Posted on November 19, 2020

Audubon Society Hit by Claims of ‘Intimidation and Threats’

Zack Colman, Politico, November 12, 2020

Following a botched diversity meeting, a highly critical employee survey and the resignations of two top diversity and inclusion officials, the 600,000-member National Audubon Society is confronting allegations that it maintains a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color, according to interviews with 13 current and former staff members.

Senior leaders, including President and CEO David Yarnold, deny the claims. But the discord has cast a pall over the storied environmental organization, just a year after the leaders of The Nature Conservancy, another prominent environmental group, were brought down for allegedly turning a blind eye to a culture of sexual harassment.

Devon Trotter, a senior specialist for equity, diversity and inclusion, resigned from Audubon last month, claiming that he had faced “intimidation and threats,” including from Yarnold himself. Trotter is leaving to work at an organization headed by his former boss, Deeohn Ferris, who was Audubon’s top diversity officer and whom he said was driven out by criticism from Yarnold and other superiors.

Trotter accused Yarnold, a former newspaper editor who has led the organization since 2010, of fostering a workplace that concentrates decision-making among a tight group of mostly white male allies.


Trotter told POLITICO that Yarnold’s behavior crossed a line when he suggested Trotter’s job was at stake if he did not reveal who participated in a survey that showed widespread dissatisfaction among employees. The survey was taken by 121 women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and early career professionals with the understanding that their names would not be revealed. According to Trotter, who oversaw the survey, 66 percent of the respondents agreed that “Audubon doesn’t create an environment where diverse staff can thrive,” and 40 percent said they have seen team members or superiors “stall, de-prioritize or ignore” efforts to promote equity, diversity and inclusion.


Yarnold rejected the notion that the Audubon community is unfriendly to people of diverse backgrounds, while acknowledging that the organization is on a multi-year path to improving its work environment to ensure everyone has the same chance to succeed and feel at home.

“Audubon is in the throes of growth and change, and we’re eagerly becoming an Audubon for all,” Yarnold said. “We’re several years into a deep transformation around equity and inclusion, in an environmental field that’s been white-dominated for decades.”

He said staff members have “multiple avenues” to report discrimination and that Audubon is conducting equity, diversity and inclusion training for all managers and staff; working to further diversify a workforce that’s currently one-quarter people of color; adding Human Resources staff; and expanding field programs in communities serving Black residents, indigenous populations and other people of color.

Yarnold said he and Trotter were “both trying to do the right thing” in their handling of the diversity survey but that as CEO he was “legally and morally bound” to address workplace harassment and discrimination, which is why he sought more specific information about employees’ complaints.


Audubon is being forced to confront its own record on diversity at a time when the world of environmental activism is facing the same pressure for self-examination as media, tech and other industries. The issue is especially sensitive in the heavily white conservation field, which occupies a cultural space prioritizing organizations that lift up women and people of color. While Audubon diversified its top ranks — its executive team this year expanded from seven to nine members to boost women and people of color — current and former employees say white men remain disproportionately in control.

Trotter outlined his experience in his goodbye email to staff, some board members and outside consultants. Trotter said he faced “intimidation and threats” from a “white male hegemony” for raising concerns to higher-ups about systemic problems that had been reported to him by employees.


POLITICO conducted interviews with 13 current and former employees and reviewed internal communications, video conferences, messages to staff and letters from staff to management outlining concerns about racial and gender inequity.

One employee reported being rebuffed by superiors after complaining about being on the receiving end of a racist comment by a contractor, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by POLITICO. (An Audubon spokesperson shared an email from Yarnold that disputed that account, in which Yarnold said the Society contacted the partner organization and that the person who made the comment was fired; Yarnold further discussed the matter in the email to the staff, emphasizing that employees can leave any venue where they feel “attacked or uncomfortable.”) Another employee said she began raising concerns about not having received a pay raise like her male colleagues, but was discouraged from pursuing the matter through Human Resources.


A crucial backdrop for the tensions at Audubon was a diversity discussion conducted in August by a consulting firm which had a past connection with Yarnold, in which many employees were offended by what they saw as stereotypes expressed during a slide show.

In a note to the staff, Yarnold and Hoeffner acknowledged that while Audubon officials had reviewed the presentation, no one in the organization had cleared the slides.

“As many of you know, about 60 Audubon team members attended a session last week to set the stage for a series of employee-centered focus groups on Audubon’s workplace culture,” the note, posted on Aug. 25, began. “Things did not go as planned. We’ve heard from many attendees who viewed the consultants’ slides and reported a litany of inappropriate and harmful stereotypes about people. Audubon staff were hurt and shocked by some of the language, concepts, assumptions, and the facilitation approach used by the consultants.

“There is clear intersectionality between gender and race and ethnicity that should be explored and that was intended to be an important point of discussion with KMA. But, in preparation for the introductory conversation, we didn’t take the obvious step of looking at the seminar materials – a mistake given the importance and sensitivity of these conversations. We won’t do that again. We are deeply sorry. {snip}”