Last summer, as the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide battle for Black lives raged on, a different kind of revolution was taking place. Only it was not in the streets, but a boardroom. And like many protests in the United States last year, it was led by Gen Z and millennial employees — particularly BIPOC employees.
Recently, corners of corporate America have seen a slow but significant internal upheaval with young employees declaring racism, wage gaps, and repressive bosses unacceptable via virtual walkouts and digital campaigns. Thanks to the outsized impact social media has on all of our lives, no industry — from media and technology to hospitality or even wellness — is exempt.
As that change continues, the same young people demanding justice in all corners of their lives are simultaneously experiencing a mental health crisis. Crisis hotlines across the country have reported surges since the start of the pandemic and following the killing of George Floyd. States like Massachusetts, Indiana, Michigan and California have recorded spikes and a June 2020 study conducted by Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services showed calls to suicide hotlines were up 47% nationwide during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some crisis lines experiencing a 300% increase. The founder of Empower Work, a crisis hotline solely for workplace issues, told NPR in late March, 2020, that incoming texts and calls had increased 200% in the previous week.
All of this together created the perfect storm at Crisis Text Line, a global nonprofit offering free, 24/7 counseling via text message to those in need.
In June 2020, Crisis Text Line employees staged a virtual walkout, refusing to attend any work meetings or continue work that day. Former employees of both Crisis Text Line and DoSomething, a digital campaigning nonprofit for politically-engaged young people created and, for a time, led by the same CEO, took to Twitter to share their experiences from the respective entities via scores of tweets hashtagged, #NotMyCrisisTextLine and #DoSomethingDidNothing. Accusations against former CEO Nancy Lublin ranged from microaggressions to racism, favoritism, and overworking employees for the sake of the business.
For many close to the respective companies, the claims lodged against Lublin weren’t a surprise. Around the same time, the board of Crisis Text Line released a statement, saying they were made aware of allegations by an anonymous letter compiled by employees back in 2018. Claims included in the letter, which was more widely publicized in a 2020 story by The Verge, varied from incidents of racist stereotyping (that Lublin gifted a “PhD in chicken wings certificate” to a Black female employee at an office event) to fat-shaming (that Lublin considered offering a Weight Watchers program as she thought the staff had “too many fat people”) and finally, to Lublin’s penchant for yelling and banging on furniture during meetings when she was met with questions she didn’t like or if she wasn’t pleased with an employee’s presentation. In their update, the board announced that they had voted to terminate Lublin.
With an enduring pandemic, a potential mental health crisis on our doorstep, and young people continuing to demand transparency from the institutions they rely on, what comes after Crisis Text Line’s own crisis?
In a statement from a spokesperson, Lublin said she “wishes only good things for Crisis Text Line.” She declined to comment on specific allegations. Last year, after she was let go, a spokesperson for Lublin told The Verge that “many of the complaints about Nancy are coming from disgruntled and anonymous former employees.”
According to its website, Crisis Text Line came from “the rib” of DoSomething. As detailed in a 2015 story in the New Yorker, it was conceived following an incident in which a young woman sent a text message to an employee charged with teen outreach. Her father had been sexually abusing her, she wrote. With nowhere to turn, the staffer suggested RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and informed Lublin, then the DoSomething CEO, of the incident. When it remained on their minds days later, Lublin and the employee got to work on developing what eventually became Crisis Text Line, essentially a hotline for young people grappling with their mental wellbeing.
To the press, Lublin referred to herself as a “tech CEO,” mentioning how crucial data was in measuring the success of the company and citing impressive statistics regarding how many people Crisis Text Line helped since its inception.
The New Yorker profile noted the “merriness” of the then-shared offices of Crisis Text Line and DoSomething, citing the aquarium, lingering balloons, and a disco ball. It also mentioned that, of its 80 staff members, only 14 were over the age of 30, likening observing them — some without shoes — to watching kids work together on a school project. Employees Teen Vogue spoke to said there wasn’t a human resources department at either Crisis Text Line or DoSomething for much of Lublin’s tenure as CEO of the respective organizations and that Lublin, with her noted ‘make more with less,’ philosophy, seemingly saw no need for one, though that was not mentioned in the profile. (Many small companies don't have HR departments, and estimates vary as to when creating one becomes essential.) Lublin would serve as CEO of DoSomething until 2015.
Hiring young, idealistic people, often right out of undergraduate and graduate programs, was one of Lublin’s many hallmarks, according to former and current employees. A number of current and former staffers agreed that both DoSomething and Crisis Text Line having young staff members with a passion for helping other young people was an initial incentive to join. Many said it didn’t take long to notice “tension” once they were hired though — and not between staffers.
“She dismissed my concerns outright as not valid."
A former engineer at Crisis Text Line felt that Nancy hired young people without much experience in the workplace “because they could be molded and wouldn't understand that a lot of the things at Crisis Text Line were not normal, such as not having HR,” in that person's opinion.
