Last year, the police murder of George Floyd sparked months of protests over police brutality and racism, and triggered calls for accountability across industries—including the reproductive rights, health, and justice field. In June 2020, the racial reckoning came to the Washington, D.C., office of internationally renowned sexual and reproductive health and rights research organization, Guttmacher Institute. Because of the pandemic, this reckoning came in the form of a disastrous Zoom meeting.
Guttmacher’s current vice president for public policy, Heather Boonstra, reportedly began the June 2 meeting with the Washington, D.C., public policy team by acknowledging the murder of Floyd and offering some thoughts about racism and the importance of Guttmacher’s work, according to employees who were present. She then invited staffers to discuss their feelings and share how they were “finding equilibrium.” Staff members suggested that Guttmacher put supportive policies in place for Black staff and other employees of color, including loosening deadlines and implementing more proactive and explicit policies for leave without penalty. Staffers also tried to get managers to agree to more training on racial equity and microaggressions that would go beyond what Guttmacher had already offered, which they said felt like “token efforts” where even the facilitator conceded not enough time had been alloted to “cover everything.”
Their suggestions were met with a chilly reception. According to multiple employees, when staff suggested Guttmacher do something tangible for Black employees in other divisions of the organization, Boonstra became frustrated. Why were staffers talking about “workplace problems” instead of “police brutality?” she reportedly asked.
“I’m here to talk about George Floyd and the other African American men who have been beaten up by society,” Boonstra reportedly said.
Then, staffers told Prism, she called them “self-centered,” and said she was “disappointed” by their behavior.
But the June 2 meeting certainly wasn’t the first time leadership at the 53-year-old-organization was alerted to the urgent need to better support Black employees and other staff of color. While Guttmacher is widely celebrated for producing quality research, policy, and analysis, it’s also increasingly the subject of a great deal of speculation from workers in the wider reproductive health, rights, and justice movement. News of the organization’s reported turmoil isn’t entirely a surprise for those who’ve been paying attention. There have been social media posts and negative online reviews from former employees. Internally, workers say they have used every tool at their disposal—exit interviews, surveys, formal complaints, and even whistleblower reports to the board—in an effort to get Guttmacher management to address “systemic problems.” According to former and current staff members in the D.C. office, these problems include a pattern of tokenizing or pushing out staff of color (if they’re hired at all), retaliating against employees who raise equity and justice issues, verbally abusing staff, and systematically failing to meaningfully engage with reproductive justice organizations whose work centers Black women.
The core of many of these issues is reflected in the demographics of the organization’s Washington, D.C., office. Currently, the D.C.-based public policy division, which encompasses teams that focus on policy, federal issues, state issues, and global issues, is composed entirely of white women, including Boonstra. There have been no Black or Latinx members of Guttmacher’s policy team in at least a decade, and there has never been a senior Black or Latinx staff member in the history of Guttmacher’s D.C. office. The highest ranking D.C. employees are white women who have been with the organization for decades. While Guttmacher’s largely New York City-based executive leadership team is diverse, that’s a very new development at the Institute.
Despite these well-documented issues, the conversation in the June 2 meeting went nowhere, sources said. Slowly, everyone went off camera except for white managers, and Boonstra moved forward with the regular agenda. Boonstra then threw the meeting to “Anna,” a South Asian woman who’d just been promoted to management. Not coincidentally, Anna noted, at that time she was the only person of color in management on the policy team.
“I felt very used and abused in that moment,” said Anna, who is using a pseudonym for fear of retaliation. “I didn’t feel comfortable as a new person, as a brown person, trying to smooth over the mess they created. Combined, [management in the meeting] worked at the organization for decades, but they wanted me to lead a conversation about race. That’s pretty much when I decided to look for another job.”
Anna joined Guttmacher in September 2019 and stayed less than two years. Prism spoke to 11 Guttmacher employees for this reporting, including six from the Washington, D.C., public policy team with whom Prism conducted interviews and maintained contact for the course of one year. These current and former employees allege that the Guttmacher Institute is a “toxic workplace,” one they say is particularly inhospitable to caretakers, women of color, and disabled people.
‘Based in white dominant culture’
Workplaces routinely fail to live up to their stated values, but national reproductive health and rights nonprofit organizations are uniquely bad for workers of color. Namely, high-ranking staff members are overwhelmingly white women who—while purporting to advocate for marginalized communities—adhere to some of the most toxic tenets of white feminism. As author Rafia Zakaria explained in her recent book Against White Feminism, these are people who refuse “to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it have played and continue to play in universalizing white feminist concerns, agendas, and beliefs as being those of all feminism and all feminists.” For white feminists in the U.S., reproductive health and rights are primary issues and the overwhelming whiteness of national reproductive health and rights organizations is reflected in how these groups have historically operated—and how they continue to operate.
