The Uprising at Crisis Text Line

Staff revolts against Nancy Lublin; anti-racism and Political Data World; Change.org promises shifts; and much much more.


Last week, board members of Crisis Text Line—one of the largest and most impactful nonprofits in the civic tech sector—received a letter from an anonymous employee. The letter made a series of highly specific and explosive allegations, describing abusive, inappropriate, bigoted and unethical behavior by CTL’s founder and CEO, Nancy Lublin. Following a Twitter-driven employee walkout, on Friday afternoon, the board voted to remove Lublin from her post effectively immediately and made board member Dena Trujillo interim CEO. The board admitted that in 2018 it had been made aware of inappropriate conduct by people in leadership positions, including Lublin, but it had “failed to do enough” to confront racism and bullying at the organization. It promised a series of steps, including a staff-elected board position and the replacement of two board members by BIPOC candidates, and promised to work hard to ensure a “safe, open and anti-racist work environment for all team members.”
 
This is big news in the tech-for-good sector, so big that CNN covered it. In just seven years, CTL had become a civic tech standout, with reported income of $27.1 million in 2018. CTL’s free mental health services are available 24-7 in the US, Canada and the UK, and it is in the process of expanding globally. As of the end of 2019, its network of counselors had processed more than 105 million text messages. Its innovative approach to managing and prioritizing incoming requests for help, using semantic language processing to guide counselors to the most pressing cases and aid them in responding most effectively, won many plaudits. In 2019, it was one of five winners of the Skoll World Forum’s Social Entrepreneurship Awards, worth $1.5 million. Earlier this year, it was a TED Audacious Project prize winner.
 
If the philanthro-industrial complex can be said to have a center, Lublin was somewhere near the bullseye, widely recognized as one of the most successful “social entrepreneurs” of the last decade. In 2016, the fledgling startup, which grew out of Lublin’s previous nonprofit Dosomething.org, announced it had raised $23.8 million in a Series B Round investment led mainly by Reid Hoffman, Melinda Gates, The Ballmer Group, and Omidyar Network, with smaller amounts from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Craig Newmark, Mark and Ali Pincus, Anne Devereux-Mills, Joe and Suzy Edelman, and Amy and Rob Stavis. When Hoffman, who gave Crisis Text Line its first $1 million, decided in 2017 to pour new funding into Change.org, he installed Lublin as its board chair. She was removed from Change’s board last Friday.
 
Lublin’s success as a fundraiser and networker powered CTL’s growth, but it clearly also centered far too much power in her hands internally, judging from the outpouring of complaints from current and former staff. Like past explosions at other nonprofits and social change organizations driven by the #MeToo movement, the earthquake at Crisis Text Line is a reflection of the larger uprising underway in the wake of #GeorgeFloyd’s murder. It is a reminder that just work requires just structures, and the ends cannot justify the means. For too long (and still) an individual’s ability to raise money from wealthy donors and foundations has skewed power in the social sector towards white men and sometimes women (and the people good at convincing wealthy white men and women to back them). Maybe something better will now emerge.
 
Aria Finger, the CEO of Dosomething.org and a close colleague of Lublin’s for many years at that organization, acknowledged via Twitter that she had “not done enough” to address racial inequity there and promised to share a more detailed plan of action by June 24. A staff-led petition on Change.org calling for Finger’s dismissal (for promoting “racist, biased and discriminatory messages”), and the replacement of five board members who have held their seats during the five years of Lublin and Finger’s tenure at Dosomething had 660 signatures as of this morning.
 
Full disclosure: In 2013 and 2015, Lublin gave keynote talks at Personal Democracy Forum, with the first one notable for her calling out the Ford Foundation to sell its $400 million in order to fund more social justice work, and to free up funds for projects that didn’t fit traditional “buckets.” In 2015, Dosomething was a fiscal sponsor for Civic Hall’s launch, and it has been an organizational member in good standing since then.
 
