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GeekGirlCon supporters gathered at a previously scheduled fundraiser in Bellevue, Wash., on Sunday as word of the resignations spread. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

The sudden resignation Sunday of five volunteer staff members from the inclusivity-focused GeekGirlCon sent ripples through the Seattle region’s geek community.

The resigning members hijacked GeekGirlCon’s mailing list and website to announce their resignations and allege discrimination and financial mismanagement against the organization’s board of directors and executive director, Michele Carrico Domingo.

Interviews with some of those former organizers shed light on their two major claims: first, alleged discrimination against what they describe as the attempted removal of a male volunteer based partly on his gender; and second, bookkeeping issues that allegedly went unresolved and ignored by the board of directors and executive director despite repeatedly being brought to their attention.

GeekGirlCon Executive Director Michele Carrico Domingo is the organization’s first paid, full-time employee. (Photo via LinkedIn)

But in a detailed response to GeekWire’s questions and a statement shared on Facebook, GeekGirlCon’s board of directors rebutted those claims, stood behind the executive director and challenged the version of events presented by the now-former leaders of the GeekGirlCon operations team. The organization and the passionate community around it also put the spotlight on race, which some former staff members say was not a primary motive for their departure.

“It would be remiss to not mention that the accusations were made by five white people, three of whom identify as male, bringing these claims on a Women of Color-led women’s organization whose very mission is to empower and provide a safe space for geeky women and girls,” the board said as part of its statement.

Carrico Domingo is the organization’s first full-time, paid executive director. The remainder of the staff are volunteers who dedicate hundreds of hours every year to run the organization and its annual convention.

The resigning staff members include: Director of Convention Operations Seven DeBord, Exhibitor Services Manager Amy Gembala, Registration & Admissions Manager Rose Minier and Reaction Team Manager Josh Michaels. The identity of the fifth member hasn’t been made public.

Minier, a founding member of the organization and a seven-year volunteer staff member, told GeekWire that the decision was a difficult one but that discrimination against staff members and issues with finances drove her to leave.

One important event was the alleged discrimination against a male volunteer staff member. This event was described by multiple former organizers, who said Carrico Domingo, the executive director, wanted to remove the staff member in part because of his gender.

Rose Minier, a founding member of GeekGirlCon and a seven-year volunteer, resigned Sunday. (Photo via LinkedIn)

As part of this attempt, DeBord said, Carrico Domingo shared a letter detailing an intimate sexual encounter between the staff member and a former GeekGirlCon volunteer that the organization had received and dismissed months earlier.

DeBord said Carrico Domingo “printed hard copies of the letter and passed them out to all members of the Board at a meeting in an effort to justify the removal of the staff member by kink shaming them. One Board member said they should never have received these documents, much less been handed a printed record of them, condemned her actions, and promptly had the document shredded.”

GeekGirlCon Board Member Sharon Feliciano confirmed that Carrico Domingo had brought the letter detailing a sexual encounter to the board in a video on the organization’s Facebook page, but said it was not an attempt to discriminate or kink-shame the volunteer.

Feliciano also disputed DeBord’s description of the meeting and the board member’s reaction.

“The document was indeed very personal. The executive director brought it to the board because she had been recently made aware of its existence and was making sure that current board members were aware of a potentially sensitive situation. The document was only reviewed by three board members and all physical copies were shredded within hours of receipt,” she said.

“It was a first-person account of a former relationship and details were kept confidential to protect the privacy of individuals involved. There was no shaming or discrimination,” she said.

The staff member was never removed, but the organization changed his position into two “co-manager” positions so he would share responsibilities with another staff member of a different gender.

The former members describe the incident as attempted discrimination against a male staff member, but GeekGirlCon says it was largely a misunderstanding.

“When our Executive Director started at GeekGirlCon, several staff members communicated to her that this volunteer wasn’t meeting expectations in some job aspects. The Executive Director did not remove the volunteer, but instead created a ‘co-manager’ position that would complement the volunteer’s skill set. He was never fired or dismissed. The volunteer saw this as a demotion, which was not how it was intended. The volunteer was a valued member of our staff, and the Executive Director saw this as an opportunity to keep the volunteer on staff, creating a professional development opportunity, while easing some concerns,” the organization said.

It added, “The Executive Director did mention that as part of balancing that team that it might be beneficial to bring on a female-identifying person as the co-manager. The original volunteer was never released, in favor of a female volunteer or otherwise.”

 

One of the resigning organizers, DeBord, also said Carrico Domingo was placed on administrative leave after sharing the staff member’s personal information.

In a statement, GeekGirlCon said, “Michele was placed on a two day paid leave when tensions with the former volunteers were the highest. This leave gave Michele the opportunity to briefly get a break from a highly charged and stressful situation and allowed us time to look into the complaints of the aggrieved parties (which we found to be unsubstantiated). The leave was mutually agreeable between the Board and Michele and was in no way a disciplinary measure.”

