From Starbucks to Cease-and-Desist: The Implosion of a Philly Racial Justice Org
Four years ago, after calling out the controversial arrests of two Black men at a Rittenhouse Starbucks, Melissa DePino and Michelle Saahene co-founded From Privilege to Progress to "desegregate the public conversation about race and racism." Today, they're no longer on speaking terms as they negotiate dissolving their nonprofit.
Four years ago, on April 12, 2018, Melissa DePino and Michelle Saahene first met under uncomfortable circumstances.
They were both at the Rittenhouse Starbucks when two Black men were unjustly arrested in a racially charged incident that quickly became the talk of the world. DePino, a white woman who lived in the area, posted video, obtained from another person in attendance, to her Twitter account. That video went viral. In it, you can hear (but not see) Saahene, a Black woman who worked in health care at the time, calling out the arrest, saying that the two men “didn’t do anything.” But for the next several days, the attention was focused on DePino rather than Saahene.
According to Saahene, the viral buzz led DePino to reach out to her and propose a plan to collaborate and engage a growing audience of people interested in speaking out against racism.
“We started talking about the conversations that were happening around the world because of this incident,” Saahene recalls of their first meeting, on April 16, 2018. “We decided that day to figure out how we could help all these people who were asking questions about racism keep learning, so they could do something about it.”
They soon formed the nonprofit From Privilege to Progress (P2P), an organization they described as “a national movement to desegregate the public conversation about race and racism.” Through major speaking engagements at universities, corporations and advocacy groups across America, DePino and Saahene captivated audiences with their messages of anti-racism. They spoke at companies as big as Ikea and Google; were featured in major media outlets; and even landed a much-discussed appearance on Red Table Talk. By 2021, they say, both were making six figures through their work with the organization.
It appeared the sky was the limit. But Saahene says that internally, the partnership was crumbling: “It became a nightmare.”
On April 23, 2022, just a week after the fourth anniversary of their serendipitous connection, Saahene, president and co-founder of P2P, announced on social media that she was severing ties with the organization.
Speaking exclusively with Philly Mag, both Saahene and DePino gave their sides of the story of how it all came crashing down. Saahene alleges that her push to dissolve the nonprofit is based on “unresolved racial inequity and exploitation” from vice president and co-founder DePino that eroded Saahene’s confidence in the organization’s mission and purpose. DePino denies these allegations and says she wants to engage in mediation before dissolving the organization. In the aftermath of their dispute going public, DePino has deleted her personal Twitter account and has only addressed the conflict on the From Privilege to Progress Instagram account.
According to Saahene, the entire situation has taught her the importance of “recognizing how white people shouldn’t take the lead on addressing the very problems they are still perpetuating in their everyday life.”
Saahene says she should have seen the warning signs. Ahead of their first major public speaking engagement in the summer of 2018, she says, the two disagreed about how to convey their anti-racism messaging.
“[DePino] did not agree with me that we needed to make the audience feel an emotion in order for them to be inspired to work toward racial justice,” Saahene says. “Melissa thought it was enough to present the audience with the facts. I made a mental note of that, because it stood out to me as disconnected from the depth of the issue. … If it was enough for people to know the facts to take action toward racial justice, we would have almost no racial injustice.”
DePino remembers the situation differently.
“I never said nor believed that it was enough to present an audience with only facts, as evidenced by every speech that was delivered,” DePino recalls of that first engagement. “I did believe statistics about the degree of segregation in our social media network were important, but that was one line in a 30-minute speech where I shared my experience that day — what happened in the Starbucks and afterwards, what led up to that day in my life from my perspective, and how I understood what it meant to be white in that moment for the first time, at age 50.”
Saahene claims that DePino exhibited “blatant disregard for sensitivity on race.” On February 6th 2019, Saahene received a Diversity & Inclusion certificate from Cornell University to bolster her ability to facilitate DEI trainings and workshops, a major pillar of P2P. Saahene felt that given the “volume of corporations requesting our expertise in this area, we needed to be better equipped to inform them.” She claims DePino refused to pursue similar certification.
