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Congaree Riverkeeper fires key staffer days after she raised concerns of racism

Congaree turtles (copy)

The Congaree River. Photo by John Carlos

Columbia environmental watchdog group Congaree Riverkeeper recently suspended, then fired, a key staff member. The firing came just days after she penned a detailed letter to the nonprofit’s board expressing deep concern over the lack of diversity at Riverkeeper and alleged systemic racism within the organization.

Riverkeeper, a well-known nonprofit that advocates on behalf of local rivers and other waterways in the Columbia area, fired development coordinator Brittany Kilpatrick on June 17. Kilpatrick, a Charleston native and a graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law, had been with Riverkeeper since late 2017.

The firing came just three days after Kilpatrick wrote a nine-page letter to the organization’s leadership, one in which she called for, among other things, more racial and gender diversity on Riverkeeper’s overwhelmingly white, male board; mandated annual anti-racism and anti-sexism training for board members; training for staffers in unconscious bias and discrimination; better environmental representation for vulnerable communities; and more racial parity in staff hiring.

Kilpatrick’s June 14 letter — which she made public in a June 22 Facebook post, along with her subsequent termination notice from the nonprofit’s board — also pointedly criticizes Congaree Riverkeeper executive director Bill Stangler. Kilpatrick laments Stangler’s alleged “inability to engage with communities of color,” and accuses him of having a strained relationship with residents of rural, predominantly Black Lower Richland, dating back to a debate over a controversial regional sewer system proposal there several years ago.

Kilpatrick’s letter to the board also accuses Stangler, who has led Riverkeeper since 2011, of making a racist comment in a conversation with her about an interaction he had in 2012 with staff at the Islamic Center of Columbia. Stangler denies making the comment.

Kilpatrick’s June 14 letter to the Riverkeeper board called for Stangler’s removal from his director position.

But, if the response from the board — both in its termination letter to Kilpatrick and in subsequent conversations with Free Times — is to be believed, it doesn’t appear there will be any action taken against Stangler in regard to what Kilpatrick has alleged.

“Although all organizations have room for improvement, including ours, the board strongly disagrees with your conclusions that the organization, the board, and the Riverkeeper are racists and only interested in serving a ‘privileged few,’” board chair Steve de Kozlowski wrote to Kilpatrick on June 17. “We believe Bill Stangler has done an excellent job carrying out the mission of the organization by ensuring that our rivers are clean and safe for the use of everyone. Bill continues to have the board’s full and unqualified support.”

When reached by Free Times on June 22, after Kilpatrick went public with her concerns and news of her firing, de Kozlowski doubled down on his support for Stangler, and insisted that the organization is not racist.

Congaree Riverkeeper certainly lacks racial diversity in its organization. Of 10 active board members, nine are white and one is African American. Stangler, the director, also is white. The board is comprised of seven men and three women.

In a phone interview with Free Times, Kilpatrick says she has serious doubts about whether the Riverkeeper board is willing to really push for diversity.

“I brought this up very early on in coming on board,” Kilpatrick says. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is a really white organization. Holy moly.’ We had many board meetings where we discussed and discussed and discussed getting a more diverse board together. And that never happened. Part of that is because I think a lot of those current sitting board members have not done the personal work to understand these issues, but also do the self-examination required to look at where the work would begin in their own personal lives.

“They’ve got to do the personal work on their own and examine why they, personally, are living very racially insular lives, and why they don’t understand these issues in 2020.”

For his part, de Kozlowski insists the board does care about being more diverse.

“We have been discussing diversity within the board for a while,” de Kozlowski says. “The inaction has nothing to do with us not wanting to do it. Part of it is finding the right people with the right experience, and someone who shares our mission. We don’t want to just fill a seat to hit a quota. We want someone who is really passionate about the rivers the way we are. That’s been a challenge.”

The recent rift between Kilpatrick and Congaree Riverkeeper touched off in late May and early June. Kilpatrick, Stangler and de Kozlowski had a meeting June 2 to discuss concerns Stangler and de Kozlowski had with social media posts Kilpatrick made just as protests against racial injustice, following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota, began to gain steam across the nation and in South Carolina.

Specifically, Kilpatrick — who supports the Black Lives Matter movement and participated in the May 30 protest at the Statehouse — sharply criticized local nonprofit Serve & Connect, which works to build bridges between the community and law enforcement, for what she saw as a lack of action on that nonprofit’s part in the early days of the protests. She also offered social media posts criticizing systemic racism within the environmental movement.

“At that time, there was a lot of silence among progressive, white-run nonprofits,” Kilpatrick says. “I, however, was not silent. I was posting on my personal Facebook, about environmental racism, generally. I’m calling to action [Serve & Connect founder] Kassy Alia, because [building relationships between cops and the community] should be her job. … I’m calling to action and generally posting about environmental racism.”

