Departing Employee Accused Philly FIGHT of “Pervasive Racism” in Staff-Wide Email

Elisabeth Long, a white outreach coordinator who had spent three years at the Gayborhood nonprofit, also called on executive director Jane Shull to resign.

Philly FIGHT logo

A year after the management and staff of Philadelphia FIGHT, a Gayborhood nonprofit with a storied history of AIDS advocacy, were mandated to undergo racial-bias training by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR) following an investigation into alleged discriminatory practices, the organization is again being rocked by accusations of “pervasive racism.”

On January 18th, her last day of employment, FIGHT employee Elisabeth Long sent out a farewell email to the entire staff in which she accused the HIV/AIDS organization of fostering a “culture of silence, fear and intimidation” in which people of color were “repeatedly denied raises and promotions.” Long, a white woman who had spent more than three years at the nonprofit developing social justice programing for patients returning from incarceration, also called on longtime executive director Jane Shull to resign.

In the 1,100-word email, a copy of which was obtained by Philadelphia magazine, Long drew a contrast between the organization’s credo and what she saw as the internal reality:

In my time here, I have seen the labor of Black staff systemically invisibilized, undervalued and underpaid. I have seen and heard of people of color (POC), especially Black women and nonbinary folks, repeatedly denied raises and promotions they deserved years ago. (I was given a raise without even advocating for it.) I have seen promotions not matched with raises. I have witnessed Black people surveilled and then disciplined and punished for the same behavior that no one in management even watches white women, myself included, enough to catch.

FIGHT’s roots in justice are deep but the organization is not in alignment with its professed values. FIGHT cannot move forward with integrity to its mission and vision so long as pervasive racism continues to thrive here. It must be exposed and uprooted. The culture of silence, fear and intimidation has got to go, and organizational courage must rise in its place. That courage includes demonstrated transparency, accountability (by which I mean ending, naming, addressing and repairing past and current harm), cultural and structural change, and profound shifts in the power structure, including Jane’s resignation. It is time to pass the torch.

“I didn’t feel like I can honor the work of those before me and the activists who continue to fight for AIDS advocacy if I didn’t name what I witnessed,” Long, 30, tells Philadelphia magazine. “I sent the email out because the level of harm happening to black and brown staff at Philly FIGHT impedes on their work and serves as a direct obstacle to ending AIDS.”

Long says that she left the organization for family reasons and on good terms, having received nothing but positive reviews during her employment, but claims that over the years she had observed “repeated acts of black staff being overly monitored and micromanaged” more than herself and other white co-workers. “Directors at the top level treated black staff differently,” Long says, “and I watched them prioritize white women’s work as an asset to the organization while treating the ideas of Black women and gender-nonconforming individuals as a threat.

“I witnessed black staff receive unfair treatment at the hands of upper level staff who would not promote some of them who have done above and beyond. … It’s a toxic culture that’s hurting the mission of the organization. … Jane’s misguided leadership has created a hostile work culture of intimidation and racial bias across the organization. She is not helping to improve the quality of all employees at FIGHT in the mission to combat AIDS.”

“Elisabeth was absolutely courageous for what she did, and the email touched on a lot of the problems that have been impacting the organization for years,” a black caseworker for Philly FIGHT, who asked not to be named, tells Philadelphia magazine. The caseworker says the organization immediately attempted to “drown out” Long’s email” with a series of organization-wide reply-all messages. Philadelphia magazine spoke with five current Philly FIGHT employees who confirmed that replies they had tried to send at the time were bounced back, and that they can no longer email the entire staff at once.

According to employees, Philly FIGHT has yet to address the staff about Long’s email. “Upper-level management and Jane Shull act like nothing is going on and have not even brought it up,” says a Philly FIGHT program director who requested anonymity. “A white woman just accused this organization of being racist to our entire staff of 190 people and they say nothing? I guess silence is consent.”

“My intent is for this not to become a white savior and be centered in this activism, which is the intellectual and emotional labor of black, trans, and gender-nonconforming individuals,” Long says. “My work is inspired by those individuals whose legitimate concerns are valid and deserve to be heard. I want Philly FIGHT to start listening and believing their black co-workers and addressing these issues so that the more important work can continue to be done.”

The organization did not provide a comment on Long’s accusations by Philadelphia magazine’s requested deadline. The story will be updated if one is received.

UPDATE: D. Deone Powell, general counsel and chief legal officer for Philly FIGHT, sent the following statement to Philadelphia magazine. The statement was also sent out to the organization’s staff.

Philadelphia FIGHT categorically denies each and every allegation in the letter sent by Elisabeth Long. Ms. Long was not fired, was not in danger of being fired, was not disciplined in any way, and chose to leave voluntarily and to air her personal feelings to our staff as she exited.

In the coming weeks, we will be posting responses to the allegations made by Ms. Long, members of the BBWC, and anyone else who chooses to distort, denigrate, or in any other deny the validity of the work that FIGHT continues to do to provide health care to over 4500 people without regard for ability to pay, offer opportunities for individuals returning from prison to get their lives together, enter the labor force, obtain public benefits and obtain health care, offer education around health, computer literacy, and Internet literacy all over Philadelphia, and provide assistance, through case management, outpatient treatment for substance abuse, and benefits counseling to hundreds of individuals, both HIV+ and HIV-, who would not otherwise be able to get these benefits.

The majority of our board are people of color and are patients of our health centers. We will not disclose the names of these individuals in order to protect their privacy but approximately 2/3 of our board are African American, approximately one quarter of our board are Caucasian, approximately 2/3 of our board members are our patients. We want to be careful to note that the 2/3 of our board who are African American and 2/3 of our board who are patients should not be construed as indicating that these are the same people although there is overlap. As a matter of regulation, the majority of the board of an FQHC must be patients. This was also the case when the BBWC published charges on this subject two years ago. Our staff salaries are not a matter for public release; however a statistical analysis conducted by an outside consultant found no evidence whatsoever of racially based salary differentiation. Our senior administrative management team includes two Caucasian, three African American, and one Asian person. We intend to post details about all of the above statements on our website in the near future.

While Ms. Long never filed a single complaint with anyone in the years she worked here, others have as is well-known. It should come as no surprise that all parties are rarely satisfied with the results of an investigation into an alleged complaint. While each of us is entitled to our own opinion, investigations are based on facts and documentation. While individual perceptions and reality in some cases are the same, in many cases they are not. At the risk of discounting individual truths, we must have a broader perspective which includes the vitality of the entire organization, each of its employees and every single one of the 4,500 patients we serve.

As we grow and become a more matrixed organization, we will continue to place first the needs of the organization and the duties to our patients. We will FIGHT on, as all gladiators and pioneers must, in our pursuits—unfazed by any existential, vindictive threat to our organization’s livelihood and emboldened by our ability to provide the quality of care our patients deserve.