SEATTLE — Chris Charbonneau, a formidable figure in reproductive rights who worked for Planned Parenthood for nearly 40 years and expanded the Seattle-based affiliate across six states, including Alaska and two in the Midwest, has been removed from her position as the organization’s CEO.
The board of Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawaii, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky made the move last week after a donor this fall used a racist term in a meeting referring to Black people, and Charbonneau repeated the word while discussing the meeting with another staffer.
That much is not in dispute. Charbonneau and the board, however, have differing accounts of how she reacted to the donor’s use of the word, which the former CEO said was in the context of comparing the treatment of women affected by abortion restrictions to the mistreatment of Black people.
Board members Jeff Sprung and Colleen Foster, in an email noting they were limited in what they could say because of potential litigation but wanted to correct Charbonneau’s “more egregious misstatements,” said an investigation found Charbonneau did not admonish the donor in any way.
Charbonneau, who is white, said she recoiled and told the donor, also white, she shouldn’t have used the word. While Charbonneau has not been given a copy of the investigation’s findings, she said she was told by the board they found her account of the meeting truthful.
Turmoil in the six-state, 700-employee affiliate has followed, tapping into tensions over a lack of people of color at the top level of leadership, perceived microaggressions throughout the organization, and a feeling among some that not enough has been done around racial equity.
Before Charbonneau was removed, two senior staffers quit, including the person with whom she discussed the donor meeting.
“I cannot in good conscience continue to be part of an organization that fails to seriously respond to this degree of racism,” said Erika Croxton, then the vice president of external affairs, in a resignation letter.
Charbonneau, in an interview at the Fremont office of her lawyer’s PR firm and in phone calls afterward, said she was incredulous at being painted as racist for, as she described it, quoting what someone else had said, including using the words “quote unquote.”
“If I had to do it over again, I would not have used that actual term,” Charbonneau said. Still, she added, “I was astonished at the sort of cavalier disregard with which my 40-year commitment was being treated. ... It was step by step, the dismantling of my credibility.”
She said she was especially pained her ouster came at this “all-hands-on-deck” moment in the reproductive rights movement — with Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance as the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court considers a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy and declined to stop Texas from implementing a law banning most abortions after six weeks.
“This is a critical moment for the pursuit and provision of sexual and reproductive health access and care, including abortion,” a board statement said. “That is our work and our mission, and it calls us to center equity in all that we do. We are more committed than ever to providing excellent and equitable care, education, and advocacy for our patients and communities, now and into the future, no matter what.”
The board appointed Rebecca Gibron, who had been serving as chief operating officer and previously led Idaho Planned Parenthood, to head the Seattle-based affiliate while a national search for a CEO is underway.
As Charbonneau tells it, this all started when she and a Planned Parenthood “major gifts officer” were thanking the donor for a series of gifts over dinner a few months ago at Miaposto Pizzeria in West Seattle. The subject came up of Texas’ stringent abortion restriction.
Charbonneau said the donor voiced anger. “They’re trying to make women the new N-word,” the donor said, according to Charbonneau, except the donor used the actual term. Charbonneau did not name the donor, saying it would violate Planned Parenthood’s confidentiality rules.
Charbonneau said the donor — whose money was eventually returned — told her in a subsequent phone call the comparison was inspired by a book she was reading on racial justice. Charbonneau said she could not recall the name of the book, and did not know if it specifically compared women’s experiences with Black people’s.
During the dinner, the donor quickly said she shouldn’t have said that, according to Charbonneau. “No, you shouldn’t have,” Charbonneau said she replied.
A few days later, the gift officer’s boss, Croxton, called Charbonneau. “Something happened at that meeting,” Croxton said, according to Charbonneau.
To fill Croxton in, Charbonneau said she twice quoted the donor verbatim. “I considered it to be a matter of importance with regard to what the staff member actually heard,” she said, adding she was ignorant of the view that it is never appropriate to say the word in any context.
Some who heard about Charbonneau’s conversation with Croxton, and the earlier donor dinner, were offended, according to interviews with several current and former Planned Parenthood staffers and the resignation letters of Croxton and Chief Learning Officer Anna Kashner.
Charbonneau’s reaction to the donor and repetition of what she said “is inexcusable and unforgivable,” Kashner wrote.
Croxton, who declined to be interviewed, said in her resignation letter that not only did Charbonneau use the word, but she followed it up with “specific statements and anecdotes reinforcing her opinion that staff cannot tell her what to say when she is publicly representing Planned Parenthood.”
Charbonneau said that’s not true, although she told Croxton she did not feel a need to humiliate someone who already acknowledged a mistake.
Croxton went further in her letter. “There is a history of retaliation as a long-standing concern within the organization. I have personally witnessed Chris lash out at staff who raise issues of equity, including staff of color ...”
Charbonneau contests this as well.
Discontent over racial issues and matters of diversity doesn’t just revolve around the former CEO. Bre Haizlip, who worked for the affiliate from January 2020 to January 2021 as the director of equity, inclusion and community engagement, said she was brought on in the wake of a “catalystic event” regarding a group of staffers who got together to call for greater equity.
Haizlip, who left to run her own firm, said staffers were concerned about a “lack of representation, in terms of our workforce did not necessarily reflect who we serve.” They didn’t feel complaints were being heard or that enough resources were being put into equity initiatives, Haizlip said.
Microaggressions were a subject of complaint, she said. Two people interviewed by The Seattle Times, declining to be named because they still worked at Planned Parenthood or felt their new employer would not like it, said they had direct knowledge of such behavior, including people of color and LGBTQ staff being subject to more than usual criticism. The group calling for more equity also pointed to departures among LGBTQ staffers and people of color.
Han Nachtrieb, a former board chair and retired vice president of human relations for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said he interviewed a wide range of employees when he was doing Charbonneau’s performance reviews. He said no one brought up such behavior in the time he was there. He left the board about eight years ago.
He said Charbonneau herself seemed to be liked, but could be “incredibly aggressive in a positive, we-got-to-get this-done kind of way.”
Nachtrieb said Charbonneau pushed him to diversify the board.
Charbonneau nevertheless was aware she had blind spots, according to Haizlip, the former equity director. She was open to change and “put in a lot of effort,” Haizlip said, especially after the killing of George Floyd. Haizlip started meeting almost every morning with Charbonneau, Gibron and the head of HR.
But Charbonneau, Gibron and other members of “the strategy team,” those with “chief” in their titles, “flat-out said no” to Haizlip’s recommendation they appoint a chief equity officer to be part of the team, according to Haizlip.
Charbonneau said they had someone fulfilling that role, but in HR rather than on the strategy team.
The investigation into the donor dinner and its aftermath was conducted by an outside firm and found Charbonneau did not intend to cause harm, according to board members Sprung and Foster. It recommended education rather than discipline.
But a “select” group of the board initially handled the matter, according to a Dec. 6 email that went out to staff. The full board later “conducted interviews with a large number of senior staff ... and learned that a significant number had lost confidence in Ms. Charbonneau’s ability to lead the organization.”
Upon hearing of Charbonneau’s ouster, former board president Donna Kerr said: “I’m in shock.” A retired University of Washington vice provost, she described Charbonneau as “legendary.”
According to Charbonneau, 61, she started working for Planned Parenthood in college as a volunteer and was the longest-serving affiliate CEO in the country. She said she was earning around $350,000 a year, down from $426,000 after taking a pay cut as the pandemic caused financial problems.
Over the last week, she sent out a letter to friends and family giving her account of what happened. “I know a controversy like this could hurt the very organization I spent my career growing and supporting,” she wrote.