“She declined, because she said she doesn’t want to be a consultant,” Saahene says. “I explained to her that this isn’t for consultancy, but because we want to do speaking engagements at corporations, and so it would do us well if we understood the corporate D&I language on our sales calls and during speaking engagements. Still, she refused. It made me feel like we may be in this for different reasons, but [I was] hopeful it could work out.”
Again, DePino recalls things differently. She says she and Saahene often discussed whether they believed formal training was part of the P2P mission.
“We came to the mutual conclusion that we did not,” DePino says. “While I did seek the mentorship and advice of numerous experts, participated in trainings, read and studied extensively, attended conferences, and dedicated myself to learning what I hadn’t in my formal education, we agreed that the goal of P2P was to meet people where they are and allow them to see themselves in us and our personal stories.”
Saahene, 35, says she felt she was the target of “racial micro-aggressions and paternalism” while forming the nonprofit, given that DePino, 54, was older than she was and white. Saahene says DePino filed the nonprofit paperwork to create From Privilege to Progress in 2019 and managed the social media and website. In the beginning, Saahene says, DePino offered to handle the back-end operations because “she had 20 years’ experience running a business and working with nonprofits.” But Saahene now believes that this was a measure of control, to “ensure that Melissa remained in the center of power.”
“I was the sole member of the organization who sought after speaking engagements for the two of us,” Saahene says. “Corporations hired us because they wanted a Black person sharing their experiences with race. … In retrospect, Melissa needed me more than I needed her. She locked me out of the logistical operations because it was her way of staying connected with the organization. These were [among] the many ways white supremacy showed up within our organization.”
DePino concurs that she filed all of the paperwork and created all of the social media accounts with her personal email, but says that “from day one, Michelle had access, passwords and log-ins for every account.”
“As time went on, I did the vast majority of the posting to keep the conversation going and keep our predominantly white following engaged and active,” DePino says. “Michelle always had the choice and access to post and never objected to anything I’d posted until March 18, 2022. We both agreed to talk to one another along the way and hold each other accountable for potential missteps, and said as much on an Instagram Live.”
Pay equity became another point of contention. They split the payments for their speaking engagements evenly. But Saahene, who was beginning to study and discuss the role of reparations and racial pay inequities in her workshops, took issue with this. Saahene, who says she expended a higher level of “emotional labor as a Black woman dealing with racism firsthand,” felt she was contributing more than DePino. Saahene also says she “did all of the outreach” and conducted “most of the sales calls,” adding that she was “the emotional hook in the engagement. I talked about the trauma that happened in the Starbucks that day. I talked about my childhood trauma being the only African in a white town and how that impacted my self-worth, self-esteem, and how I internalized the racism that I experienced, wanting basically to leave my body.”
After several speaking engagements in 2019, Saahene says, she finally raised the issue of pay equity with DePino, adding that the conversation went sour quickly.
“When I brought up getting paid more, Melissa got defensive and accused me of not appreciating her and all the back-end work she did for the organization — the very work that she hoarded under the guise of just liking to overwork and not wanting that burden to be on me,” Saahene claims. “This was how she weaponized her contribution in arguing that we should maintain a 50-50 split in the earnings from the speaking engagements. She never brought up an equity model again. Neither did I.”
But DePino says she recalls the interaction differently, adding that she would have certainly “been open to discussing and instituting a pay equity model had [Saahene] brought it up, and as president, she could have instituted an equity model on her own.”
“Michelle once posed a question about whether she should be paid more if she worked more hours,” DePino adds. “We both contributed countless hours of work and did not take any pay unless we were paid for a speaking engagement. In terms of financials, P2P was launched with $5,000 of seed funding that I personally contributed, for which I never asked or expected to be reimbursed. I personally contributed 10 percent back to the organization for every speaking engagement, to cover taxes and expenses.” (Saahene says she also gave 10 percent back.)
