by some within the organization.
About his own failure to act more swiftly, he wrote:
In reflecting upon why I didn’t act sooner I realize that I too was subjected to gas lighting, a lack of information, manipulation, isolation and other tactics that made it difficult for me to see the situation with clarity. Part of my very nature is to trust others and see the best in them. As I’ve reflected, I understand that this spirit was taken advantage of.
Carol Adams, a prominent feminist and animal rights activist, shared with me her reaction to Runkle’s comments.
It’s a welcome beginning. I am sure it was carefully crafted given the situation. It would have been helpful if, given what is being said, it wasn’t a forced resignation, but a firing, so that a message would have been sent and silence would not have been allowed to obfuscate what happened.
As it happens, Adam’s blog, which has become essential reading for anyone interested in sexism in the animal protection movement, had a post yesterday headlined, We need better apologies, guys. Among the advice proffered:
Tell us what you’re sorry for, specifically. Tell us what you did, guys! You can’t own up if nobody knows what you’re owning up to. Do you even know? If you don’t, then make like a Monopoly thimble and Go Back To Start.
Tell us who you’re apologizing to. Who did you hurt? Did you apologize directly to them? If not, you should have. Do it now. I’m not forgiving you until she does, or they do.
Don’t waste our time to tell us, basically, that you’re a human being. “I’ve made some mistakes in my life and I’m trying to do better as I learn more” is not an apology. That’s a pretty common human behavior. Did you also used to be physically smaller when you were an infant?
Yesterday, I emailed Matt Rice with questions. He replied by saying, among other things, that he “like others, had professional challenges working with Nick” and that he “was not in a position of authority to fire or reprimand Nick during his time at the organization.” He described MFA’s commitment to do better, saying the organization has:
- Implemented significant staffing changes and organizational restructuring to place more women in management, leadership and board positions. This is an ongoing process.
- Started working with a leading outside consulting firm to improve our organizational health, communication and culture.
- Adopted a stronger-than-ever anti-harassment and discrimination policy.
- Expanded our people operations (HR) department to ensure that all staff receive support and opportunities for dialogue and growth. We also are implementing HR staffing changes and hiring a new head of HR, as well as supporting roles.
- Resolved to hold training for all staff on additional steps and resources for preventing harassment and bullying and promoting actions that create an inclusive, safe working environment.
- Will regularly be examining our workplace culture through anonymous, quarterly all-staff surveys.
Right about now you may be wondering, where was the board of MFA during all this? Good question! The board used to consist of Runkle, Rice and Derek Coons, who with Runkle co-founded Mercy for Animals. No independent directors. No women or people of color. Since then, Vandhana Bala, MFA’s general counsel, has replaced Rice. Still no outsiders. Rice tells me that MFA is recruiting new board members, adding: “Diversity on the board is of utmost importance to us.” To which one must ask, since when?
You may also wonder whether anyone other than Cooney has paid a price for the suffering of Christina Wilson and Jaya Bhumitra and others. Good question, again! Not Nathan Runkle, who’s chairing the board. Not Matt Rice, Vandhana Bala or Jake Morton. Any one of whom could have stood up sooner to say, enough is enough–but didn’t.
Update: Matt Rice and Nick Cooney respond
Matt Rice, president of MFA, felt that I was unfair to him, and to Vandhana Bala and Jake Morton in this post. He points, in particular, to the last sentence, and says that, in fact, he and his colleagues did stand up:
Assuming you read Nathan’s apology and saw that he admitted that Vandhana, Jake and I had been among the most vocal in getting rid of Nick because of complaints about his behavior, why did you craft this narrative that we did nothing? Nathan admitted that Vandhana, me and Jake all stood up and were very vocal on this issue.
I should not have implied that Matt, Vandhana and Jake did nothing. I should have been more specific, and simply said that their protests were ineffective.
Nick Cooney also emailed to say:
I had disagreements about what made for good communication and culture with a few other senior leaders, primarily the people Nathan named – Matt, Jake and Vandhana. They didn’t like some of my ideas on strategy and on candor in communication, and i didn’t like some of the ways that they were communicating with others and some of the things I saw certain senior leaders getting away with. That’s why me leaving MFA seemed like the best thing to do.
I posted the below in reply to Christina’s post on Facebook, but it seems she deleted it.
Christina, I am absolutely shocked and saddened to read this. I feel the need to reply at least in brief.
First, let me say that if you feel what you are saying here, I am very sorry that I contributed to it. I have never had any sense that anything I did as a manager made you feel negative in any way. I never heard any negative feedback or concerns from you along these lines, nor from anyone else in relation to you, until reading this post today.
In regards to the group conversation you are talking about, where you say I asked a bunch of people including you if they had walked in on me naked, let me please add context and correction. This exchange happened around midnight one night with a whole bunch of people hanging out, as you stated. What you don’t mention is the context, and maybe you weren’t aware of this context. Shortly before, Jenny* had made up a rumor that someone had walked in on me when I was naked. It was a joke – no one had – but she told this to a bunch of people in the presence of me and several others who were hanging out as a group. One of the people in our group was Karen*, who either believed it was true, or decided to pretend she believed it was true (I’m not sure which). Karen began questioning a lot of people – basically everyone we crossed paths with for the next hour – to ask if they were the one who had walked in on me and saw my penis. These were her words, and she was the one going around asking people that question, including the group of a dozen or so people you were a part of. It is true that at times I played along with Jenny and Karen’s joke, asking things like “was it you?” “were you the one?” to the people in the big group that Karen was questioning, which included you. But that’s the only sort of thing that I said. I was playing along with their joke to be silly. In hindsight, clearly it was stupid of me to do so, and I’m terribly, terribly sorry if my doing so made you or anyone else in the big group that was there feel uncomfortable. I had indeed been drinking (as had the others in our group), and I hope I would not have played along with it if I had not been. [By the way, i am not blaming or criticizing Jenny or Karen. They were just being silly and doing a running joke. Me taking part in it was my own choice.]
In regards to our work interaction, it’s harder for me to respond because two people could see the same interaction dramatically differently, and I do see ours in a dramatically different fashion than you represent in your post. (Particularly because we rarely interacted – we spoke maybe once a month on average, or twice a month tops, since there were two layers of managers between us.) I know that I have a very direct way of communicating; I grew up with family who communicates that way, I like when people communicate with me that way, and to me it seems the most efficient way to share and debate ideas—and so that’s how I’d gotten used to communicating with others. I think many people appreciate that. When I did an anonymous survey of everyone I oversaw, on the day that I left MFA, the average score I got for the key question of “overall, how was your experience working with me?” was an 8.6 on a scale of 1 to 10. For women the average answer to that question was an 8.5 . Several people said that my directness was one of the things they liked. (I shared links to all of those survey results, including the negative feedback, in my email to Marc for his blog post.) Still, I know that for some people, that style of communication comes across very badly and does not sit well. I’m sorry that it came across that way for you and had a negative impact on you.
I do strongly disagree with some of your characterizations and assumptions about my motivations and intentions. But rather than get into that, let me just say that I greatly appreciate all the good work that you have done, and I truly wish I had known you felt any of these things you are saying here now. The last thing I want is to cause you or anyone else to feel the way you describe. If there are any specific suggestions that you or anyone reading this has for how I can be better at communicating, I welcome them and will try to improve. If there is something else you would like me to do, please let me know.