In a recent piece for The New York Times, journalist Amy Littlefield detailed how leading reproductive rights organizations like Planned Parenthood have been caught “flat-footed” as the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. The pro-choice movement is at a critical inflection point, and it is “being forced to reckon with its mistakes,” Littlefield wrote. A similar story is unfolding at the Guttmacher Institute.
Across Guttmacher’s New York and Washington, D.C., offices are researchers, social scientists, public policy analysts, editors, writers, and communications specialists who focus on domestic and international issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights. The public, the media, and policymakers rely heavily on Guttmacher to better understand the U.S.’ complicated and ever-changing web of anti-abortion laws and policies—and this is just one of the many reasons the organization’s public policy division is so important.
But over the last 11 months, more than 80%of Guttmacher’s D.C. public policy division has left, including every caregiver and the only two staffers of color. The federal team of the policy division no longer exists, according to employees who’ve been tracking these departures closely. The timing of the public policy team’s implosion couldn’t be worse. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that poses the most direct and immediate threat to abortion access as we know it. A majority of the justices appeared eager to overturn the constitutional right to abortion. This year has also been the most devastating state legislative session for abortion rights in history. But staffers say Guttmacher has “crisis-level problems” that have left the public policy division ill-equipped to meet the demands of this political moment. According to current and former employees, the D.C. office is understaffed, unable to fill critical roles, and struggling to produce the analyses it is known for.
“The state [policy] team is hanging on by a thread,” said one Guttmacher employee, who did not want to use her name out of fear of retaliation. “Given what’s happening with abortion right now, it’s a major gap that the organization can’t fully keep track of what is happening. I’ve never seen things this bad. It’s one person tracking every piece of legislation that is introduced. That’s unsustainable.”
What is reportedly happening inside Guttmacher is a far cry from the perception that many new employees initially have when they join the esteemed organization. When “Mary” was hired onto Guttmacher’s public policy team in February 2016, she said she felt like she was joining the “cream of the crop.” (She is using a pseudonym because she fears retaliation and continues to work in the reproductive rights field.) She’d long respected Guttmacher’s work, but pretty early into her tenure, there were major red flags. At the time, she found the lack of people of color in management and on staff telling, but sadly common for a reproductive rights organization. Mary tried to overlook it—until her work with Guttmacher’s State Strategies Task Force (SSTF) made that impossible.
For about 20 years, Guttmacher convened SSTF, a coalition of about 40 national reproductive health and rights organizations that work on state policy. Some of the task force’s most long-standing relationships were with large organizations like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. In the summer of 2017, the state team surveyed the coalition to gauge what was and wasn’t working about the group given its recent growth.
“A lot of the feedback was very blunt criticism about racial dynamics,” according to Mary, a claim Prism corroborated by reviewing an SSTF organizational analysis and report. “There were questions about why the group was so abortion-focused and why reproductive justice organizations weren’t at the table,” Mary said.
Reproductive justice is a framework created by Black women with the understanding that the women’s rights movement represented the interests of middle class and affluent white women who would not defend the needs of women of color and trans and nonbinary people. In other words—as reproductive justice leader Loretta Ross wrote—reproductive justice takes “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being” of communities into account; not just their ability to access abortion care.
Mary said that based on the survey feedback Guttmacher received, it was clear that the coalition wasn’t meeting everyone’s needs, just those of a very specific demographic of white women. There was also discord in the group because of how few reproductive justice advocates were included in decision-making. (SSTF is now led by an ad-hoc governance committee that includes Guttmacher and the National Health Law Program, Power to Decide, and All Above All.)
“We were looking at abortion as a single issue and without making space for the handful of women of color in the room, let alone reproductive justice organizations,” said Mary, who alleges she was treated differently as one of just two people of color in the D.C. office and as an employee who pushed for leadership to address issues of equity and oppression. After she spoke up, she joined an ever-growing group of former Guttmacher employees who say they were pushed out.
The dynamic Mary says she experienced—one in which workers provide honest feedback to Guttmacher managers and then endure a sort of quiet retaliation and ostracization that makes it impossible to do their jobs—was described by multiple workers who spoke to Prism, and a racial equity assessment of the organization confirmed their experiences were widespread.
