As of today, January 10, 2020, here’s where we are with the implosion of RWA:
- Damon Suede has (finally) resigned...
- after the recall petition filed by C. Chilove, the President of CIMRWA, Laurel Cremant, President-Elect, and Diana Neal, Treasurer, was certified and
- after every major publisher pulled out of RWA Nationals
- Executive Director Carol Ritter also resigned, except according to RWA’s January 9 statement, she’s staying on to assist with transition to new leadership.
Overall, to some extent, it seems a growing pressure has finally released a bit.
That pressure didn’t need to build as much as it did. All of this, from the ethics censure of Courtney Milan to every instance of discrimination and occlusion could have been addressed two weeks ago. So things are sort of resolved: we got the first thing we asked for (repeatedly) which was that Suede step down and the leadership take some responsibility for the mess. They sort of did, and I think that is part of what makes this semi-resolution so unsatisfying for me.
There’s a lot of “sort of” in the RWA statement, too. There’s the continued presence of many of the people who contributed to the mess in the first place, such as remaining board members who were appointed by Suede, coupled with the onomatopology (term coined by author NPR host Linda Holmes) which doesn’t do nearly enough to address the valid concerns of the membership. I’m exhausted from mishegas that didn’t need to become as bad as it did, and dispirited as I ponder the next step.
Also: it is a lot easier to convince a publisher NOT to spend money than it is to convince them to spend money. So the loss of publisher participation and sponsorship is a BFD to the conference, the organization, and the future of writers who relied on RWA’s advocacy on their behalf when dealing with those same publishers.
TL;DR: still a big, big mess.
So. What’s next? The big question!
Where does RWA go from here?
Disclaimer: I do not have an answer. Sorry. While I enjoy a satisfying resolution as much the next reader, I don’t know what will happen. I’m not on the RWA board, and I’m a member existing in the weird professional space of author/also reviewer/kinda sometimes press. So my perspective is skewed a bit.
However, one thing that has happened as I’ve grown older and had myriad professional responsibilities is that I have a lot more experience in working with and for nonprofits, and know a lot of people who do that work in various fields.
And while discussing the destruction of RWA’s reputation over the past two weeks with people who aren’t part of the community, I was asked this question: Who does the organization serve?
That question is referenced in the RWA onomatopology released yesterday:
We know we have a lot more work to do to restore the trust we have lost – and we are going to do whatever it takes to get there so that we can focus on the mission of this organization: to promote the professional and common business interests of romance writers. Our goal is to ensure the successful future of this association so it can be an even stronger, better and more inclusive professional home and advocate for romance authors.
We hope you will join us – collaboratively and productively – in rebuilding an RWA that serves its diverse and talented members well into the future. We believe this community is worth saving. (Emphasis mine.)
I see a very large and tangled problem with that goal, to rebuild RWA into a “professional home and advocate for romance authors…that serves its diverse and talented members.”
Whom does RWA serve specifically?
“Diverse and talented romance authors” is not clear enough as a definition.
Is RWA serving current members, or does it wish to serve potential new or returning members?
Is RWA serving the membership paid up currently or is the organization trying to make the community and culture more welcoming for those who aren’t yet members, and those who left and may return?
(NB: I just wrote “membershit” as a typo and I can’t tell you how tempted I was to keep it.)
Whom does RWA serve?
Identifying the audience isn’t just for writing; nonprofits have to figure out their audience or community. And identifying that community is as difficult as it is to change the community being served, especially when an organization must change to survive.
Add to that question the following: the current members are the ones who have funded what presently exists. Future members aren’t members, so they haven’t paid dues. Former members who may have left because they disagreed with the way the organization was run? Same thing. The past and present are funded by the current members, who also want to dictate the future.
In other words, if an organization wants to change, current members often represent the past, the status quo, or perhaps the opposite of that change.
People who aren’t members, and a portion of the current membership, might represent the future, the wished-for changes, the possibility that hasn’t happened yet.
Setting aside the question of leadership for a moment (and again, the current RWA board should be removed and re-elected in its entirety) it’s important to ask over and over: whom does this organization serve?
Who is the priority?
Because it cannot be both.
If RWA serves the current membership of RWA, well, that membership contains a substantial number of people who:
- openly embrace and promote racist ideologies
- post on RWA Facebook pages and in internal message boards about their homophobia and racist views on people of color
- write transphobic and racist articles for and letters to the Romance Writers Report
- …and I could keep going but it’s depressing.
A substantial part of the current membership of RWA is a substantial part of the problem with RWA.
If the organization wants to serve any marginalized writers, it can’t also serve that portion of the current membership. It’s impossible. One side has demonstrated in PAN forums, email messages, and social media posts that it refuses to recognize the humanity of the other, and refuses to recognize their culpability in maintaining a White supremacist, classist, heteronormative, racist culture inside RWA. Nor can it commit to changing that culture.
The organization also can’t serve marginalized writers if the leadership has a documented history of not acknowledging ethics complaints from marginalized individuals, and of publishing and allowing screeds against those individuals in print and online. RWA can’t serve anyone if the organization doesn’t fully reveal what happened in the specific case of the ethics complaint and process against Courtney Milan, and what happened to the complaints from every writer who has reported a problem.
RWA can’t maintain its current membership nor its leadership and at the same time say it’s going to rebuild. Rebuilding requires people in leadership positions who are trusted by current and prospective members. And it requires trust in fellow members of the community.
As Olivia Waite and others have pointed out, the January 9 statement from RWA was a word assemblage that scarcely resembled the appropriate level of apology, acknowledgement, and intent to act. It lists as next steps several actions they’ve already performed multiple times. More consultants, more town halls, more discussions are not going to fix RWA.
If RWA wants to rebuild, the organization has to decide who it serves. And as Audre Lorde wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
RWA has demonstrated over the past two weeks, and the past several decades, with many examples, who it has NOT served, including but not limited to:
- Black writers
- South Asian writers
- Asian writers
- Latinx writers
- Disabled writers
- Neurodivergent writers
- Jewish writers
- Muslim writers
- Queer Writers
- Nonbinary writers
- Transgender writers
- Multiracial writers
- Native and Indigenous writers
Who has RWA protected and served?
- White writers
- Christian writers
- Heterosexual writers
- Cis-gendered writers
So who is RWA going to serve now?
As I said, I don’t know the answer to the question. But I do have requests for clarity regarding the January 9 statement.
“We hope you will join us in rebuilding RWA”
Rebuild what, exactly? Rebuild what and for whom? Rebuild the racist, discriminatory parts with additional discussions and consultants? If the past two weeks have partially dismantled (if not destroyed) RWA’s reputation and standing, what will we rebuild, if we rebuild with what’s left? Is there a foundation worth saving? I don’t think so. I think it’s got mold, termites, and asbestos beyond remediation.
“We believe this community is worth saving.”
Which community, specifically?
The community which had to fight to get RWA to respond appropriately to egregious abuses of power? That community isn’t in danger. It demonstrated its strength already.
The community that made so many people feel unsafe and unwelcome? That community has made it clear that RWA can’t serve everyone.
RWA can’t serve a large portion of its current membership and have a future that includes marginalized writers. Genuine change is not possible if the organization can’t identify and articulate who it serves and prioritizes, and then address and rectify the harm it has done.
In the absence of a clear statement of who RWA serves, it is left to the individual members, current, returning, or new, to ask who RWA serves, and if RWA serves them.