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Exclusive: The Vegan Society responds to allegations of racism after trustees resign

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Five trustees have left the board of The Vegan Society, which is facing accusations of institutional racism and a hostile work environment.

The Vegan Society is facing allegations of institutional racism, marginalisation, hostility, and an unsafe and toxic work environment by five trustees who have resigned from the charity’s council.

Last week, council chair Robb Masters, vice-chair Eshe Kiama Zuri, sustainability champion Joel Bravette, and trustee Michele Fox resigned from the board, a week after council secretary Sally Anderson had also left the charity’s board.

In their resignation letter, Zuri said the society was “not a safe place for young people, for Black people, for queer people or for any other marginalised people”. Their resignation follows a recent independent investigation into complaints levelled against Zuri and Masters by those close to other board members, who accused the then vice-chair of “racist, discriminatory and offensive behaviour” on social media. The vast majority of the complaints against Zuri were not upheld.

Zuri alleged that The Vegan Society “hoards money and focuses on trademark and income over all else”, calling for a separation between charity and business.

“The Vegan Society is increasingly irrelevant in a society that is diverse and, at least, amongst young vegans of my own age, who want to see intersectional and inclusive spaces focused on activism, not a business-minded dictatorship where the promotional material has more diverse faces than the staff and trustees,” they wrote in their resignation letter.

“A council that forces out anyone with different, progressive or intersectional views is not going to be able to lead The Vegan Society into the future, or even the present. The Vegan Society currently isn’t even ‘animals first’ (which still would be up for critique), but is currently just ‘business first’.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Zuri claimed they felt forced out of the board and were left with no choice, calling it a “smear campaign”. They alleged that even though the investigation showed some of the abuse they faced, they were still told by members that they were in the wrong.

“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, 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 wrote.

“And when we have council (and even some members) wishing we could run The Vegan Society in 2021 to a 1944 ideal, without any room for growth it’s not a surprise that The Vegan Society is institutionally racist.”

The charity, which clarified that these accusations are aimed at the board of trustees and not its employees or staff, has acknowledged the conflict amongst the board and said it is regrettable that the trustees chose to leave the day before a planned mediation session.

In a statement posted on its website, it said: “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 [equality diversity and inclusio] consultants, and our commitment is to foster an inclusive environment for all of our staff, trustees, members and supporters.”

Speaking to The Vegan Review, Zuri claimed that there has been “a rift between The Vegan Society and the Black vegan community”, pointing to a “lack of representation and an unwillingness from The Vegan Society to include any Black vegans on staff or in campaigns beyond tokenism and patrons like Benjamin Zephaniah”.

“With campaigns aimed solely at white vegans, without any understanding of how racism, colonialism and white supremacy affects how people experience the world and veganism, and excluding Black and other indigenous people of colour’s veganism, these will, of course, always be exclusive and unsafe for BIPOC to be involved in,” they said.

However, Zuri added that they would not want to see the society bring in more campaigns to include Black people without people of colour running them, “because otherwise, it’s still harmful”.

In their letter, Zuri said they experienced hostility from the beginning: “Within the first hours of being voted on council, one trustee said the N-word in conversation with me and I was then also told that most trustees did not vote for me.”

They alleged that they were asked to remove their title as a trustee from their social media handles after receiving what they say were “racially motivated complaints”. The former trustee further claimed that when the then-CEO of The Vegan Society, George Gill, faced racially motivated complaints, “he was supported and it was treated as harassment towards him and the society, not as his fault”.

Zuri said they resigned before their motion for the charity to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in support of Palestine was put to vote, but they believe it will fail as they are already “being labelled as anti-semitic”. They likened this to previous motions raised against supporting and trademarking companies like Nestlé and “other (human and non-human) animal exploiters”, which they said the remaining trustees “wish to continue The Vegan Society’s working relationship with”.

Read our story about the controversy surrounding Nestlé’s vegan KitKat launch.

Following the Black Lives Matter movement last year, The Vegan Society put out a statement in solidarity, but Zuri told The Vegan Review it was allegedly “not checked by the one Black member of staff at the time nor myself as the only Black trustee at the time”.

The former trustee added that “nothing real has changed” following the statement. “Black people are still not being hired or passing probation,” they claimed. “[The] council has gone through anti-racism training and dismissed it. There’s been an external investigation that shows racism and it’s been dismissed. And the proposal that resigned trustees passed last year to investigate institutional racism within the society has been pushed back by current council.”