Performed by consultants Guttmacher hired, the assessment resulted in a July 2019 report, published internally and obtained by Prism. As part of its methodology, the consultants surveyed 107 Guttmacher staffers across the organization, who expressed “a great deal of concern about the risk of providing candid feedback, and the prospect of retribution for critique.”
Broadly, the report’s authors characterized Guttmacher as an organization that is “predominately white and based in white dominant culture.” The consultants also wrote that Guttmacher “was founded and continues to be led by a white feminist ethos” and because of its rapid growth without explicit attention to organizational culture, by default it has developed a culture “reflective of dominant culture norms (i.e., white supremacy, patriarchy).”
The racial equity assessment at Guttmacher found that some members of senior management “are not held to the same expectations” as other staff and that “white women’s self-expression seems to be accommodated more than other groups’ transgressions in incidents involving conflict.”
“One example given was that when there are microaggressions or racist incidents that happen with a senior staff member exhibiting the behavior or making a comment, there is no feedback loop especially for junior staff,” with junior staff “having the highest representation of staff of color,” according to the report. Staff told Prism about microaggressions and “abusive interactions,” including an incident in which Mary alleges that Boonstra “screamed” at her in her office within earshot of other staffers. (A colleague reported the incident to the board, but shortly afterward, Boonstra was promoted to her current role as vice president.) In the racial equity assessment, one employee was quoted as saying that they only heard of staffers of color being “yelled at” and that there was no example of a white person yelling at another white person at Guttmacher.
“POC are treated differently,” the employee said.
In a statement to Prism, Guttmacher said its human resources department and board—in collaboration with outside counsel—have investigated complaints and charges of retaliation and found them to be unsubstantiated.
“What we have learned is that there is a group of people with strong opinions about a particular supervisor, the new leadership, and a change in strategic priorities. Those staff have a point of view. Complaints were duly investigated, and nothing raised to the level of abuse or discrimination. Rather, what we saw was distrust, disagreement, and discontent with management decisions they simply did not like,” said Guttmacher’s statement.
While unable to comment on specific allegations of discrimination and retaliation, Guttmacher board member Pamela Merritt was more generous in how she addressed the ongoing complaints from current and former employees. Merritt is a prominent figure in the reproductive justice movement (and one whose work Prism has covered). She is also the executive director at Medical Students for Choice, and she serves on Guttmacher’s board as a member of the executive committee.
“I have been in this movement space long enough to respect how people choose to describe their personal experience and validate that experience, even if I don’t necessarily agree that that’s what they experienced,” Merritt told Prism in a phone interview as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. “It seems like there’s a conflation between not reaching the conclusion that people want and not doing due diligence on the allegations, which simply is not true.”
Guttmacher’s more tangible issues—like the policy team’s struggle to retain staffers (especially people of color), maintain relationships with reproductive justice organizations, and do more expansive work—are a reflection of the organization’s internal discord, according to current and former employees in the D.C. office. These employees describe mounting evidence that Guttmacher’s culture harms the very people who should be centered in reproductive health, rights, and justice work—including women of color, caregivers, and disabled people.
‘The old guard of sexual and reproductive health and rights’
Guttmacher has grown considerably in the last 15 years, doubling the size of both its staff and annual budget. Composition-wise, it’s now a very different organization than it was prior to 2019, the year Dr. Herminia Palacio joined as the new president and CEO.
Palacio came to Guttmacher during an explosive time, in the wake of a larger reckoning over leadership’s disasterous response to the sexual harassment allegations that led to the 2018 termination of longtime researcher and policy analyst, Dr. Lawrence B. Finer. Palacio’s hiring led to an influx of people of color, including Black women in executive leadership for the first time.
Guttmacher told Prism that Palacio made it a priority to diversify the executive leadership team, which now includes high ranking women of color in positions previously held by white employees. Currently, six of the eight members of the executive leadership team are people of color.
“Dr. Palacio also prioritized the creation of division management teams, mandated management trainings for all supervisors, promoted accountability by introducing a new performance evaluation system, and launched an effort to examine and improve project management. In the past year, all staff with supervisory responsibilities—from CEO to junior supervisors—have received management training, in addition to attending sessions to gain higher awareness about racial micro-aggressions as well as anti-harassment and anti-discrimination trainings that go beyond the legally required content,” Guttmacher said in a statement.
