Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly chapter leaders of Girl Develop It quit after allegations of racial bias nationwide

The tech nonprofit’s management has been accused of mishandling diversity and inclusion.

Inside a Girl Develop It Philadelphia course.
Inside a Girl Develop It Philadelphia course.Read moreCourtesy of Girl Develop It

The Philadelphia chapter of Girl Develop It, the women-focused educational tech nonprofit, has temporarily shut down after the chapter leader, two organizers and a number of instructors left the organization last week, its former chapter leader said.

The resignations follow a series of complaints around how the nonprofit handles diversity. Philadelphia chapter leader Suzie Nieman, who is white and among those who left, explained the decision in an open letter last Tuesday:

“With no substantive change, this organization will continue along the same path: harming the marginalized people that they claim to be supporting and devaluing the mission statement, which harms the entire community. I cannot continue to support or promote an organization that fails to address issues of institutional racism with the sense of urgency that these matters deserve.”, the tech news outlet, was the first to report that the Philadelphia chapter halted operations. Corinne Warnshuis, Girl Develop It’s executive director, who is white, said the nonprofit is currently working to hire new chapter leadership, but doesn’t anticipate mounting a new team or new events here before April.

This temporary shuttering might come to some as unexpected. Girl Develop It has earned praise for its programming, which aims to provide low-cost web-building and software classes for women and nonbinary people across identities. Last year, the nonprofit piloted a coding course in a Delaware prison.

Girl Develop It doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar national headquarters, but Philadelphia has been a popular base for members of the nonprofit’s small senior staff. Warnshuis, who was a student in the Philadelphia chapter’s first class, once led the Philly chapter, but became the organization’s first executive director in 2014. Under her leadership, the chapter locations have more than tripled. She now faces calls for her resignation.

These departures haven’t been isolated to Philadelphia. Chapter leaders in Boston, Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, and Oakland, Calif, among other cities, have also stepped down. Former faculty who have broken with the nonprofit say that national leadership hasn’t appropriately addressed a pattern of incidents that slighted black developers. Warnshuis maintains that there hasn’t been a pattern at all.

“I think the only real pattern is that we’ve been supporting women of color and supporting women throughout our history,” she said in an interview.

In December, Shanise Barona, an Afro-Latina Philadelphia-based former staffer of the nonprofit’s national staff, went on the podcast #causeascene, which often focuses on issues of diversity in tech, and said she felt “degraded” after making diversity-conscious recommendations to a peer. She sensed that she was being received as an angry black woman. She described how a coworker would speak to her in a certain manner that she didn’t use with other staffers. She detailed how a colleague sent her direct messages with articles on shootings in her West Philadelphia neighborhood, advising that Barona move somewhere more safe. She criticized the organization for not acting effectively in Minneapolis, where three black women involved with the chapter, one a leader, allegedly were met with disrespect and ignored when they called for better inclusion practices. One tweeted that this had gone on for over the past two years.

“At this point, I feel like working for this organization was eroding my moral fiber,” Barona explained on the podcast. “So yeah, I’m asking questions as an employee and needing to know what’s going on, but also I was living that experience that these women— this chapter in Minnesota— were experiencing with these white chapter leaders.”

Warnshuis said the organization is looking into Barona’s claims: “We’re taking [them] seriously...."

Barona said she left the organization over its treatment of black women and its handling of diversity-related complaints.

Some 200 past and present members, volunteers, instructors and chapter leaders across the country have signed an open letter that outlined grievances against the nonprofit. A wide range of chapters leaders stopped holding events in protest, sharing comments on the ordeal under the hashtag #gdistrike.

Aparna Joshi, a Penn State professor of management and organization, said the nonprofit’s troubles could leave permanent damage: “There is a crisis here. There is a survival question here.”

The concerns, while already serious, Joshi said, could be escalating more quickly through social media. The professor said fallout after even microaggressions can be polarizing: “You have people who are directly affected, people who want to be allies, and people who don’t think that anything is happening and that it’s blown out of proportion.”

Warnshuis said the organization’s commitment to diversity has been consistent. But some of those aiming criticism at the nonprofit say these allegations contradict the organization’s core philosophies, which they said only adds to the disappointment.

Warnshuis was cautious not to discuss many specifics, for legal reasons, she explained.

In December, the organization posted on Medium a public apology of sorts: “We are deeply sorry for our missteps as an organization when it’s come to issues of race, racism, and the way both have been handled. Our goal now is to begin the healing process by publicly acknowledging what has happened....”

In a statement Monday to the Inquirer, Warnshuis said that the nonprofit addressed what happened in Minneapolis and learned from it. She noted that the nonprofit has created a form for members to report incidents if they “feel unsafe.” She also noted that the organization, with 42 percent of its chapter leaders women of color, has been rebuilding its hiring process “to make sure we find leaders who are, first and foremost, aligned with our values.” It also wants to provide more training regarding diversity and inclusion during orientation.

Tracy Levesque, who is white and Filipina, worked as a Girl Develop It instructor in the Philly chapter for six years, said she has been heartbroken to hear allegations of racism in an organization she deeply believed in, where she had devoted so much of her time.

In January, the nonprofit had a town hall. Levesque listened in. She was disappointed.

“While I don’t think the people in management have an [intentional] racist agenda, there’s a lot of cluelessness,” said Levesque, who was one of the instructors to leave last week. “Good intentions don’t mean anything if you don’t take action when racist acts have been exposed in the organization.”

Billimarie Lubiano Robinson, who works as web development director at Hopeworks Camden and has been in the Philly chapter since 2014, didn’t want to comment on the disputes between the nonprofit and chapter leaders. But she said being an ally for mere appearances “is not the answer." Robinson, who is black and Filipina, said both sides could say less: “If individuals or organizations really want to transform, they have to commit to growth through their actions at every level, not just by dominating the conversation.”

In the current political climate, Joshi said, more people are concerned with being good allies. But it’s also human to want to take a stand for those who are mistreated, she said.

“It’s not just the targets who experience negative reactions, it’s the bystanders as well,” she said.

The question of when to use one’s voice, for women of color, can be “very tiring and emotionally draining," Joshi said. “Do I want to be that person who’s always mad at my colleagues?... Should I speak up? Should I not? Should I walk away? It’s a persistent calculus.”

Jocelyn Harper resigned this past fall from the chapter she led in Wilmington. Harper, who is black, openly criticized the nonprofit’s response in late September to the Minneapolis situation. Among her concerns was that post-Minneapolis, the national nonprofit’s inclusion efforts seemed too late and were too broad to address black women specifically, she said. As she read through management’s Slack discussions on the matter, she was livid, but wanted to sleep on it before she did anything further. When she woke up, she was still angry. She emailed her resignation.

“I couldn’t be associated with an organization that doesn’t take these things seriously,” she said

Harper called mass resignations “almost bittersweet.” She doesn’t think that folks really started to pay attention until white women -- who form the majority of chapter leaders -- began to leave the organization in solidarity.

“I’m glad that GDI is being called out and being held accountable,” she said. But she feels that the black women who spoke up, herself included, were “collateral” for the nonprofit’s recent lessons. “It always seems that change has to come at a cost to the marginalized in one way or another.”