By Melissa R. Wales and Jennifer S. Kelly

As former longtime employees of United Campus Ministry in Athens, Ohio, we have grave concerns about a situation at the organization we love and are sad to say we have reached the point where we can no longer support UCM, financially or otherwise, under the leadership of the current board of directors. The UCM Board of Directors’ shameful and discriminatory treatment of Interim Director Lacey Rogers, the first woman of color in a leadership position there, doesn’t honor the history and mission of UCM as a social justice organization and a vital part of the Athens community.

On March 19, 2021, UCM’s Board of Directors informed Lacey through an attorney that they no longer wished to employ her as interim director. Although her contract extended to May 31, 2021, and she was paid through the end of that contract, the attorney told her to stop coming to work in mid-March and that the board wanted to reach a terms of departure agreement. As of the writing of this letter, it has not. The board still has not given her an explanation for its decision. To our knowledge, Lacey’s departure, and the reasons for it, have not been made public.

We have known Lacey for 15 years as a UCM student volunteer, intern, board member, and assistant director. Because of her years of experience, commitment and leadership on social justice issues on campus and in the community, and long-standing dedication to UCM, we were thrilled to see her move into this new position. We do not understand the decision to end her employment and are writing to support her in this difficult, incredibly stressful, and unjust situation. We call on the Athens community to hold UCM, an organization very dear to our hearts, accountable.

Lacey began work as assistant director in January 2018. Almost from the beginning her experience as AD was frustrating due to apparent limitations under the former leadership. Communication was poor and her skills were underused. She tried to address the problem directly with her supervisor and with board members, but very little changed.

She also dealt with microaggressions concerning her frustrations during 2020, a year of traumatic racial reckoning while UCM was glaringly and visibly absent after the murder of George Floyd and the rise of last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, one of the most important racial and social justice moments of our time. When Lacey expressed concerns that leadership was absent as a major social justice moment was happening, she was asked how to resolve this issue. It is entirely unacceptable and inexcusable to ask this of the lone person of color in the organization.

Despite this, her time as AD was quite productive and included supervision and mentorship of interns, coordination of UCM’s free meal programs, facilitation of the Prism LGBTQ Youth Art Program, organizing UCM’s annual Board and staff retreat, as well as the annual fall fundraiser. Lacey drove a great deal of UCM’s visible work in the community.

When the most recent executive director resigned, the board verbally proposed the interim director position to Lacey in September 2020. She expressed interest, in spite of understandable reservations she had about the interim status and the organizational and financial tumult left by the previous leadership and the ongoing pandemic. Although the former ED’s last day was October 31, Lacey was not given a contract to review until December 7 for a position with a December 1 start date.

At the same time she received the contract, she was informed for the first time that the board would offer her the requested salary and position, but “did so with reservation … and did not offer the salary and position based on her current performance, especially during the months since the former ED announced his resignation, when working under the board’s supervision, and that they did not feel she has been working at the level UCM needed during this time frame.” Lacey still does not know what was meant by this statement. She never received a negative performance evaluation at UCM. Lacey was told the organization was in a state of “financial exigency” and therefore her options were to accept a six-month contract as interim director with no promise of continued employment, or to continue as assistant director, a position she was told would be discontinued two months later in mid-February.

The transition process was highly problematic. Lacey continually asked for access to information, passwords, and technology so she could perform her duties and was met with a frustratingly insufficient response. Despite being salaried, Lacey received paychecks in differing amounts without pay stubs or adequate explanation of the discrepancies for several weeks.

She also began to experience different treatment and micromanaging by the board, who began tracking her time and work in a way the previous leadership had not been managed. Her autonomy as the new “leader” of the organization and authority over support staff were undermined. Lacey repeatedly tried to communicate her frustrations and asked for support from the all white and male-led board. Her experiences as a woman of color concerning implicit bias and differential treatment were routinely dismissed and invalidated.

Lacey asked for mediation with the UCM board; after two mediation sessions, her request to continue the process was met with silence. At that point they communicated with Lacey only through an attorney, who informed her that they no longer wished for her to be employed there and wanted to reach a terms of departure agreement.

Meanwhile, UCM has been posting on social media against racism in other areas of our society. It’s ironic and highly problematic that differential treatment appears to happen with Lacey — the first person of color in leadership at UCM in decades — given that her social justice work includes provding implicit bias training to the community, teaching an antiracism class for Athens High School students, and facilitating local anti-racism book clubs.

We love this organization and its legacy in our community. Writing this letter is painful but necessary because we believe that UCM has not been living up to its mission. The past 18 months have been emotionally and mentally stressful for people of color in our community. We’re dismayed that rather than doing the right thing — the racially and socially just thing — to support the one staff person of color fulfilling UCM’s mission, the board appears to have failed utterly. Nationwide, the nonprofit sector is responding to this moment of racial reckoning by doing serious internal work to address systemic racism within organizations. We ask what work is UCM doing right now in this regard, besides the occasional performative social media post?

We are deeply saddened by Lacey’s experience at United Campus Ministry and hope she can move forward as the accomplished professional woman of color she is. She deserved so much better. We call on the Athens community and UCM’s stakeholders to hold the organization accountable.

Melissa R. Wales worked for UCM from 1999 to 2017, including 12 years as executive director (2005–17).

Jennifer S. Kelly was UCM office manager from 2000 to 2020.

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