In the nearly 20 years that Color of Change has been operating in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the civil rights nonprofit has spearheaded dozens of successful campaigns around issues like divesting from private prisons and repealing “stand your ground” laws nationwide. But apart from its reputable work around social justice, former employees say toxic behavior, bullying, and union-busting by leadership plague the organization.
A recent report from Business Insider brought to light allegations of sexual harassment by a senior Color of Change manager. More than two dozen former and current employees also shared their experiences with Business Insider after widely publicized financial problems spurred a recent round of layoffs, which mostly included union members. Now former employees say the ineffectual leadership is trickling into the organization’s advocacy—and that leadership at Color of Change needs to be held accountable.
Scotty Brown joined the organization as a senior digital manager in January 2018 with the hopes of supporting movements for racial justice. They stayed with the organization until they were laid off in May 2023. By then, they said it became uncertain how effective nonprofits can be at championing racial justice.
“In Color of Change’s case, they got very caught up in their public image and what kind of status they had in the movement,” Brown said. “They really wanted to be doing partnerships with celebrities and elevating their status as opposed to the actual day-to-day grassroots work. I think that happens with a lot of nonprofits that are working on a national or international scale and don’t have any real relationships with people on the ground.”
A spokesperson for Color of Change responded to a request for comment with links to a Medium post from June 2023 addressing the organization’s financial problems and to a blog post on their website addressing the sexual misconduct allegations.
Active allegations of union-busting
In his first two years at Color of Change, Brown recalls a sense that management did not consider the workers’ needs. According to a document tracking departures at the organization, at least 75 people have left the organization since 2020, leaving 145 present employees.
Brown and other employees began organizing for a union shortly after in March 2019 and formally sought recognition in October 2020, but management did not officially recognize it until more than two weeks later. According to Brown, management responded at the last possible moment and negotiated to reduce the size of the unit. Since then, Brown says Color of Change’s treatment of the union has been “atrocious.”
During bargaining sessions, Brown says Color of Change management would stall, leading to minimal progress.
“They’ve been constantly misrepresenting things to staff and delaying negotiations,” Brown said. “They’ll caucus for the entire session and then come back with five minutes left and basically just get nothing done … There’s been a lot of really slimy anti-union behavior.”
Salaah Muhammad, the regional field manager in Pennsylvania from September 2020 until April 2023, was part of the movement-building team managing off-field operations. He also organized political action committee work, which included endorsing candidates. He said that when a bargaining unit member left the organization, which happened multiple times within the movement-building team, the position would not get filled. Instead, he said Color of Change would hire a contract employee for the position, meaning they were not eligible for the union.
“I can’t tell if their intention is to drag this out, or is it really just poor management or poor leadership because the amount of terrible decision-making, the amount of bullying—when you brought things of harassment or bullying, or difficulties on the job to the forefront, you kind of face further retaliation,” Muhammad said. “Engagement with the union has seemed to be to drag it out as long as possible, to engage in union-busting tactics as long as possible, to handicap how effective the union is within the organization.”
The first Zoom negotiation was held in September 2021, but the two sides did not fully begin bargaining until January 2022. Muhammad said management initially agreed that all staff could observe, but by the second meeting, they walked back and said no one could observe.
“We just want transparency from both sides so [that] there’s accountability on how we are showing up to the table to our bargaining unit members and also how the organization says it represents Black people both internally within the organization and externally,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad and his colleagues filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge against Color of Change in May for laying off 18 union employees, improperly engaging with the union, and bad-faith bargaining. Color of Change hired Seyfarth Shaw, LLP, a law firm with a history of representing corporations and management in labor disputes. Color Of Change filed a ULP against the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which represents Color of Change union workers, in response to their filing for allegedly stalling the negotiation process. But Muhammad says Color of Change has continued to stall the process and there is still no contract in place. The case is still open.
“You are effectively engaging in union-busting tactics, and so slowly that started to take place, and then we were all laid off,” Muhammad said. “So now [they’ve] effectively eliminated all of the folks who were doing that bargaining-unit work.”
Muhammad said the obstacles Color of Change management has created for the union directly impacted his fieldwork. He said time that could have been spent doing his job, connecting with community members, and building networks was siphoned because Muhammad had to redirect his time attending mediations with employees and their managers. Despite his work to build community on the ground, Muhammad says the organization’s reputation has made people lose trust.