The second concern the group raised was over GeekGirlCon’s finances. GeekGirlCon is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit.

Minier, one of the organization’s founding members, had been acting as the its bookkeeper since April and was concerned about several financial practices and discrepancies that she said put the organization at risk.

Minier, who works as a finance professional in the non-profit space, said there was no way for her to tell what was causing these discrepancies because she didn’t have direct access to the organization’s accounts.

“I spent months trying to get information out of the ED in particular, also the Director of Internal Operations, and eventually was able to get a hearing with the Board of Directors to insist that someone in the org HAD TO CARE,” she said in a message. “Errors in your books can lead to any number of problems with the IRS, including losing your 501(c)3 status. Even if they’re totally innocent typos. They have to be investigated.”

In an email shared with GeekWire, Minier described these issues to I‐Wei Feng, the director of GeekGirlCon’s board. The email was sent July 21.

“There are also several discrepancies between QuickBooks and what I have been given from Chase, but again, without the access I have requested, I cannot research and correct them. The discrepancies represent several thousand dollars, so they do need to be addressed,” Minier said in the email.

She also described asking for the information from Carrico Domingo and Internal Operations Director Jeanette Hotes-Aprato “multiple times” in July alone.

“Expense reports from the ED were also hopelessly vague,” Minier told GeekWire. “[The] Board agreed that her reports didn’t need to be clearer. If she ever had receipts, I never knew about them or could get them. Again, as a non-profit, you can’t just play fast and loose with money. It was very troubling, and it was insane to me that over months and months no one was interested in the alarms I was raising.”

DeBord, the former Director of Convention Operations, said the “questionable use of funds” that the former members pointed to in their resignation letter was the Executive Director’s use of organization funds without clear confirmation that it was expenses related to her work.

When asked about these claims, GeekGirlCon rebutted them, saying Minier didn’t provide concrete evidence that there was a problem.

“The volunteer who acted as bookkeeper brought those concerns to the board less than two weeks before she quit. She did not provide any concrete evidence that money was missing or that there were discrepancies. The Executive Director, the Treasurer of the Board of Directors, and the volunteer acting as bookeeper all have access to the financial reports,” the organization said.

The organization also offered an alternative explanation for the members’ concern over finances. It pointed to “a well known social justice and diversity focused group” that had been accepted as a workshop host for GeekGirlCon 2017 and had been offered an honorarium or speaking fee.

“The volunteers who resigned complained that the group was not geeky enough, and did not approve of the group’s tone, and suggesting messaging around white privilege in a kid’s workshop would be offensive to white parents,” the organization said. “The honorarium is the alleged ‘questionable use of funds,’ but that decision was not made by the Executive Director. Faced with the pushback from the former volunteers, the group justifiably withdrew their programming from GeekGirlCon.”

Community members have identified the group as Safety Pin Box, a group led by two black women that offers monthly exercises on understanding white privilege to subscribers. Proceeds from the group are given as grants to black women working to further their communities.

One of the group’s founders, Leslie Mac, detailed the group’s experience with GeekGirlCon in a Twitter thread.

DeBord said that Safety Pin Box hadn’t played a role in the group’s decision to resign and that some of the resigning members weren’t actively on staff when the controversy over the group took place.

The former members have faced an extreme backlash from GeekGirlCon’s community, which has largely seen their claims of discrimination as inappropriate.

Portland-based author and comic artist Audrey Redpath was particularly outspoken, sharing on Twitter what she said were claims made by the former members. She and many others in GeekGirlCon’s online community criticized the former members for claiming to be discriminated against when they are white and, for the most part, male.

Racism was cited as one of the factors in the resignation letter, but some of the departing volunteers said the main allegations and motives were unrelated to race. “A lot of what’s being published and messaged by GeekGirlCon is around reverse racism, which wasn’t at all the reason for the team leaving,” DeBord said.

On Twitter this weekend, Redpath quoted from what she described as an interview with an anonymous member of the departing group, in which she asked the person why their letter didn’t specify that they were talking about racism against white people and gender discrimination against men.

Resigning volunteers who spoke with GeekWire that said they made a difficult decision to leave an organization that they loved and, in most cases, had dedicated years of long-term volunteer work to.

“It wasn’t easy, it was very very emotional for everyone, but we knew that we couldn’t continue to prop up a con on our backs when fellow staff members were being treated so poorly. We’ve received an enormous amount of support from staffers, who know the reasons and facts behind why we left, there are others who are considering leaving as well, especially since GGC’s response has been more about character assassination and race, and not the issues brought to the board,” DeBord said.

