Earlier this year, the Atlanta arts community (or, more specifically, the social media profiles of the Atlanta arts community) was abuzz over an open letter urging the board of WonderRoot to remove cofounder and executive director Chris Appleton.
Several artists accused Appleton of aggressive behavior, financial mismanagement, sexual impropriety, racism and other misdeeds. He was quickly placed on leave pending an investigation and eventually opted to leave the nonprofit arts organization. A professional third-party investigation found some of the accusations credible but no evidence to support others. By then, the damage had been done and the stated goal of the letter achieved. Appleton was out.
Other questions remain. What is the future for WonderRoot, a nonprofit that dates to 2004 and promotes social justice through art? It has evolved into one of Atlanta’s most prominent arts nonprofits. Also, was the Appleton situation handled ethically and professionally?
This case is troublesome because some accusations against Appleton lacked specificity. The letter did not name specific instances of transgressions but did stoke online outrage accusing Appleton of enacting a “full-force implementation of the same dynamics of racism, classism and heteropatriarchy that the organization purports to dismantle.” The artists behind the letter deny the investigation’s findings.
This leaves holes in the truth of what happened, what might have been exaggerated and who’s at fault.
First, a summary of what happened
On February 7, an open letter was released asking WonderRoot’s board of directors to remove Appleton from his position. Eight named individuals, including former WonderRoot employees and prominent local artists, signed the letter. Seven more signatories remained anonymous. The letter broke down the complaints against Appleton and stated that board members had systematically ignored them for years. The letter quickly went viral on social media, along with its hashtags #RemoveChrisAppleton, #BelieveWomen and #BelievePOC.
The board of directors placed Appleton on leave. It hired an outside firm to do an investigation, a move met with skepticism from the artists. “Doing an investigation now feels like continuing to not believe women and not believe people of color, and continuing to be beholden to a harmful executive director,” said Stephanie Dowda, one of the signers.
By then, the WonderRoot board had hired local “reputation management” firm Stripe Reputation to handle all public communication. Appleton resigned February 18 and Brian Tolleson, who’d served as interim CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, was named interim executive director.
Appleton had a temper and could often be a bad boss, according to the report. “Appleton repeatedly behaved in an unprofessional manner with staff during his tenure as WonderRoot’s executive director,” the report said. “His behavior included becoming irate with staff, yelling, outbursts and using profanity when upset.”
“There were countless times in staff meetings where Chris would become aggressive and hostile and use the platform as an opportunity to humiliate and intimidate other staff members when they disagreed with him or did something he rendered out of line with his vision,” said Matthew Rosenfeld, a former programs assistant at WonderRoot.
The report also found that Appleton was bad at managing money, with late payments to artists and vendors happening regularly under his watch. Investigators found no evidence of monetary theft. Other accusations in the letter were determined to be baseless, and investigators found no evidence of sexual impropriety.
One of the accusations, “solely taking credit for and presenting the work of PoC, women and/or LGBTQ staff,” was also found to be false. Investigators couldn’t deduce exactly what the artists meant by that claim. It’s possible that employees felt slighted when Appleton took the spotlight publicly while they worked behind the scenes, but the report determined that “work product was appropriately presented publicly under the WonderRoot name to the extent it was produced by WonderRoot staff as part of their job duties.”
The accusation that Appleton had used racial insults was untrue, according to the investigation.
The letter’s signatories have met the report’s findings with skepticism.
“Just because Chris may not have screamed racial slurs at individual staff members doesn’t mean that WonderRoot, under his leadership, wasn’t a place bursting at the seams with white supremacy culture,” said Jennifer Lobsenz, once a WonderRoot program director.
The artists maintain that the WonderRoot board has continually engaged in nefarious activities to save face and that this investigation is more of the same.