Workers who spoke to Prism said they were not opposed to these changes, and maintain that Guttmacher initially seemed like a promising place, one offering the increasingly rare opportunity for long-term employment. More than one former employee said they had hoped that Guttmacher would be the place they retired from. The irony is that despite the changes that have taken place under new leadership, longtime members of management are still making the organization “an impossible place to work,” said one member of the D.C. office’s public policy division who resigned this year.
Employees who were based in the D.C. office say that the problems within the organization run far deeper than their office or any single person in management, but management is at the center of many serious complaints from employees who spoke to Prism.
Anna noticed a large generational divide between newly hired workers and those who had been at Guttmacher for decades. This tension often showed up not only in workplace relationships and how members of leadership interacted with more junior staffers, but also in broader discussions about what Guttmacher should be focusing on and how the organization should expand its work—topics that have serious implications for the future.
One former employee, who said she tried to do work at Guttmacher about trans and nonbinary abortion access, alleges she had to explain to members of Guttmacher leadership why it was important to use the term “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women.”
Guttmacher is certainly not the only reproductive rights organization struggling with adapting its language. Recent headlines about the “culture war over ‘pregnant people’” minimize the importance of including trans and nonbinary people in the fight for abortion access and other reproductive rights issues. As a half-century-old organization that has focused on abortion access since before Roe v. Wade even existed, Guttmacher could set a powerful example for other longstanding reproductive health and rights organizations. But it’s not, according to the former employee.
“It was kind of shocking that I had to explain these basic things sometimes, because my feeling was that Guttmacher should have been leading the way on these issues, but internally we lagged very far behind,” she said. “The leadership team at Guttmacher is very much like the old guard of sexual and reproductive health and rights that is hyper-focused on abortion, and everything else they kind of treat like it’s not part of their work.”
Guttmacher told Prism that its messaging has repeatedly characterized those needing or obtaining abortions as “pregnant people,” but that the organization “does have a particular challenge” in that it draws on datasets that characterize respondents as “women.” That language is reflected in reporting. However, a spokesperson said Guttmacher often adds a note to its publications explaining its language use.
Even so, several current and former employees from the policy team said that when they pushed for more inclusive language at the organization, Boonstra would say they were being “self-righteous.”
On her first day at Guttmacher, Anna said other workers warned her about Boonstra, who at that time in 2019 was director for the D.C. office’s public policy team. They told her that Boonstra was “super problematic” and “had an issue with discrimination.”
Former staffers who spoke to Prism referred to examples like Boonstra trying to relate to someone she was wooing to join Guttmacher by pointing out they both had Black adopted siblings. In addition, all seven current and former staff who spoke to Prism alleged Boonstra made a practice of retaliating against people who spoke up about issues by pushing them out of the organization with poor job performance reviews. Others expressed concern that the racial and ethnic composition of the public policy team, which hasn’t included any Black or Latinx employees in the last decade, reflected a bias in hiring that was especially troubling given the disproportionate impact of abortion policy on Black and Latinx communities.
In 2021, a staff member used an online portal created after the 2018 termination of Finer to file an anonymous whistleblower complaint warning of the turmoil and turnover within the public policy division, writing that the “Policy VP is Driving the Division Into the Ground.”
In a statement to Prism, Guttmacher said it does not comment on “confidential internal personnel matters,” but that it takes staff complaints “very seriously.”
“We have robust policies on anti-discrimination and harassment, follow those policies to the letter, and are in compliance with all applicable laws. Any complaints that HR and the Board received regarding the issues touched on here have been investigated, separately and fully, and no evidence was found to support any discrimination at the Institute,” the statement read.
Boonstra was promoted to vice president without a public search in 2019 after the departure of Rachel Benson Gold, who first joined Guttmacher in 1979. (Gold was also the subject of serious allegations. Employees relayed stories that she revealed the disability status of two policy team members without their consent.) Guttmacher told Prism that Boonstra has dedicated most of her career to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights policies and that “she is a valuable member of the executive leadership team.”
A spokesperson for Guttmacher told Prism that Palacio promoted Boonstra to VP “after a thorough review of her qualifications,” including recommendations from leaders of color in the field.
“[Palacio] felt it was important to balance the many new perspectives being brought onto the team with those of longstanding staff with expertise in Guttmacher’s work and relationships with partners,” the statement said. “Heather has been tasked with the difficult job of restructuring the policy team during an unprecedented pandemic and increased stress.”
According to employees who worked closely with Boonstra, promoting her to VP sent a message: Guttmacher was committed to a “losing course of action.”