Former Head of Training, Patty Morissey, described something similar in a blog post about her own experience at Crisis Text Line on Medium. In it, she described her team as, “incredible people, smart, hardworking, compassionate, adaptable and open to the wild ride that is startup culture,” and cited instances in which she, as their manager, “actively worked to shield them as much as possible from Nancy’s abuse and unreasonable demands.” Morrissey also claimed Lublin never considered her opinion in regard to promotions and special project assignments.
“The mentality and the way that they chose to lead the organization was one where: A. You should be grateful to be here and B. We made you who you are. We took a chance on you, like we're going to make or break your career.”
Some former employees note that there were trends in terms of whose careers Lublin was supporting. In Morrissey’s Medium post, she shared: “At one point she (Nancy) decided to create rotating leadership positions that would change every few weeks/months. The white women on my team were the ones chosen for those roles, overlooking the Black employees who I flagged as high potential.”
(Teen Vogue requested a record of employees who were promoted over the last 10 years, but Crisis Text Line did not have the information readily available.)
“My first red flag was in the interview process."
A number of staffers, including Black women and other men and women of color, say they felt like they were often reduced to their race or more obvious identifiers.
In an email exchange with *Kathryn, a former Crisis Text Line employee who identifies as South Asian, Lublin sent “#curry” in response to a business matter. Kathryn was offended, but presumed she was harkening back to a conversation in which she promised to take Kathryn for “the best curry of her life.”
Meanwhile, Japanese-American employees like *Eric and Adam, both of whom have now left the company, say they were repeatedly told by Lublin to, “open the Kimono,” in conversations specifically about user data when she felt they weren’t being transparent enough. The expression isn’t that unusual in business, but Adam was still uncomfortable.
“I remember gently telling her the history and connotations of that phrase, and how it felt to me,” said Adam. “She dismissed my concerns outright as not valid, telling me that she had studied abroad in Japan and she couldn't believe that I felt that it was racist. Then she used it a few more times in front of me.”
“My first red flag was in the interview process when she entered our first meeting speaking Japanese,” Eric echoed.
In an interview with Sal Giambanco, a former colleague of Lublin’s, Giambanco heavily praised Lublin, calling her “brilliant” and dismissing claims of racism, saying some of the other claims against Lublin are “unfair.” Giambanco added that Nancy doesn’t have a savior complex, but instead is perhaps too invested in doing good.
“In my work as a human capital expert, the issue that I normally face is not savior syndrome but founder syndrome, meaning the founder can't get out of the way,” he said. “I've seen a lot of social service organizations reach their limit because the founder can't get out of the way.”
By 2017, Crisis Text Line had become a leader in the mental health hotline space. In a New York Times opinion piece about the nonprofit, author David Bornstein reported that more than 3,700 volunteer counselors comprised the platform, and had exchanged 56 million messages — a number that was expected to double within a year.
“We’re in a growth industry,” Lublin told Bornstein. “Because pain is a growth industry.”
According to the active tracker on its website, upwards of 142 million messages have been exchanged since its inception in August 2013.
“Oftentimes our workload was so high, it's impossible to keep your hand on the pulse of 100 + conversations.”
Yet former supervisors and certified social workers made attempts to advise Lublin, who they felt didn’t have adequate mental health work experience, that the focus on growth was dangerous considering the platform was created to offer support to those in need, and caring for people in crisis required time, attention, and extra sensitivity — not only with regard to who was texting in, but the volunteer counselors on the other end. A former supervisor says Lublin pushed for volunteer counselors to take on multiple conversations at one time, even offering incentives like gift cards for pizza.
It’s worth noting that it's fairly easy to become a volunteer counselor. Qualifications included being 18 years old, passing a background check, two references and the company training course — roughly 30 hours of a variety of reading, quizzes, and testing.
Multiple former supervisors, who were charged with monitoring all conversations on the platform, cited instances in which Lublin herself logged in and messaged counselors personally to “cheerlead” them into taking on more conversations despite pushback from certified supervisors.
“Oftentimes our workload was so high, it's impossible to keep your hand on the pulse of 100 + conversations,” said the former supervisor, who’d monitor the volunteer counselors.
The former supervisor also claims that Lublin employed shame tactics like reminding counselors and supervisors that anyone waiting to be matched with a counselor could kill themselves at any moment.
Prior to receiving any training herself — which former staffers say only came after they raised concerns — Lublin would take on conversations with texters, they say. Employees also mentioned times in which Lublin would suggest listening to Taylor Swift or simply reading a book to texters (something they felt wouldn’t be helpful in crisis situations). One infamous conversation involved Lublin telling a crude joke to a texter who had taken steps to end their life. According to multiple accounts, the joke went something like: “What did the left butt cheek say to the right buttcheek?” The punchline, related to “sticking together,” to “stop this sh*t from happening.”