Masters, who faced complaints of enabling inappropriate behaviour (none of which were upheld), said in his resignation letter that the society took “no meaningful action” when “a disabled, Black, non-binary trustee” (he did not confirm whether he was referring to Zuri) was a target of complaints by a member of the society who encouraged their followers on social media to find adverse information about the trustee.

“What have we witnessed over the past six months (and more) if not a coordinated campaign of racist, transphobic, and ableist bullying against the society’s youngest voluntary trustee, but which the society (a certain section of Council, in particular) seems willing to ignore?” he wrote.

Like Zuri, he called the events that led to the investigation a “public smear campaign”, which he alleged was “instigated by certain trustees”. Masters tweeted that the investigation into racism at the society would likely be a year late after a current trustee recently “used their veto to delay decisions on the scope or contract to the next Board meeting”, likely to be held in September.

He did, however, communicate his respect for the interim CEO of the society, Louise Davies, who he said has “been keen to make progress in the neglected areas of EDI and values”. He claimed that the management has been “forced to put out such statements by a wilfully ignorant board”, whose members, he added, should “certainly go”.

Zuri had also expressed support for Davies and the staff in their letter, explaining that their critiques of the society aren’t a reflection of the staff. “I think it’s important to note that I am talking more about the governance and institutional racist structure that goes deeper than hiring practices and reaching out to Black communities whilst wholly unaware of how to interact with them respectfully and safely,” they told The Vegan Review.

They added that the leading complainant against them and Masters in the external investigation “was challenged regarding his oppressive language and behaviour when he was on council and decided to resign before he could be held accountable”.

Fox, who resigned alongside the others, said the allegations against Masters and Zuri stemmed from the “right-wing concept of ‘reverse racism’ together with a deep personal dislike”.

In his resignation letter, former sustainability champion Bravette said: “I did not join the society as a member or a trustee to be belittled, demeaned, racialised, mischaracterised, publicly questioned because of my ethnic background, coerced to abandon my principles on justice for all, called an anti-Semite for recognising the difference between Jewish people and the Israeli state, have my lived experience ignored nor my professional aptitude dismissed.”

He acknowledged that staff members have “no role in governance, purpose or spending”, but have “shown virtue, ingenuity and community” in each interaction he had been part of.

Zuri also told The Vegan Review that “bullying tactics and the doubling down of oppressive behaviour within council” has been used previously on “several CEOs and many staff and council members” who have reached out to them. “This was also ‘punishment’ for them being progressive and not adhering to the status quo and bowing down to the dictatorship.”

In their email, The Vegan Society’s spokesperson said the following recruitment policy had been implemented since the Black Lives Matter post on Facebook: “The Vegan Society as an organisation values equality, diversity, and inclusion. We want to be an organisation that tackles any structural discrimination or prejudice.

“We are actively trying to increase diversity in our organisation 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 spokesperson added: “Since last June, the society hired one Black, two Indian and three mixed-race people. 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.”

They further noted that the society has provided support to charities and projects to reduce any barriers to participation. “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.”

Responding to this statement, Zuri told The Vegan Review: “This is all performative and sounds better than it is in reality. Without changes to the structure and governance, hiring more Black people and POC is just placing them directly into an unsafe environment, and we are told to feel grateful for the bare minimum.”

The spokesperson said the society continues to work with EDI consultants to establish improvements: “It may also be helpful to note that its work with the ED&I consultants includes a review of the language used when expressing its commitments.”

Zuri said EDI is just a step, but shouldn’t be the end result, and “should never be weaponised to silence people whistleblowing about racism”.

“This issue is structural, and placing a quick fix on the lower level of this isn’t changing any of the structure,” they explained, “when current council are trustees who have voted against legal advice from solicitors and Charity Commission, voted against anti-racism training, voted against a governance review and been complicit in their family and friends publicly abusing myself and others for daring to challenge their stronghold and oppressive beliefs.”

The Vegan Society has clarified that personal details — such as the name of complainants — within the investigation report are currently considered legally privileged and confidential, and haven’t been put into the public domain by anyone at the society.

This article was amended to correct an error in a previous version that said the investigation against Masters and Zuri followed complaints by other board members. The complaints were made by members of the society, who Zuri and Masters have clarified were close to other board members.

Anay Mridul
Anay is the managing editor of The Vegan Review. A journalism graduate from City, University of London, he was a barista for three years, and never shuts up about coffee. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford Comma. Originally from India, he went vegan in 2020, after attempting (and failing) Veganuary. He believes being environmentally conscious is a basic responsibility, and veganism is the best thing you can do to battle climate change. He gets lost at Whole Foods sometimes.