It wasn’t long after Anna was hired by Guttmacher in September 2019 that she came to believe she fit into a seemingly designated slot at the organization: the childless South Asian woman. It appeared to her that the only allowable people of color hired into the public policy division fit into this category. According to sources, there had been four childless South Asian women over the last ten years, though two had already left by the time Anna arrived.
Anna saw firsthand what happened to her South Asian colleague Mary when she became a working parent at Guttmacher.
“We were all in this allowable brown woman box and [Mary] stepped out of it when she had a baby. I saw how she was being micromanaged to a ridiculous degree and that she was under an intense amount of pressure that those of us without children didn’t experience,” Anna said.
Mary told Prism that she began to experience the most serious issues at Guttmacher when she became a parent. Although Mary’s boss at the time reassured her that her position would be there when she returned from leave and that her portfolio was safe, around the time of her return, her old boss went on leave and Boonstra was left in charge.
“That was the beginning of the end for me,” Mary said.
When Mary returned to Guttmacher from her six-month parental leave, she utilized the option for a flexible schedule that she modeled after a white colleague’s plan. Not long after she began her new schedule, Mary discovered that several of the core functions of her job had been reassigned to a junior staffer. When she raised the issue with Boonstra during a meeting, Boostra reportedly pulled up Mary’s job description and edited it in front of her, minimizing her role and duties. This editing exercise played out over the course of a few more meetings. With the steady curtailment of her job description, Mary said she was effectively prevented from doing any substantive work related to abortion—the bread and butter of Guttmacher’s research. During this time, Mary said that every interaction she had with management felt “loaded” because management was “relentless” in making her feel like she was incapable of doing her job.
During one check-in meeting where her duties were further reduced, Mary said she “lost it.”
“I blurted out, ‘I shouldn’t have had this baby. I’m being punished for it,’” Mary said. “I couldn’t believe that an organization that supposedly fought for people to have the right to choose whether to start a family or not was actively trying not just to prevent my growth, but eliminate [the work] I had spent several years working on and was lauded for.”
According to Mary, Guttmacher’s hiring patterns are proof that they discriminate against people of color with children. During her tenure in D.C., the policy team had 11 people and the only other parent was a white woman who was allowed the kind of accommodations Mary was “punished” for using. (This other parent corroborated Mary’s account, and she too has since left the organization.) Eventually, Mary filed a claim with human resources, alleging discrimination based on race, pregnancy, and caregiver status, a claim Guttmacher said it investigated and found to be without merit.
According to Guttmacher, characterizing the organization as being hostile to caretakers is “extremely inaccurate.” A spokesperson said that many Guttmacher employees are parents or have caretaking responsibilities, and that five of the eight members of the executive leadership team have children.
“During the pandemic, we have experienced something of a ‘baby boom’ at the Institute and many staff—with strong encouragement from the organization—have been able to take full advantage of our generous parental leave benefits during this time,” the spokesperson said. “Parents are well represented at the Leadership level, where policies and decisions are made.”
Mary’s former colleagues say she received the brunt of the “toxicity” and “abuse” in the D.C. office. But each former employee has their own story about how they left Guttmacher—or rather, how they say they were pushed to resign. For some, the pandemic was a breaking point.
In May 2021, Palacio sent out an organization-wide email telling staffers that beginning July 6, they would have to work in the office two days a week. Given the headlines at the time about the emerging COVID-19 Delta variant and Palacio’s extensive background in public health—she was the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services for the City of New York in charge of coordinating efforts across the city’s public health and health care system—staffers were shocked by the demand.
Palacio’s announcement of Guttmacher’s return-to-work policy made waves.
ReproJobs, an anonymous collective that helps workers in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement advocate for better working conditions, took notice of Guttmacher’s return-to-work policy. On Twitter, the collective published a portion of Guttmacher’s policy, which outlined how a third-party investigator would determine employees’ work-from-home eligibility. ReproJobs questioned whether this was “industry standard,” as Guttmacher claimed.
“Stacy,” who is using a pseudonym, joined Guttmacher in 2018 and quit in 2021. She told Prism that Guttmacher’s COVID-19 policy was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” As a chronically ill person, Stacy had serious concerns about returning to work during a pandemic. While employed at Guttmacher, she alleges her requests for flexibility and accommodations were met with hostility. Simply put, managers did not think it was “appropriate” for her to work from home anytime she felt sick.
“This is why I’ve both vomited and passed out at the office,” Stacy said.
