Oct 3, 2022 - News

Lawsuit alleges "racial hostility" at Seattle nonprofit

A blue building that says "Phinney Center" on it with a tree next to the sidewalk.

The headquarters of the Phinney Neighborhood Association. Photo: Melissa Santos/Axios

The former executive director of a Seattle neighborhood association is suing the nonprofit, saying its leaders failed to address a "racially hostile work environment" — including at least one board member allegedly calling her a "monkey."

Driving the news: Dar'Nesha Weary, who is a Black woman, filed a lawsuit last week against the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA), alleging that the racial hostility she faced there forced her to resign in May 2020, six months after she started.

Background: According to the lawsuit, when Weary began working for the association in December 2019, she was asked to lead an annual fundraiser with the Woodland Park Zoo, in which "businesses could pay to rent light-up signs to hang in their windows that depicted monkeys." The longstanding event "was referred to as 'the monkey auction,'" per the lawsuit.

  • Multiple PNA Board Members and community members made comments to Weary during board meetings about her selling monkeys for the auction," the lawsuit says. "Weary was referred to as the "monkey selling monkeys," and, "Board members of the PNA referred to Plaintiff as both a 'monkey' as well as the 'black gal,'" the claim says.

Details: Community members also harassed Weary online and in person, with one person yelling, "that is the [n-word] they hired to run this place and now is going to run it into the ground," according to the suit.

  • Separately, a PNA staff member yelled at Weary and told her she was "not welcome in the neighborhood," the lawsuit says.
  • When Weary shared her concerns, the board president asked her to describe her mistreatment to the organization's board and its diversity committee — a "very uncomfortable experience" that made Weary a target for more harassment, the suit says.

The other side: Christi Beckley, PNA's current executive director, told Axios in an email that the organization "has made repeated efforts to work directly with Ms. Weary about her perceptions and allegations" and "remains willing to do so."

  • She said the association has "a vigorous commitment to its non-discrimination policy" and has documented its anti-racist efforts on its website.
  • "When someone (outside of the organization) sent an offensive email to two PNA staff members, both people of color, PNA reported it to the police as a hate crime," Beckley wrote. Board members also denounced the attack, she said.

State of play: Beckley added that the association discontinued the auction of the light up monkeys, which "had developed on a theme of 'escaped monkeys' from the nearby Woodland Park Zoo."

  • "PNA recognized the historically racist symbol, discontinued the tradition and the monkeys were never used again," Beckley wrote. That decision was made in 2020, per the organization's website.

What they're saying: Weary's lawyer, Lisa Burke, told Axios that her client wants to shed light on the kind of racism that has continued to pervade workplaces.

  • "Her point in doing this is so no Black person has to experience this harassment ever again," Burke told Axios.

Of note: Weary and her family now run Black Coffee Northwest, a Shoreline cafe which was firebombed in late 2020 and vandalized with swastikas in early 2021.

Context: PNA runs preschool programs, a senior center, a variety of classes and events, with a vision of building a "welcoming and caring community," according to its website.

  • It is headquartered in one of the most recognizable buildings on Phinney Ridge — a renovated elementary school that is also a city landmark.
  • The neighborhood is whiter than Seattle as a whole, with 76% of residents identifying as white and only 2% identifying as Black in 2020, according to a city analysis of census data.

What's next: The Phinney Neighborhood Association has not yet submitted a formal reply to the lawsuit, which Weary filed Sept. 27 in King County Superior Court.

  • Weary is seeking damages for lost wages as well as for emotional distress.
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