Here is the general statement that GeekGirlCon’s Board of Directors sent GeekWire:

The Board of Directors of GeekGirlCon stands behind our Executive Director, Michele Carrico Domingo, and look to her for her continued intelligent, thoughtful, and ethical leadership. Michele is passionate about our mission and is a true embodiment of GeekGirlCon’s values. GeekGirlCon is committed to our mission to support women and girls in their contributions to science and technology; comics, arts, and literature; and game play and game design by connecting geeky women worldwide and creating community to foster continued growth of women in geek culture through events.

It would be remiss to not mention that the accusations were made by five white people, three of whom identify as male, bringing these claims on a Women of Color-led women’s organization whose very mission is to empower and provide a safe space for geeky women and girls.

We are aghast at the attacks on Michele’s character.  In the short time she’s been with us she has raised the level of professionalism in our organization exponentially.  She has introduced new systems and accountability, she has focused on diversity and inclusion, and she has navigated the often choppy waters of managing a volunteer-run organization with aplomb.

This is an addition to the statement read via the group’s Facebook Live video:

If nothing else, the series of events has taught us that GGC as an org, we as a board and our community have some hard work to do when it comes to being truly inclusive and supporting women of color in our community and in our leadership. We would like to offer our deepest apologies to Michele as well as a promise that we will work hard going forward to support her. We are willing to do the hard work to really embody our mission.

Here is the group’s response to the alleged removal of a male volunteer on the basis of his gender, sent to GeekWire:

When our Executive Director started at GeekGirlCon, several staff members communicated to her that this volunteer wasn’t meeting expectations in some job aspects. The Executive Director did not remove the volunteer, but instead created a “co-manager” position that would complement the volunteer’s skill set. He was never fired or dismissed. The volunteer saw this as a demotion,  which was not how it was intended. The volunteer was a valued member of our staff, and the Executive Director saw this as an opportunity to keep the volunteer on staff, creating a professional development opportunity, while easing some concerns.

The Executive Director did mention that as part of balancing that team that it might be beneficial to bring on a female-identifying person as the co-manager. The original volunteer was never released, in favor of a female volunteer or otherwise.

The concerns were brought to the Board of Directors who determined that it was a communications issue, not a staffing issue.  We instructed the volunteer manager to speak with the volunteer in question to assure him that this was not a demotion. We empowered the Executive Director to speak directly to the volunteer after his manager was unwilling to do so.  This took more time than it should have, and caused the volunteer in question some confusion about the state of his volunteering with GeekGirlCon. We value all of our volunteers and will work harder to make sure that communication lines stay open so that a situation like this doesn’t happen again.

And its response to the financial concerns that were raised by Minier, sent to GeekWire:

The volunteer who acted as bookkeeper brought those concerns to the board less than two weeks before she quit. She did not provide any concrete evidence that money was missing or that there were discrepancies. The Executive Director, the Treasurer of the Board of Directors, and the volunteer acting as bookeeper all have access to the financial reports.  In order to prevent financial mismanagement there are checks and balances in place including: requiring the Secretary of the Board to be present for any changes to our banking information, monthly financial reporting from both the Treasurer and the Executive Director, and check-ins with other staff members about their budget management and bookkeeping. We have also contracted with 501 Commons (an organization that aids non-profits)  to provide third party bookkeeping services this year.

When the former volunteer raised these concerns, the Board added another volunteer to the accounts at her request and invited her to present a financial summary at every Board meeting.  She was agreeable to this. With regards to expenses not being properly reported, the former volunteer offered to take on forensic accounting in order to determine the nature of the discrepancies. To be clear, we were never provided any documentation or clarification about any of this other than “I see discrepancies”.

It is our belief that the criticism of our Executive Director and finances stems from a programming/honorarium decision made during the planning of GeekGirlCon 2017.  A well known social justice and diversity focused group proposed a workshop for GeekGirlCon 2017. This group requested an honorarium (a speaking fee that is common for conventions to pay high-profile guests). This was a potential conflict of interest as the Marketing Manager of GeekGirlCon at the time represented the group in her professional capacity as a consultant. To mitigate the conflict of interest, the Executive Director made the GeekGirlCon programming team aware of the potential conflict of interest and empowered them to make an independent decision about the appropriateness of this group’s participation and the programming budget. Programming decided to accept the group.  The group is made of People of Color, is social justice oriented, and their participation at GeekGirlCon would have a value to our convention attendees exceeding the honorarium. The volunteers who resigned complained that the group was not geeky enough, and did not approve of the group’s tone, and suggesting messaging around  white privilege in a kid’s workshop would be offensive to white parents.  The honorarium is the alleged “questionable use of funds”, but that decision was not made by the Executive Director. Faced with the pushback from the former volunteers, the group justifiably withdrew their programming from GeekGirlCon.

GeekGirlCon, which started in 2011 in Seattle, will take place this year on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. The board’s leaders said after the resignations that the conference will go on as planned.

Editor’s Note, Aug. 9: This story has been updated since publication to clarify the issues and claims related to racial discrimination.

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