Stacy asked members of leadership if she could work from home until Labor Day because she wanted to gauge if precautions would be strictly enforced. Guttmacher leadership denied her request, so she quit. Shortly thereafter, Guttmacher removed the requirement to return to the office two days a week.
“I quit my job over a policy that they ended up rescinding, but really the way they handled returning to work exemplified the broader issues [employees] had been struggling with for months, if not years,” Stacy said. “Leadership doesn’t listen to us. They retaliate against us if they see us as a threat to their ill-informed decisions, and even when it directly impacts our health and safety.”
A spokesperson for Guttmacher said that during the pandemic, the organization has “made numerous accommodations for disabled staff.” (No examples were cited.)
“Sandra,” a New York-based Guttmacher employee, is using a pseudonym because she fears retaliation. She said that it was never simply that people didn’t want to go back to the office.
“Some people had children who couldn’t get vaccinated, other people had health conditions or disabilities. We all had valid concerns, and there was no real reason to make us go back to the office,” Sandra said.
Managers told Sandra and other workers that they had to have a “compelling reason” not to return to the office, but the executive leadership team did not provide employees parameters for what a compelling reason was or how the policy would be equitably implemented.
“It was enraging that it didn’t occur to leadership to ask us what we wanted or what we felt safe doing,” Sandra said.
According to a spokesperson for the organization, employees were told Guttmacher would follow “the most current health guidance of D.C. and NYC at the time of our return.” They said employees were notified that unvaccinated people must wear masks at the office and fully vaccinated people were encouraged to wear masks in public spaces around the office. They also said “notification/proof of vaccination status was voluntary at the time,” but “it was strongly encouraged to all employees.”
By the time Guttmacher’s return-to-work policy hit the fan, Anna already had one foot out the door.
Despite what she calls “mismanagement” and “abusive practices,” Anna had been excelling at Guttmacher. In April 2020, with no warning or prior discussion, she was suddenly promoted to associate director alongside three others in what she described as a “poorly managed” transition. Despite Anna’s focus on international issues, she was told she’d now lead a newly created team on U.S. federal issues. In that role, she was charged with managing four other employees—most of whom had been at the organization far longer than she had and all of whom focused on domestic federal issues.
“I think it was very much about the optics of promoting a brown woman,” Anna said.
The promotions lasted less than a year. In February 2021, Boonstra called a meeting and demoted Anna and two of the other abruptly appointed associate directors, including Elizabeth Nash, who has been with Guttmacher since 1999. The fourth was fired. Staff members were stunned.
The callousness with which these actions were carried out “cannot be overstated,” said Anna. “Just two days prior they trotted me and another associate director out on an after-hours private donor call to talk about all the amazing work we were doing. We put in the work to sell the organization while they were prepping our demotions. That is sick.”
A spokesperson for Guttmacher told Prism that Palacio tasked all vice presidents with creating divisional management teams to begin forming a management structure that would “promote and sustain efficient and supportive employee and project management.” According to the organization, Boonstra advocated for giving Anna and the three other employees the opportunity to form the first management team for the public policy division, but it ultimately became clear that the team needed to restructure “to achieve organizational goals.” Management changes were also made in other areas of the organization, according to the spokesperon, largely due to reduced funding for work related to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
From March 2020 to February 2021, former Guttmacher employees say the organization launched a series of investigations based on growing complaints from staff members in the D.C. office, which Prism was able to corroborate by viewing documents associated with these cases.
To address the discord on the public policy team, Guttmacher brought in human resources consultants in December 2020 to facilitate a retreat and determine whether the team was “cohesive.” The resulting report, obtained by Prism, showed that the policy team scored Guttmacher alarmingly low for accountability, commitment, trust, and its ability to address conflict.
It’s an open secret that Guttmacher’s D.C. office is experiencing turmoil. A stream of negative Glassdoor reviews paint a sobering portrait of the division. A review from September 2021 said that “glaring issues with leadership are ignored” and that at least eight of the 12 members of the policy division were “fired, pushed out, or quit as a direct result of poor management decisions.” Other reviews from the spring and summer refer to “insular leadership” and a “culture of discrimination.” One called Guttmacher a “[c]esspool of toxicity, abuse, and mismanagement.”
Guttmacher’s defenders, including some on Glassdoor, point out that the most serious allegations about the organization emerged only after Palacio was named CEO. The implication seems to be that the complaints are steeped in anti-Blackness or at the very least, discomfort with Palacio’s leadership.