“I find both the presentation of the investigation’s findings, as well as the findings themselves, disappointing if not surprising,” Lobsenz said. “The investigation’s findings are simply not correct. The only conclusion I can draw is that this investigation strategically served the purpose of managing both WonderRoot’s and Chris’ public-facing reputation during a time of ‘crisis.’ It has been clear that individual and organizational reputation preservation has been the focal point from the beginning.”
Tolleson, WonderRoot’s interim executive director, said the investigation was done by a fair and objective third-party company chosen specifically because it could be publicly trusted.
“This independent investigation of Chris Appleton was administered by two experienced African American female attorneys from a firm specializing in human resources matters,” Tolleson said. “They interviewed more than 30 people — including everyone who wrote the open letters, current and former employees, board members and others. The board made it very clear that Mr. Appleton should not return in any capacity to WonderRoot. The investigation revealed that Chris was not an acceptable manager.”
“We cannot comment on anonymous and vague accusations,” Tolleson said. “If there are specific concerns that weren’t investigated, we will look into them. I have reached out to those who have authored the open letters asking for a meeting so we can further discuss their concerns. But I have yet to hear back from any of them.”
Appleton, when contacted for this story, declined to comment.
As of Friday, June 21, WonderRoot’s website had removed all employee profiles except for Tolleson and Olivia Green-Knight, director of operations and finance. Tolleson confirmed that there had been staffing changes but said he could not comment on who was still with WonderRoot and who was out.
ArtsATL emailed all known addresses of WonderRoot employees and received bounce-back emails from Jake Pardee, communications and development coordinator; Brandon Jones, head of creative placemaking; and Nina Dolgin, program coordinator. All said they no longer work for the nonprofit.
Program manager Iman Person was listed on the WonderRoot website as late as June 13 and no longer listed as of June 21, but no bounce-back email came from her address.
With most employees gone, it seems as if the organization is winding down or at least retooling. Tolleson said WonderRoot is still in operation.
What some people may not know is that WonderRoot has been functioning without a main office and building for many months. The space that the signatories complained about, which lacked heat and air conditioning, was closed in late 2018.
“Chris Appleton made the decision to close the arts center in December of last year due to some maintenance issues and lack of HVAC,” Tolleson said. “The staff and I are working to sort that out and explore options. The building remains closed to the public.” Plans to purchase and renovate a building from Atlanta Public Schools are on hold.
The investigation did find one major misstep by board members that exacerbated the situation: They never told employees they had taken action to improve Appleton’s leadership skills.
According to the report, the board met in executive session in April 2017 and approved four specific measures to address complaints: executive coaching for Appleton; forming a human resources committee; recruiting board members with human resources experience; and prioritizing the hiring of a chief of operations, or similar role, to handle WonderRoot’s operational affairs. None of the letter signers knew about this, which, the report said, led to the perception that no action had been taken.
According to Amy Palesch, an attorney with Employbridge who specializes in employment law, nonprofits are expected to abide by the same HR rules and best practices as any other company. This includes having a protocol to deal with complaints.
“Ideally any employee should be able to bring a complaint to a superior and be taken seriously,” Palesch said. “While the employee can’t be informed what specific action has been taken, best practice is to tell them that their complaints have been heard, have been taken seriously and that management has taken steps to solve the issues.”
This didn’t happen at WonderRoot. The investigation specifically recommends that WonderRoot revise its procedure for dealing with workplace complaints, including a procedure for following up with a complainant after an investigation.
These changes certainly seem to be the intent of the letter — or, at least, the results of the firestorm it created. It led to Appleton’s removal, and he may never again work in the Atlanta nonprofit/arts community. Despite this, Lobsenz said the purpose of the letter was to heal the damage Appleton caused.
“To me, the purpose of the original open letter was to share collective harm and to minimize potential future harm,” Lobsenz said. “If WonderRoot was the social-justice-driven organization that it purports to be, I believe it would prioritize healing the pain of those harmed as opposed to discrediting their realities. It would also recognize that internal work culture — specifically how human beings in positional power treat other human beings who are low in the hierarchy — isn’t always quantifiable.”