Still, things continued to take off for the organization. P2P was featured on NPR’s Code Switch, Hearst’s Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, and MSNBC’s AM Joy, as well as in numerous other television, print and online outlets. The founders spoke at Yale, Procter & Gamble/Olay, Hershey, Merck, and other institutions. Their Instagram following topped 450,000, and they essentially doubled their joint fee to $10,000 per appearance.
But the tension was escalating.
Saahene says the racial uprisings of 2020 gave her “moral clarity” about the anti-racism work she was doing, and she felt “more needed to be done internally within our organization.” She says she began to explore decolonization work and wanted to discuss the ways in which capitalism perpetuated white supremacy. She felt DePino wasn’t invested in taking on such complex work. She says she told DePino she was uncomfortable with the organization gaining financially from her trauma and felt that DePino’s “lack of consideration … was the writing on the wall.”
DePino objects to this characterization, claiming that when Saaheen raised those concerns, she “respected and honored her need for that boundary. I never encouraged or forced Michelle to share more than she was comfortable with sharing, and Michelle never asked me to do anything specific with regard to this concern. Many of these presentations were delivered in private settings, but if you speak to anyone who has attended one of our presentations, they will speak to our mutual vulnerability.”
In January 2022, after several exchanges, Saahene told DePino that she no longer wanted to do speaking engagements with her.
“I was moving at a much faster pace than Melissa was on this work, but I was still having to deal with some fundamental issues within the organization that made me feel harmed in the process,” Saahene says. “Issues involving the protection of Black women, white women taking up space, inequity, exploitation of Black people, white people largely profiting off of this work while clearly not qualified, and performative allyship were a few of the concerns I had raised. Her actions pushed me out of our joint venture.”
DePino, acknowledging that there are “layers to and emotions in any situation in which friendship is commingled with business,” admits that she and Saahene began to grow distant by the end of 2021. “She removed herself from all day-to-day functions of the organization without any explanation of why, how long she would be absent, or when she might return,” DePino asserts. “In that time, she not only decided we were no longer friends but that she no longer wanted to run the organization together. Until recently, I believed we were in a friendship and running an organization together.”
In March 2022, Saahene and DePino began to have disputes about dissolving the organization.
Saahene emailed DePino regarding her interest in ending the organization. “We should discuss dissolving P2P in the very near future,” wrote Saahene. “It’s reliant on public donations and I don’t think that’s right at all going forward since we are no longer operating as an entity. … I can start the forms needed to dissolve it.”
DePino responded, making clear that she did not want to dissolve the organization: “You could talk with your lawyer about removing yourself as an officer (we could still name you as co-founder of course, or refer to you in any way you choose), but I always planned on making the organization independent of the two of us and dedicating my time to fully developing it. I have others in mind who can serve as officers. Let me know how you would like to proceed and how you would like to articulate your departure from the organization.”
Saahene replied that having her name attached to the organization under new leaders was not in her best interest and proposed a detailed plan in which DePino could keep P2P’s followers provided she renamed the organization.
These are my thoughts/suggestions on how to proceed so we can both get what we want:
- We legally change the name to whatever you want so P2P can be dissolved.
- You keep the followers on all platforms as it will be a simple name change.
- We can run a week-long marketing campaign announcing the [dissolution] of P2P, and the creation of a new mission run exclusively by you, announcing the plans of what you will be doing and what I will be doing.
- We will have to donate the funds to another organization that is similar to ours according to the law. We could potentially keep that money remaining in the TD account with the name change for you to use for your new venture (if it meets the criteria as an organization that the funds can be sent to) but only if you are willing to send back to me the 10% of my income that was being kept in the account. Otherwise, it is not fair.
- The gofundme needs to come down immediately. I am concerned that there could be legal ramifications for continuing to receive funds when the organization is not operating. It feels unethical. We recently got a donation of a couple hundred from another fund. We need to be presenting with honesty and integrity.
- We set a timeline for the completion of the [dissolution], which realistically could be complete within the next few weeks so we can both move on with what we want to do.