Palacio came onboard in August of 2019 and immediately ran into serious challenges. Her first two years managing the organization have taken place during a pandemic, which required Guttmacher to shift to remote work for the first time. During the same period under her leadership, the executive team has also made efforts to change Guttmacher’s culture. In 2020, they developed a strategic framework focused on equity and justice and prioritized diversifying the institute’s workforce. Some of these efforts have already been successful, according to the organization’s spokesperson. Prior to Palacio, the organization’s workforce was 36% people of color and 65% white. Now, it is 43% people of color and 57% white.
“Intentional organizational change is always difficult and often met with resistance—particularly as we, as many other organizations, grapple with our own history of outdated systems and cultural norms and especially when the change is occurring at a historically white organization that is now being led, primarily, by people of color,” Guttmacher said in a statement.
But sources note that culture change is more complicated than hiring more people of color and placing Black women at the helm of organizations with longstanding problems. One former employee emphasized that hiring is different than retaining, and that systemic issues are baked into Guttmacher’s culture.
“The toxic culture was something that staff of color have been trying to address,” the former employee said. “Before that, there were no staff of color. Having staff of color at Guttmacher is a new development. It’s not as if Guttmacher went 50 years without any issues. The reason these issues weren’t raised, or why management wasn’t aware, was because Guttmacher didn’t hire people of color.”
She and other former staffers said they had hoped that Palacio’s leadership would actually help change Guttmacher for the better, but instead it seemed to them that Palacio maintained the organization’s harmful culture.
As an example, they cited the aftermath of the uncomfortable June 2, 2020, meeting with Boonstra about the murder of George Floyd. In the days following the meeting, staff sent two letters to Guttmacher leadership airing their concerns. In one of the letters, which was sent to the board of directors, eight D.C. staffers who’d attended the meeting complained that their efforts to “protect the health and wellbeing” of colleagues of color were met with “incredulity, hostility, and insult” from Boonstra, and that her response was just one among many “incidences of racism, microaggression, and disparate treatment by supervisors and managers in the Public Policy Division.” Separately, every staffer in the D.C. office’s public policy division signed onto a different letter—this one addressed to Guttmacher’s executive leadership team—reiterating their suggestions for supportive policies for Black colleagues in other divisions.
The letters did not go over well, especially with Palacio.
On June 5, 2020, Palacio and the other members of the executive leadership team summoned the Guttmacher employees who signed onto the letters to a Zoom meeting, a recording of which Prism obtained. At the center of the screen is Palacio, who begins the meeting by referring to the staffers’ effort as the “embodiment of white privilege.” Some staffers appear uncomfortable, others look resigned. Some are looking off-screen. As the only two staffers of color, Anna stared into the camera intently, while Mary looked down at her desk.
“The overarching way I received this letter was that the signatories felt the duty and the responsibility to speak on behalf of their Black colleagues,” said Palacio. According to Guttmacher, none of the letter’s signatories were Black and “the authors failed to involve or consult Black staff members they claimed to represent.” However, the public policy staffers in the D.C. office who were behind the letter reiterated to Prism that Guttmacher has not employed Black people in this division for at least a decade.
“The subtext for me as a Black Latina woman, being that your Black colleagues lack the agency, the wherewithal, the independence, the standing, or the strength to speak for themselves,” Palacio continued. “I have to tell you: The way it landed for me as a Black Latina woman, was very patronizing.”
Boonstra—the primary subject of the letter to the board—was present during the meeting. She remained silent during the entirety of the nearly hour-long Zoom session. Toward the end, Palacio revealed to the more than 20 people in the meeting that some of the staffers present were the same employees behind the unsigned complaint to the board, and shared how it made her feel as the organization’s new leader.
“I do want to also say that in this moment, where there was the invocation [of] speaking for Black people, there was a letter sent to a white-majority board to essentially bring their Black CEO in check.”
The exchange seemed to illustrate the challenges of the “glass cliff” phenomenon, in which women of color are placed into leadership positions at historically white-led organizations that are in crisis. While Palacio certainly has the expertise and experience to lead Guttmacher, she joined the organization when it was in severe disarray and was largely tasked with righting the ship.
Mary said that Guttmacher is trying to hide behind its new diverse leadership so that any issues that get raised are shut down—”no matter if those issues were pre-existing and longstanding.” Merritt told Prism she finds this characterization “deeply offensive.”
“That interpretation of a Black woman in leadership is deeply rooted in white supremacy. It’s really damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Merritt said. “When we lead, we’re accused of marching to the white man’s drumbeat. When we hesitate, we’re accused of not being qualified to lead.”
