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Departing employee draws attention to systemic racism at PRX

Last week, Palace Shaw, an out-going employee at PRX, circulated a letter among her colleagues that laid out several details and reasons that contributed to her departure. In that letter, she paints a picture of PRX as being a workplace that made things structurally and culturally hard for her, as a Black woman, to feel like she had a place and a future there. And so, Shaw decided to leave, even during a pandemic and an economic crisis.

The existence of Shaw’s latter, and aspects of its content, was initially made publicly prominent in a thread published last Friday by an anonymous Twitter account called “freepublicradio.”

With Shaw’s consent, I’m linking the full letter here.

In the letter, Shaw draws attention to a disparity in pay and professional opportunity (she writes of being kept at a consistently lower pay level relative to other workers of similar roles and responsibilities, despite her contributions); an organizational culture that’s been specifically toxic for Black employees (Shaw notes an instance in which PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman touched her hair without consent, and further asserted that “each characteristic on the list of White Supremacy Culture Characteristics is fully expressed in the workplace”); and a resultant pattern in which at least four Black women have left organization over the past year. Shaw is the fourth woman.

In a statement sent to me, Shaw wrote:

What can’t be lost in any of this, is that I chose to be unemployed during a pandemic and economic crisis over continuing at PRX. That was an incredibly difficult decision to make. Since sending the letter, Kerri Hoffman has not taken personal accountability for violating me or reached out to me at all. Under Kerri Hoffman, a culture that erodes the well-being of Black women thrives. My letter is as much about her lack of leadership as it is about my mistreatment and the systemic mistreatment that exists at PRX.

The internal response from leadership has been disheartening, and I have only seen buzzwords used repeatedly as a result. “Taking things seriously” without responding to staff members’ concerns, “taking accountability” without apologizing or acknowledging the events in my letter as true despite the documentation. Without an apology, I cannot conclude that they are sorry for my experience, or the experiences of those who left before me. This letter is the tip of an iceberg of the ways in which PRX and its associated orgs (PRI’s The World) have behaved. This long standing issue has become clear through others coming forward to share their experiences.

My hope is that going forward the work that PRX does for “openness” and “diversity will be held under more scrutiny.

Late yesterday, Hoffman published a Medium post containing a message that she had sent out to staffers earlier in the day responding to what had been going on. “I hear you,” Hoffman wrote. “I apologize and take full responsibility. I am sorry my leadership has not matched your expectations of me. I pledge to do better.” She went on to lay out steps that the organization had taken towards greater diversity, equity, and inclusion leading up to this point, along with steps that were more recently taken to address concerns raised in Shaw’s letter, including hiring a third-party investigator to look into those concerns. The question of whether those steps are adequate or merely procedural platitudes can — and should — be debated.

This episode comes during what has already been a very fraught few weeks for public media, specifically around the issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Last Friday, Marissane Lewis-Thompson, a newscaster and reporter with St. Louis Public Radio, published an open letter over Medium that criticized the station for facilitating a culture of systemic racism, singling out specific individuals in managerial positions.

Though somewhat different in scale and severity, last Friday also saw the resignation of WAMU general manager J.J. Yore, which comes as a culmination of several months’ worth of internal turmoil and advocacy against the station’s newsroom culture. There’s a tremendous amount that happened within the context of this specific story, and I recommend checking out the write-ups from DCist and the Washington Post to get a comprehensive sense of the picture.

All these stories, of course, play out within the shadow of what feels like the ur-Story of this narrative thread: the revelations of New York Public Radio’s toxic workplace culture, which first exploded at the end of 2017, and whose battles continue to persist to this day.