Content warning: workplace harassment; sexual harassment; institutional retaliation
In January 2019 Chelsey Rhodes, a former overseas worker of Engineers Without Borders Canada/ EWB (an international development NGO based in Toronto) interrupted the speech of George Roter (former CEO and co-founder) who was delivering a keynote speech at EWB’s annual xChange conference. Outlining her concerns on twitter, she made specific allegations of “systemic harassment, bullying, and silencing of those who dare to speak up against the status quo.”
Chelsey detailed the following:
“In 2011 at #ewb I was one of prob many who have been piled on, bullied, insulted, undermined, and pushed out of the org by the (all-male) leadership for raising concerns with, essentially, institutional violence and oppression…”
“This included serious acts of abuse by my then-boss. When I eventually reported these issues to George Roter himself, the backlash was incredible.”
Chelsey went on to discuss (read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 here) the details of EWB’s institutional “corruption, retaliation, and cover-up” presided over by the executive team at the time, which included Roter, now-CEO Boris Martin, and Mark Abbott. Chelsey alleges this includes the following:
-A biased investigator being appointed, Russell Groves, who was a personal friend of the executive team and former Director of Overseas Sending at EWB. Mark Abbott (who was on the EWB executive team at the time, and is not Managing Director at Engineering Change Lab) may also have assisted with the investigation.
-Chelsey was not interviewed for the investigation.
-When Chelsey protested this, she was told by Mark Abbott that the investigation was already completed and she had been notified of the results (which amounted to a short letter saying no harassment occurred).
-When Chelsey requested a copy of the investigation report, the executive team refused to provide it to her. She was told it was EWB policy that this the report was kept in the executive team. When Chelsey asked to see this policy, the executive team could not produce it.
-Chelsey has stated she is not sure an investigation even took place, or if an investigation report exists at all. EWB continues to refuse to show her this report.
-The person who harassed Chelsey (his name is Mike Kang- he now works on humanitarian issues with Reos Partners) was subsequently promoted by EWB.
-The executive team, led by George Roter, concealed their actions from EWB’s Board of Directors.
Following the investigation, Chelsey began speaking publicly about the organizational issues and this eventually led to EWB setting up a mediation in Toronto in 2013. This resulted in Chelsey being pressured to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in exchange for a small monetary settlement.
EWB’s Historical and Current Response
Chelsey’s public allegations are made after years of attempting to resolve the issue both privately and publicly, and she was generally met with dismissal, hostility, and silencing tactics. Chelsey was also subjected to continuous questioning of her credibility and character, often carried out by the leadership of EWB who attempted to control the narrative in their favour and maintain their innocence. Chelsey has been hearing second-hand stories about her alleged flaws and dishonesty for years.
EWB’s response to the conference allegations this January followed the same strategy: an announcement was read out at the AGM that Chelsey’s allegations were without merit i.e. that she should not be believed, that an independent investigation had occurred, and that the situation was already resolved. EWB then refused to provide further details (citing the NDA) and censored questions on the topic.
A closed-door meeting took place at the conference where Boris Martin (CEO), Prateek Awasthi (Director), and Miriam Hird-Younger (Board member) provided further detail to EWB members who were pressing for better answers. There are serious concerns that this closed-door meeting included: breaking the NDA, breaching Chelsey’s privacy and questioning her character and motives, misleading the members, and fabrication of details.
Why the Community has Lost Trust in EWB
EWB has ignored Chelsey and other critics of the organization, both historically and presently. Instead of addressing her directly, EWB has proceeded to discuss her character and nature of her allegations behind her back, including the Board Chair Cameron Charlebois conducting a slew of phone calls with Chapter members across the country, overseas staff, and supporters– in a rather bald attempt to avoid re-opening the issue. In these phone calls, EWB has made it clear to community members that the issue is closed and the NDA will stand despite Chelsey’s repeated requests to have it lifted and to have the issues properly investigated. EWB has told chapter members, fellows, and staff to refrain from discussing details of the allegations.
EWB has hired a PR firm and lawyer with charitable funds, and recently circulated several conflicting versions of a “Q&A” document internally. The Board of EWB has hired Derek Evans (former CEO of Cuso International) to conduct some sort of process which has been variously referred to as a “review” or alternatively an “investigation” – this remains unclear. Evans has previous ties with EWB and is a personal contact of the Board Chair, Cameron Charlebois.
EWB’s actions since January 2019 have been immensely harmful. EWB has failed to take responsibility as an institution by blatantly refusing to respond to someone who has disclosed their personal experience in public. The organization has failed ethically and engaged in victim-blaming by undermining Chelsey’s credibility in front of countless community members, and further isolating her by discouraging community members from directly reaching out to her.
EWB has repeatedly refused to address this and other serious issues raised over the course of years, leading Chelsey to feel forced to resort to a public intervention in which she had to share a painful and traumatic experience for everyone to dissect.
The re-traumatizing aspect of all of this—not just to Chelsey but to all the women and survivors watching this unfold– has seemingly failed to register with the current leadership at EWB.
These recent actions by EWB reflect a systemic organizational problem with misogyny and gender injustice that emanates from the leadership level, and has resulted in a culture of impunity. By continuously dismissing and silencing someone alleging abuse, EWB is sending an awful message: those who speak out will face retaliation, including being ignored, disbelieved, isolated, ridiculed, and discredited. This mirrors what was done to Chelsey when she initially reported this to EWB, and what is done to many, many other people who speak up about such issues in many other settings.
EWB must first and foremost prioritize the safety and well-being of its people, above its reputation. The leaders of EWB have created a hostile environment and situation of terrible unsafety for anyone to be able to report wrongdoing or ask for help.
As an organization committed to social change and ending poverty, EWB has pledged to confront injustice, uphold dignity, promote gender equity, and be transparent about their missteps and failings. We can no longer stand by as the organization tramples its own values, commitments, duty of care, and ethical responsibilities, and causes harm to its own community.
Several people stepped forward to support Chelsey publicly, and this has helped put pressure on the organization to act. Chelsey and Alex met with members of the EWB Board on April 6/7th, and again on July 6/7th (this time with lawyers present), to discuss the issues. The EWB Board and leadership continue to refuse to address these issues appropriately or fulfill our requests– which include an independent inquiry, public apologies, being transparent, holding the leadership accountable, and repairing the harm EWB has done to people over the years.
Please visit our ‘News‘ page for more information and updates on what’s been happening, including most of the Board resigning, and EWB chapters initiating boycotts of the organization.
More support for this project is needed, including from EWB members past and present. We are also seeking more information about systemic issues at EWB so that we can bring those issues forward and demand they are finally addressed.
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