On March 18th, without responding to Saahene’s previous email, DePino made the following post on From Privilege to Progress’s Instagram, giving not even a clue that the organization might be nearing an end.
“When I asked why in the world she would do that, Melissa said because she simply did not want to dissolve it,” Saahene claims. “She was simply refusing. No conversation, no communication, just doing what she wanted to do, whether I was okay with it or not. … I told her this was colonizer behavior … and dishonest to the community. I was stunned by the entitlement. It felt like the continuation of white women in this country inserting themselves in what should be Black-led organizations and trying to slowly but surely take over.”
“I did want to stay in the organization,” DePino says. “In our emails and in multiple meetings, we discussed appointing a multi-racial board to guide our work. Michelle agreed many times this was good to pursue. I never asked or told Michelle to leave the organization, so the notion that I somehow attempted to ‘push her out,’ is categorically false. I wanted to work out our personal differences and continue to work together. … My post simply stated the mission of the organization. I did this to emphasize that the mission is independent of both of us. She also publicly, repeatedly stated that we were in the process of dissolving the organization, which is false, because according to our founding documents/charter, in order to dissolve the organization, we need unanimous consent of the incorporators.”
On this point, the founders are at an impasse.
The official charter of P2P states that “in the event that the Incorporators are unable to resolve any Member Dispute, such parties shall first attempt to settle such dispute through a non-binding mediation proceeding.”
DePino and Saahene have yet to have a formal mediation, thus the organization hasn’t officially dissolved.
On April 23rd, dismayed by the continuation of the nonprofit she wanted to dissolve, Saahene went public about the problems impacting From Privilege to Progress in a video posted to Instagram, describing what she was experiencing behind the scenes.
“She did not follow the charter; she instead claimed she had no choice but to ‘go public,'” DePino says. “That is incorrect. The option Michelle had and still has is mediation. By choosing to ‘go public,’ Michelle has unfortunately distracted an engaged audience from the work and mission of the organization.”
View this post on Instagram
Saahene claims that on April 28th, when she added her video to the P2P Instagram account, the post was removed by DePino, and she was sent the following email:
“Do whatever you want on your own page. You cannot legally slander me or the organization on P2P. I will send a cease-and-desist ASAP. Look at the charter. The remedy to a dispute is mediation. I am ready and willing to engage in that and pay my half. Our lawyers will work it out.”
Slander: “the action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation.” Slander requires the statement to be both false and damaging. My life experiences and statements are truth.
I’m glad you are now willing to come to the table to work towards a resolution.
Since then, Saahene and DePino have neither spoken nor planned a mediation.
“I did remove the video and send her that message, because the video includes several documented instances of slander,” DePino says. “Michelle has a right to share her perspective and her feelings, but by law, and as stated in the charter, she cannot make defamatory statements about me or the organization. The [threatened] cease-and-desist was an attempt to get her to stop making these defamatory statements that are false [and] misleading and mischaracterize what happened. In no way have I ever or would I ever invalidate her feelings or deny her trauma.”
On April 29th, DePino posted publicly for the first time her thoughts surrounding the dissolution of P2P on the organization’s Instagram page.
“This is an unfortunate unraveling of a personal relationship that was surprising to me, as many of the things Michelle is now sharing publicly were never shared with me personally,” DePino says. “I learned her reasons for wanting to dissolve the organization via her April 28, 2022, Instagram video, along with the public; therefore, I had no opportunity to address concerns.”
Today, Saahene is living in Dallas, Texas, has started her own LLC and is doing speaking engagements on her own. She describes the past four years as “the biggest life lessons I’ve ever had,” some that have taught her to “understand white supremacy at the deepest level I have to date, and for that I am grateful.”
“This experience has led me to deeper work such as decolonization that is absolutely life-changing and towards spirituality,” Saahene adds. “I do believe this journey has been a spiritual awakening. It’s amazing how much of your creativity can be stunted when you’re energetically connected to what is not meant for you.”