Following the June 2 meeting with Stangler and de Kozlowski, in which Kilpatrick also raised concerns about systemic racism specifically at Riverkeeper, she was put on a paid two-week leave of absence.

Kilpatrick says racial diversity and inclusive policies are a problem across various environmental groups, many of which are largely white.

“Part of that comes in with so many environmental groups not being intersectional in their work,” she says. “They kind of have a single-issue view of what they believe environmental work looks like, and that’s almost always through the lens of cisgender, heterosexual white men."

“So you can see how that would create the perfect storm for being totally unbothered, as a progressive organization, by people literally protesting in the streets two blocks away,” Kilpatrick adds.

When asked whether Congaree Riverkeeper, specifically, is a party to that type of environmental racism, Kilpatrick says, “In my experience, sadly, yes.” She says Stangler and the board were “very uncomfortable” with her being outspoken about racism existing within the environmental movement.

One particularly pointed accusation Kilpatrick made against Stangler stems from an interaction the Riverkeeper had several years ago at the Islamic Center of Columbia, a mosque which is on Gervais Street.

According to Stangler, back in 2012, he went with a USC professor and a federal government scientist to collect water samples from a creek that runs near the Islamic Center. The trio cut through the parking lot of the mosque to get to the creek, and were approached by a staff member and asked to leave. Stangler says they left.

In her June 14 letter to the Riverkeeper board, Kilpatrick recalls a conversation she had with Stangler, years later, about the interaction at the mosque. She wrote that Stangler was “visibly and audibly aghast, angry, and irritated that he would be asked to leave.” Kilpatrick says that Stangler then said, “Maybe if they were nicer, people wouldn’t call them terrorists.”

Stangler denies saying that.

“That is not what I said,” he tells Free Times. “It is a misrepresentation of a much longer conversation that we had about the issue.”

Kilpatrick however, remains adamant that the Riverkeeper made that statement.

“He did” make the comment, Kilpatrick says. “I don’t know what to tell him. I’m sure he doesn’t remember because it was nothing particularly shocking to him. But, it was very shocking to me.”

The now-former development coordinator also highlighted in her June 14 letter what she notes as Stangler’s continued “inability to effectively engage with communities of color.” Specifically, she says Stangler showed “reluctance and resentment toward working with and advocating for the Lower Richland community.” She describes his relationship with that rural, predominantly African American community as “fractured” and wrote that Stangler is “openly disapproving of Wendy Brawley,” a longtime Lower Richland community leader and a current state legislator.

Kilpatrick wrote that Stangler is “seemingly unable to acknowledge the institutional and personal deficiencies that have contributed to [Brawley’s], and the Lower Richland community’s, deep apprehension toward him and our organization.”

Stangler and Riverkeeper were in favor of a push several years ago for establishing a regional wastewater system in Lower Richland, in the Hopkins area. The issue proved controversial on several fronts, one of which was that some residents there did not want to give up their personal septic tank systems in favor of tapping onto a county sewer system, a move that would have resulted in, among other things, a monthly sewer bill. Brawley advocated on behalf of the citizens who did not want to be a part of the regional system.

In a statement released by the Congaree Riverkeeper board on June 22, it acknowledged that wastewater system issue in Lower Richland was divisive, but denied race had any play on Stangler’s stance on the matter.

“While that issue was complex and divided some people in the community, it is not, as Ms. Kilpatrick claims, evidence of racist actions or attitudes on the part of the organization or Mr. Stangler,” the board wrote in its statement.

Brawley acknowledges to Free Times that she and Stangler were on the opposite side of the wastewater system issue in Lower Richland.

“I personally don’t think that the battle I had with Mr. Stangler was about race, I think it was about the issue of the sewer project,” Brawley says. “I think very often, though, that the impact it would have had would have detrimentally harmed a lot of people of color who could not have been able to afford to maintain their property and their homes that they had lived on, many of their families had, since Reconstruction. For me, I did not want to support that type of gentrification in the community.

“Ultimately would it have affected Black Americans, Black folks down here, more adversely than anybody else? Absolutely.”

In its June 17 termination letter to Kilpatrick, the Riverkeeper board expressed doubts that she could return from her suspension and work with the organization harmoniously.

“Congaree Riverkeeper is fully committed to the goals of equal justice for all regardless of their race or color,” de Kozlowski wrote to Kilpatrick. “The board made this decision because it is no longer tenable, given your animosity towards our organization, our board members, our donors, and our executive director, for you to continue working for the organization.”

Kilpatrick says she noted the almost cavalier nature of the termination letter, especially considering the laundry list of concerns she raised about racism, and that she issued action items for starting to fix what she saw as a toxic work environment at the nonprofit.

“I was shocked at what they were willing to put in writing in that letter of termination,” she says. “I think this just continues to show that they have such a lack of understanding that they view any kind of criticism as a personal attack.”

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