As nationwide protests against racism force a reckoning in the historically white environmental movement, the staff at one major green group mounted an open revolt against a billionaire board member with ties to President Donald Trump.
Roughly a quarter of the World Resources Institute’s 1,000-person staff signed a lengthy letter demanding that the management at the deep-pocketed nonprofit “embark on an institutional anti-racist journey” that includes rooting out white supremacy in the work culture, overhauling human resources practices, and paying employees more for spending time on anti-racism work.
But “an important place to start,” the letter read, was “addressing the situation involving Stephen Ross.”
The real-estate magnate, whose fortune Forbes pegged at $7.6 billion, “has not taken any clear steps to distance himself from an overtly racist President who has also encouraged the use of force against unarmed civilians,” according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by HuffPost.
Since anti-racism demonstrations kicked off earlier this month, Trump has threatened to send the military in to quell the unrest, encouraged police to use violence against peaceful protesters, and tear-gassed religious leaders to clear the way for a personal photo-op in front of an Episcopal church.
This week, the president’s reelection campaign announced its first in-person rally in months in Tulsa, Oklahoma ― the site of a 1921 massacre where white lynch mobs killed more than 800 Black Americans. The rally is expected to take place on June 19, the holiday known as Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of U.S. slavery. Black Tulsans called the timing a “slap in the face.”
“In light of President Trump’s disturbing actions and words, we have deep, ongoing concerns over Mr. Ross’s failure to renounce his support for the President,” the letter read.
A spokesperson for The Related Companies, Ross’ real estate firm, declined to comment on behalf of Ross.
“Leadership warmly welcomes the ideas brought forward in the recent letter from staff,” a spokesperson for WRI said in a statement to HuffPost, adding that it would “engage with an external expert (or experts) to help implement” steps to address racism.
It also said the organization analyzed employees’ salaries last year and found “that all African American staff are paid within established salary ranges.”
“There is absolutely no disagreement within the organization that we must do more to address systemic and institutional racism,” the statement read. “Regarding Stephen Ross, he has been a longtime supporter of WRI and has shown a steadfast commitment to our work and mission.”
The concerns about Ross are not new. Last August, nearly 200 staffers signed an internal petition demanding that WRI’s management hold an open meeting to discuss the role of board members. The petition came after Ross’ decision to hold a fundraiser for Trump triggered a national boycott against SoulCycle and Equinox, the popular luxury fitness chains he owns.
The move also followed WRI’s decision to quietly cut ties with another board member, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was named in the late financier and accused pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s child sex ring scandal. (A spokesperson for Richardson denied that the Democrat’s resignation from the board had anything to do with the allegations.)
“The concerns that animated the staff statement last August still remain today,” staff wrote in this week’s letter.
Ross has long had a visible imprint on the organization. WRI’s Cities program ― which aims “to make urban sustainability a reality” ― bears his name: the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Each year, WRI grants a Ross Prize for Cities to a business, nonprofit or local government that has brought “transformative change” to a “city’s economic vitality, resilience, environmental sustainability or quality of life.” The $250,000 prize was the same amount Ross charged for a VIP ticket to the controversial fundraiser he hosted for Trump last year in the Hamptons.
“While we understand the importance of funding to WRI’s fiscal health, we believe that key steps still need to be taken given Mr. Ross’s sizable contribution to WRI’s budget and his ongoing prominent association with the organization, which exposes WRI to significant and potentially lasting reputational harm,” staff wrote in the letter.
Yet, WRI’s leadership appears to have openly deepened its relationship with Ross. The nonprofit, whose most recent tax filings show revenue topping $140 million in 2018, recently accepted “a substantial contribution from Mr. Ross without adequately addressing the concerns that a significant number of staff expressed last year and without consulting staff in any meaningful way about the implications of this decision for our collective work,” the letter read.
WRI said Ross gave a “new gift” of $600,000 in March to beef up funding for the cities program.
“Ross has met with several representatives of our cities and climate teams” and participated in “regular communications” with staff, the organization told HuffPost. But employees said the billionaire snubbed a meeting with the staff from other teams after last year’s petition.
“We are extremely disappointed that Mr. Ross has failed to meet with a representative group of staff from across the organization, despite explicit indications from senior management that such a meeting would take place,” the letter said.
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