To go deeper, follow the hashtags #NotMyCrisisTextLine and #DoSomethingDidNothing.
 
Tech and politics: After David Shor, a political data analyst at Civis Analytics, tweeted a summary of a research paper by Omar Wasow suggesting that nonviolent protests in the 1960s did more to move public opinion in a progressive direction than violent ones, he was criticized by colleagues and others for, as one put it, “using his anxiety and ‘intellect’ as a vehicle for anti-blackness,” and a few days later Shor was fired. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine cites this episode as a sign than “illiberal” norms are spreading among progressive circles. Jennifer Brea, Wasow’s spouse, tweeted in support of Shor, saying his firing was “nuts.”
 
Related: Jess Morales Rocketto, who was Hillary Clinton’s digital director in 2016, posted a twitter thread arguing that anti-blackness is a serious problem in “Political Data World,” noting that Civic Analytics was perhaps the most prominent purveyor of a data-driven approach to voter engagement that valued “efficiency” and “cost per voter” in ways that systematically entrenched whites in the field and culture of political tech. Read the whole thread, it’s important.
 
An open letter to Change.org from former employees upset that the for-profit company was making millions from a number of higher popular petitions related to George Floyd appears to have prompted the company to make a number of new commitments, including putting $6 million in a dedicated fund for supporting racial justice campaigning efforts and $1.5 million to build new staff team focused entirely on racial justice organizing. Acting CEO Nick Allardice also committed to a raft of internal structural changes “to address systemic racism within our organization.”
 
Online donations and sign-ups to racial justice organizations have exploded in recent weeks, Shane Goldmacher reports for The New York Times. Color of Change’s membership has quadrupled from 1.7 million to 7 million, for example. Two national bail funds reported receiving more than $90 million.
 
Here’s a stunning map of more than 3,500 local Black Lives Matters protests that have taken place in the United States since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th.
 
Here’s a crowd-sourced list and map of George Floyd protests of greater than 100 people made by Wikipedia users.
 
If you have time to read only one article about the rapid decision by IBM, Amazon and Microsoft to end or pause their sales of facial recognition tools to law enforcement agencies, make it this one by Kate Kaye in Fast Company. She notes that none of the three companies made any move to stop the use of predictive policing or other surveillance tech that they sell. “Limiting the scope of these [announcements] even to law enforcement is insufficient,” Safiya Noble, associate professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies and author of Algorithms of Oppression, told Kaye. “We need a full-on recall of all of these technologies.”
 
Life in Facebookistan: Lee Fang reports for the Intercept that Facebook Workplace, an office collaboration tool similar to Slack, was being marketed by the company to prospective corporate customers as including a tool allowing administrator to remove and block certain trending topics among employees, such as those using the word “unionize.” Robo-pinkertons, anyone?
 
Dozens of Tunisian, Syrian and Palestinian activists and journalists say their Facebook accounts have been deactivated over the last few months, Olivia Solon reports for NBC News.
 
Civic tech and COVID-19: Florida’s top data scientist, Rebekah Jones, was fired from her position with the state department of health in mid-May after she refused to manipulate data to support the state’s reopening, as NPR’s Greg Allen reported May 20th. Now, as a private citizen, she’s launched her own dashboard tracking how the state’s counties are dealing with COVID-19. The official state website claims that Florida has an overall infection rate of 5.4% but Jones says that number is misleading, because it counts each time the same individual tests negative as a separate data point, artificially inflating the denominator and making the state infection rate seem lower. Florida is one of 20 states where new COVID-19 cases are rising, but the state’s governor has so far balked at reversing his commitment to keep reopening. Jones is raising money to keep here new site afloat, here.
 
Deep thoughts: This oped piece in The New York Times by Hahrie Han describing how local community leaders and organizations in Minneapolis self-organized in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, “withdrew their consent” from the city’s police force, and figured out how to keep themselves safe and free of misinformation and fifth columns, is worth careful study and reflection for what it suggests about the potential of today’s movements to reorder society for th

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