“I’ve maintained positive relationships with folks and communities across the country … and they would say, ‘Salaah, I really fuck with you, but I don’t know if I can trust the organization,’” Muhammad said. “That is a testament to how inconsistent the organization is … and how distracted we are as organizers because we are putting out so many fires within the organization … That directly impacts how successful the organization is and can be.”
Muhammad is currently negotiating severance packages for employees laid off in the spring, but more layoffs are likely to come.
Pay disparities sowed frustrations
In 2020, as the country faced a racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd, Color of Change brought in $20 million in donations alone, with a net income of $15 million. In 2021, according to the 990 document, they had a net income of more than $7 million. But workers say that money didn’t trickle down to employees.
“I knew that there was going to be a layoff,” said Imani Kates, a former operations manager at Color of Change. “It was only a matter of time … It was very confusing to me and my coworkers that were also on my team how or why we were continuing to spend money the way we were.”
Muhammad said workers grew frustrated with pay disparities as the organization continued to grow in the summer of 2020. For instance, Brown said their starting salary in 2018 was $56,000; Color of Change President Rashad Robinson earned more than $320,000 that same year, according to 990 documents.
“Many of the folks that are on the front lines doing the work that their organization is both fundraising off of and getting recognition off of are not receiving that same recognition internally within the organization,” Muhammad said.
The week before Muhammad was laid off in April, he was planning a press conference for a reparations agreement that he helped to negotiate and arrange with the first Black church of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Penguins. At the same time, Muhammad says the organization continued to fundraise off of the work he achieved despite being let go from the organization.
“Those kinds of things have been going on a regular basis,” Muhammad said. “The president is often getting the praise and speaking publicly about these wins, which are really important wins. But it can be really damaging to the folks that are on the front lines doing the work because our recognition or effort, our commitment, the many hours that we put in, often goes unnoticed.”
Among the reasons some cited for leaving Color of Change was the existence of pay inequities between staff that go beyond the last couple of years. In 2019, Brown said the Hollywood engagement team was being paid $10-20,000 more a year than workers on other teams. Salaries were later matched, but Brown said this was their first realization of the lack of transparency in the organization.
Color of Change did not respond to questions from Prism regarding the pay inequities.
“We were asking for complete salary transparency, but instead, they created these salary bands … and then it was never really clear how you would be placed within the band,” Brown said. “Maybe it’s based on experience; maybe it’s just based on people being better negotiators when they’re hired … As staff that was like one of the big pushes to be like, we really need a union.”
Allegations of sexual harassment
Beyond pay disparities and rampant union-busting, allegations of sexual harassment permeated the atmosphere at Color of Change. A former senior manager says they immediately could tell there was a toxic dynamic between then-Senior Campaign Director Scott Roberts and one of his subordinates in 2021. An employee filed a sexual harassment report, and human resources conducted an investigation. Shortly after, Roberts was terminated from the organization. In an internal statement reviewed by Prism, Robinson explained that, “he’s no longer on the Color of Change Team. While this is not a direct outcome of the investigation, it is from a lack of compliance with reform measures related to the investigation.”
Roberts did not respond to a request by Prism to comment on the allegations.
According to the senior manager who witnessed Roberts’ behavior, this was reflective of consistently inappropriate behavior of the organization to center the accused and belittle the survivor.
“I think that Color of Change really has lost its way,” Brown said. “The last three years have just been focused on managing internal scandals because of tolerating abusive leadership for years that now the union is calling out and forcing them to acknowledge … Their agenda of their work is just at the whims of whoever’s in charge, and that’s not organizing; that’s not movement work. That’s just ego stroking … It feels very performative.”
With regards to Roberts, the former senior manager says management, namely Robinson, doubled down in defense of Roberts and his victories as a senior leader. The former manager resigned in May 2022 after learning about the sexual harassment claims.
“They only fired Scott because the whole organization found out,” the source said. “Allegedly, someone in HR leaked the entire report to the union, and then the union read the report out at a union meeting—didn’t redact their names … It went up the chain through HR, there was an investigation, and then finally, that’s when they fired him because the union also wrote a letter saying that they don’t feel comfortable being in rooms with him anymore.”
The former employees interviewed say it is hard to see the organization continuing under the current leadership.
“What I would like to see is some accountability to say look … as an organization that says we’re for social justice and advocacy for Black people, we did not do right by those folks,” Muhammad said. “And we need to hold the folks that we’ve harmed and talk about how we can move forward as an organization … There needs to be some type of accountability and ownership of the mess that they’ve made, and it doesn’t seem as though this leadership team is willing to take those steps.”