Meanwhile, Lublin continued to court the press, scoring profiles and features, landing notable investments from both philanthropy and technology heavy hitters and fundraising with ease. Celebrity connections soon followed. Some staffers noted that it began to seem these connections were eclipsing the work itself.
One former staffer recalled a trip to the Bezos Foundation in Seattle in which CTL coworkers casually sipped coffee with, “Jeff’s parents,” and a few remembered Melinda Gates visiting the office in New York.
“She made it feel like she knew the whole world.”
“She really made it sound like she could snap her fingers and that was it,” recalled *Hillary, a former trainer at Crisis Text Line, about Lublin's connections. “She made it feel like she knew the whole world.”
Hillary recalled a time in which Lublin emailed her a selfie of her, Malala Yousafzai and Yousafzai’s father while she was in London.
“Had dinner, just me, her, her dad and the CEO of Malala Fund who is now a close friend. Life’s good here,” Lublin wrote. When Hillary, a young woman also born in Pakistan, replied, Lublin responded that she’d try to arrange a time for her to meet Malala and her father, that is, if she “hadn’t met them already.”
Lublin also attracted public figures with more problematic reputations. In the wake of disgraced YouTube influencer Logan Paul’s infamous Aokigahara forest video, in which he filmed a man’s body who had apparently recently died by suicide, Paul was invited to the Crisis Text Line office for a meeting with select staffers, despite several objections from employees who thought it unwise and irresponsible to have Paul around. In that meeting, a staffer who says he had been pressured by Lublin to discuss his own experience with suicide with Paul, and other employees were forced to listen as Paul apologized about his lack of forethought in posting the video.
Despite internal unrest, recent volunteer counselors like *Steven say the organization has been overwhelmed since COVID-19, not simply by people seeking help, but with volunteer requests. “I think there's just a lot of kind of shared adversity and people wanting to help out or step up.” Since being interviewed, Steven has stepped away from his volunteer role within the Crisis Text Line.
The impact of current events continues to take its toll. Since the start of quarantine in March, company newsletters have detailed concerns raised by texters— from recent racism and discrimination reported mostly by Black texters to relationship issues to school-related concerns. Young people may need the hotline more than ever, especially as they return to school.
According to a report from Healthy Minds Network in collaboration with the American College Health Association, depression among college-age students was more prevalent in spring 2020 compared to fall 2019. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November 2020 that nationwide, the proportion of children’s mental health-related emergency department visits increased starting in April and remained elevated through October 2020 and for children ages 12-17, the proportion of visits was up by 31% compared to 2019.
“I do think a part of me staying — and what I've heard from a lot of my co-workers — is that a lot of people are really tied to the mission."
“So much of what made people feel balanced is no longer accessible to them. And for teenagers, especially like the social component was huge,” said the former supervisor who now owns his own private practice. “When one piece of coping fails, it puts a strain on everything else.”
Despite efforts to make the environment at Crisis Text Line better through actions like town halls, new leadership like top physician Shairi Turner, MD, MPH, and shows of solidarity among staffers, a number including Eric, an engineer with Crisis Text Line, ultimately have decided to resign.
“Even though it's a nonprofit and it's social good, we're still situated within the superstructure of corporate capitalism,” Eric said. “We can do as many reforms and little trainings but it’s not going to change.”
In a statement from Crisis Text Line, Turner told Teen Vogue: “Crisis Text Line is focused, above all else, on its core mission of helping texters in crisis. We are here first and foremost for our texters and are devoted to serving their needs, now more than ever, at one of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s history. We are committed to actively listening to and serving our community with intention and humility. Like many organizations, during the past year, we have committed to the cultural growth and constant improvement of our organization. We strive for empathy, inclusion and equity at all levels of our community. These values are integral to our core mission to support texters in crisis from all walks of our society.”
In addition to hiring new board members, the organization said they’ve also established an anonymous reporting system, taken steps to diversify their board, and added an array of benefits that include student loan repayment assistance, childcare support and a wellness stipend.
For some staffers who remained following Lublin’s departure, no change has seemingly been sufficient enough to give them more confidence in the organization. “Do I believe they mean well for texters? Sure. But are they truly doing what's right for their employees that immediately take care of said texters? No,” said Amanda.
However, some like *Elizabeth, a Black staffer who says she was passed up for promotions despite experience and many years at the organization, have chosen to remain with Crisis Text Line anyway.
“I do think a part of me staying — and what I've heard from a lot of my co-workers — is that a lot of people are really tied to the mission. We're here for a reason. Nancy was not that reason.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or having a mental health crisis, there is help available. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255 or using the online chat feature; or The Trevor Project (LGBTQ youth specialty), reachable by calling 1-866-488-7386, texting START to 678-678, or using the online chat feature. And, the employees at Crisis Text Line continue to serve their community — they can be reached by texting 741741. Find more resources here.
*All current and former employees have requested a pseudonym for anonymity
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Sal Giambanco currently worked at the Omidyar Network. A representative from the company said he has not worked there since 2018.
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