But the mass exodus from the D.C. office does seem to signify there are much larger issues at play. The policy division saw zero departures in 2020. This year, employees in Guttmacher’s D.C. office were terminated or submitted resignations in January, February, March, April, June, July, August, and November. One of these departures was Mary’s.
Mary resigned in January and sent her resignation letter directly to Palacio. She wanted to ensure that the president and CEO heard directly from another woman of color about what it was like to work in Guttmacher’s policy division, and Mary said she didn’t want Palacio to be able to claim that she was unaware of the division’s many problems.
Their email exchange was measured, but disagreeable. In her resignation letter, Mary said she “experienced abusive behavior from leadership in the division” and that she was “discriminated against based on race, caregiver status, and pregnancy status.” In response, Palacio wrote, in part, that Mary had “performance issues” at Guttmacher and that her allegations were investigated and had “no merit.” However, Prism was able to verify that there is a pending discrimination claim against the Guttmacher Institute at the District of Columbia’s Office of Human Rights.
Some employees in the public policy division left without a job in hand, deciding they’d rather navigate unemployment than continue working at Guttmacher. In July 2021, Anna resigned, citing “unresolved senior management issues in the Guttmacher D.C. office” as her sole reason for leaving.
“As the only person of color remaining on the team, I do not want to increase my exposure to the current leadership and for my own mental health and wellbeing have decided to step down,” Anna wrote in her resignation letter.
Anna also chose to be as transparent as possible in her exit survey.
“It is not possible to thrive in an environment with a toxic, incompetent, and unqualified boss who has lost the trust and respect of her entire division. The staff of the D.C. office are incredible but continue to be disrespected, undermined, unsupported, and discriminated against by Heather Boonstra,” Anna wrote in the survey.
Anna said it’s important to understand that this isn’t about “one bad apple” at Guttmacher, but rather an “abusive and discriminatory” culture, maintained over many decades, that has put Guttmacher—which is often thought of as one of the most important players in the reproductive health and rights field—on a “death spiral.”
What’s happening at Guttmacher also says something larger about the mainstream reproductive health and rights movement, which has largely operated like there would always be a pipeline of talented, passionate, and mostly young women clamoring to work for organizations in the field. But Anna says this is quickly changing, as evidenced by Guttmacher’s inability to retain workers during a pivotal moment in the fight for abortion rights.
“Workers are now actively fighting back, and any smart organization would see that you have to adjust and expand and bring in fresh voices,” Anna said. “You can’t just coast on the reputation you gained 40 years ago. It’s a different ballgame now and if organizations like Guttmacher remain unwilling to change, they won’t survive.” While this reporting focuses on Guttmacher’s D.C. office, employees allege the issues they describe are organization-wide.
So, what is the public supposed to do with the knowledge that a crucial organization like Guttmacher allegedly upholds policies, practices, and people that workers say are harmful? Current and former staffers urged activists, organizers, journalists, researchers, analysts, and policymakers in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement to rethink their reliance on Guttmacher until the organization actually lives up to its stated values.
Merritt was “blown away” by this request.
“It really takes my breath away to think about how to build going forward and how to walk through this challenge at the Supreme Court without Guttmacher’s research at the helm,” Merritt said. “When I think of Guttmacher’s role and significance as a source of trusted information for organizations—from the grassroots all the way to the big national organizations—I don’t think it is deserving of that [demand]. I have no intention of going through the future without Guttmacher as a source.”
Not a single current or former employee questioned the importance, the reliability, the rigor, or the trustworthiness of Guttmacher’s work. This must be made explicitly clear in an environment where right-wing movements go to extreme lengths to cast doubt on Guttmacher’s research in an effort to further curtail abortion access. The institute is the gold standard in evidence-based research in sexual and reproductive health; no workers dispute this. In fact, this was the primary reason some decided to go public with their stories.
“Guttmacher’s work is too important for the organization to go down like this,” said one former employee who resigned earlier this year.
Like Palacio, Merritt is a Black woman who has recently taken over leadership at a historically white-led organization and admits that these kinds of transitions are a “complicated journey.”
“There are no perfect leaders and no perfect organizations,” Merritt said. “If there is anything positive that can come from reporting like this, it’s that all of us can take the opportunity to reflect and do some inner work and see where the movement is and where we want to go.”
For some, the road leads away from Guttmacher. Last week, another member of the policy team resigned.
CORRECTION: A prior version of this article misstated the physical location of where Mary alleged Heather Boonstra screamed at her. The error has since been corrected.