Five trustees resign from 'toxic' board of The Vegan Society

Five trustees have resigned from The Vegan Society, including the charity’s chair and vice-chair, describing the council as a “hostile” and “toxic” environment.

Eshe Kiama Zuri, Joel Bravette, Robb Masters, Michele Fox and Sally Anderson resigned from the charity’s council last week. 

Zuri, former vice-chair of the charity, said in their resignation letter they had remained at the charity for two years “despite it being a hostile work environment from the beginning,” but they could “confidently say that The Vegan Society is not a safe place for young people, for Black people, for queer people or for any other marginalised people.”

Former chair Masters, who served as a trustee of the charity for more than three years and chair since November 2020, described the council as a “toxic environment” in his resignation letter, and questioned what the organisation had witnessed if not “a co-ordinated campaign of racist, transphobic and ableist bullying against the society's youngest voluntary trustee”. 

In June, the charity published a summary of an independent investigation into complaints that Zuri had allegedly exhibited racist and discriminatory behaviour on social media, which Masters had allegedly “enabled”. 

No complaints were upheld against Masters and the vast majority of complaints against Zuri were not upheld, although the report described two social media posts Zuri had made as “unprofessional and inappropriate”.

The report did not criticise “the fact that [Zuri] expressed frustration, disappointment and anger with the Vegan Society in those posts,” but said it considered the language used to be inappropriate and unprofessional given that the posts could be related to the charity. 

But the report outlined a number of mitigating circumstances, including that the chief complainant appeared “to have been motivated by a profound personal animosity towards [Zuri]”.

This related, the report said, “in part to [Zuri’s] identity and protected characteristics, to their stance on a number of political and ideological issues and to [the complainant’s] friendships with individuals who were displaced from leadership positions by the election of [Zuri] as vice-chair.” 

The report also found that Zuri was “identified as a target for complaints” by the individual on social media, who “encouraged their followers and other individuals to search for adverse information on [Zuri] and to provide it to them and to complain to The Vegan Society.”

The report levelled a number of criticisms at The Vegan Society, including that the council took no steps to ensure that appropriate support was provided to Zuri or to ensure the confidentiality of its processes were maintained.

As a result, it concluded, information that should have remained confidential “was placed in the public domain and used to further fuel the campaign against [Zuri]”. 

The report concluded that the council lacked “the necessary mixture of skills, experience and knowledge” to hold constructive discussions around issues of diversity and inclusion and that attempts to open discussions were “met with defensiveness, hostility and anger”.

It said: “Horror at the suggestion that particular behaviours by trustees might amount to less favourable treatment or harassment because of a protected characteristic appears to have taken priority over the possibility that such treatment might have taken place.” 

The report set out recommendations for the charity including committing time and resource to rebuilding and developing positive working relationships between trustees, adopting a written complaints procedure for dealing with complaints against trustees and adopting an equality and diversity statement and policy for trustees. 

Former council secretary Anderson, who oversaw the investigation as chair of the charity’s investigations committee, described the council as “completely dysfunctional” in her resignation letter. 

She wrote: “It became my aim simply to ensure that I continued to serve in this toxic environment until the investigation was completed, and the report safely received.” 

Anderson said she had tendered her resignation shortly after the report was received but agreed to stay on as council secretary to help collate responses to the Charity Commission. But she added: “The validity of my resignation decision has only been confirmed during that time.”

Bravette, who was the charity’s sustainability champion, wrote: “I did not join the society as a member or a trustee to be belittled, demeaned, racialised, mischaracterised, publicly questioned because of my ethnic background, coerced to abandon my principles on justice for all, called an antisemite for recognising the difference between Jewish people and the Israeli state, have my lived experience ignored nor my professional aptitude dismissed.” 

Fox wrote in her resignation letter that she endorsed the statements made by her co-trustees. 

She said the “vitriolic and sustained social media campaign instigated against Eshe and Robb” had made her aware “that the board of trustees has neither structure nor the will in place to support trustees who become the subject of allegations”. 

In a statement published on the charity’s website, a spokesperson for The Vegan Society said: “There has been conflict among the board that we have been working hard to address and it is regrettable that they have chosen to leave the day before a planned mediation session. 

“We thank them for their work for the society and wish them well for their future endeavours.” 

The spokesperson said: “The society recently commissioned an independent report by Ijeoma Omambala QC in relation to complaints by members against two of the former trustees. We are seeking to implement the general recommendations to the board in the report as quickly as possible.

“As with many charities, The Vegan Society has a number of challenges that we must address as we evolve into an even more diverse and inclusive organisation. 

“This is something we are actively working on, supported by respected external ED&I consultants, and our commitment is to foster an inclusive environment for all of our staff, trustees, members and supporters.”

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