Last month, five trustees resigned from The Vegan Society following allegations that the charity is ‘institutionally racist’ and homophobic.
Eshe Kiama Zuri, Michele Fox, Sally Anderson, Joel Bravette, and Robb Masters resigned from the council.
‘Not a safe place’
The Vegan Society is the oldest of its kind in the world. It aims to provide an educational platform that advocates for veganism.
Zuri, who was the organization’s Vice Chair, shared their lengthy resignation letter online.
In it, they said they were ‘naive’ to believe that their ‘time, energy and input would be respected and welcomed’.
“As a young and multiply marginalised trustee, being Black, queer, disabled and working class, I brought a perspective to council that challenged not just trustees as individuals,” they said, “but also the systemic racism and oppression that exists in any organisation set up without any time taken to look at diversity or inclusivity and with a hierarchical, patriarchal, and white supremacist structure that certain council members have spent years honing.”
They added that The Vegan Society council ‘forces out’ anyone with different or progressive views, and wished it could ‘run the charity to a 1944 ideal’.
“I can confidently say that The Vegan Society is not a safe place for young people, for Black people, for Queer people or for any other marginalised people,” Zuri continued.
They described the organization as having a ‘hostile work environment from the beginning’, which included microaggressions, racially motivated complaints, and a smear campaign. They also reported abuse, threats, and targeted bullying.
Hours after being voted on by the council, Zuri alleged that one trustee said the N-word in conversation to them.
“I’m not giving up, I have been forced out. I have no choice,” they said, later adding they feel ‘broken and disheartened’. Former council member Bravette also had his ‘lived experience’ ignored by the council, his letter said.
And in Ex-Chairman Masters’ resignation letter, he reported a ‘toxic environment’. Masters also reported that transphobia and ableism were common within the council.
The Vegan Society responds
The Vegan Society shared a statement online following the resignations.
“There has been conflict amongst the Board that we have been working hard to address and it is regrettable that the most recent resignations were received the day before a planned mediation session,” the charity wrote. It also ‘wished them well for their future endeavours’.
In their letter, Zuri confirmed they did not want to go through a mediation to avoid reliving difficult experiences.
The Vegan Society continued: “As with many charities, The Vegan Society has a number of challenges that we must address as we evolve into an even more diverse and inclusive organisation.”
“This is something we are actively working on, supported by respected external ED&I consultants, and our commitment is to foster an inclusive environment for all of our staff, trustees, members, and supporters.”
In February 2021, the society commissioned Ijeoma Omambala QC to investigate Zuri and Masters’ alleged inappropriate behavior.
In summary, the council claimed Zuri had shared ‘racist’ comments online, and that Masters had ‘enabled’ discriminatory behavior.
In the report, Omambala said:”I do not uphold any of the complaints brought against [Masters]. There is no evidence to suggest that [Masters] has acted unlawfully or in breach of his obligations as a Trustee or as Chair of the Society.”
The report continued: “I make clear that I do not criticise the fact that [Zuri] expressed frustration, disappointment and anger with The Vegan Society in those posts.
“It is the means of expression – the language used that I consider to be inappropriate and unprofessional given that the posts can readily be related to the Society.”
It added that the ‘vast majority of complaints made against Zuri have not been upheld’.
It also said that the Society had repeatedly misgendered Zuri – referring to them with pronouns they don’t use.
The report highlighted nine mitigating factors. These included ‘profound personal animosity’ towards Zuri and their identity, as well as their stance on various political issues.
It also stated that members of Council criticized Zuri for ‘raising their genuine concerns’.
“I am satisfied in particular that [Zuri’s] concerns about their treatment by some Council members and in relation to diversity and inclusivity in the Society were raised in good faith,” the report continued.
“[Zuri] had previously and appropriately raised concerns about language used by members of Council that raised issues of equality, diversity, and inclusion. These have not been adequately addressed in a timely way,” Omambala wrote.
The report revealed that in June 2019, Zuri suggested that Council members complete inclusivity and diversity training. The council did not see the proposal through.
Further, the report stated that the council ‘is not equipped to have mature and constructive conversations on diversity and inclusion matters; nor is it able to deal effectively with challenges to prevailing orthodoxies’.
The report made 15 recommendations for The Vegan Society. These included adopting a written procedure for processing complaints against trustees, as well as implementing appropriate policies and procedures that protect those who whistle-blow.
Further, Omambala recommended that The Vegan Society work ‘quickly and positively’ to handle relationship breakdowns with external facilitation.
In June 2020, The Vegan Society shared a post about the Black Lives Matter movement. The charity pledged to ‘do better’.
“We will be working towards these aims: amplifying BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] vegan voices on our platforms, hiring more BAME staff, including in positions of authority.”
The society said it will recognize BAME excellence within the vegan community, reach out to BAME communities to offer support, and provide BAME vegans with access to its Vegan Society Grant program. The program, which originated in 2013, funds small to medium-sized grassroots not-for-profit organizations that encourage people to go vegan.
The Vegan Society said at the time it acknowledges that organizations must ‘not just post their support but to act on it too’.
A spokesperson from The Vegan Society spoke with The Vegan Review about the controversy.
They said: “We are actively trying to increase diversity in our organization and encourage applications from all sections of the community. We will offer an automatic interview to all candidates who meet our essential criteria and who identify as from an under-represented race or ethnicity or as deaf, neurodiverse, or living with disability.
“The Vegan Society as an organization values equality, diversity, and inclusion. We want to be an organization that tackles any structural discrimination or prejudice … The society has also proactively provided its platforms and campaigns to amplify the voices and recognise the excellence of a diverse range of vegans, including Black vegans.
“The society proactively reached out to relevant groups to support access to its Engaging New Audiences grants programme, and has received 39 applications so far following that outreach.”
*Updated August 10, 2021 at 10:00am BST*
This article was updated to clarify the dates of the report release. Further details have been included based on feedback from the involved parties.