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Crisis Mode

Employees at Crisis Text Line tried telling the board about a pattern of racial insensitivity at the company — but when that didn’t work, they went to Twitter

To Jo*, the question of whether Crisis Text Line should issue a public response to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was a no-brainer. The nonprofit, which provides rapid SMS-based access to counselors for people in crisis, had been trying to make inroads in black communities for years. But Jo, who worked at the company as a social media coordinator, found that her white boss did not agree. “It’s very sad, but I’m struggling to see relevance,” she said. “Wasn’t the murder 10 weeks ago?”

Jo explained that Arbery, who was killed while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia, was still a headline on every news outlet. Since incidents of racism and police brutality threatened their users’ mental health, the situation seemed wrong to ignore. The company was 42 percent non-white, and employees cared deeply about racial justice. “I think I just want to know why we would post this,” her boss said. “There are triggering things each day.”

Jo drafted a sample tweet: “Racism isn’t just a mental health issue, it’s a moral one. So are institutions that uphold racist practices. Our Crisis Counselors are here to support you and your communities. Text SHARE to 741741.” Her boss simply said “No” and noted that she was on the phone with the CEO. Later, she added that the post “slammed the police” and suggested Jo take a day off to “process her anger.”

To Jo, the situation was familiar. Crisis Text Line was built to improve the mental health of its users by giving them free, 24/7 access to crisis counselors in moments of depression or grief. It had won flashy endorsements from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and a multimillion-dollar prize from the Audacious Project associated with TED. For nine current and former employees interviewed by The Verge, however, working at the company posed mental health risks of its own.

There was the time that CEO Nancy Lublin voiced a black animated character also named Nancy in a promotional video for her new company — an incident employees called digital blackface. Or the time she’d given a black woman on the team a “PhD in chicken wings” for a secret Santa gift at Christmas. Or the two times she’d asked employees, one a black man, the other an Indian woman, to help her pick “black names” from a list of potential crisis counselors and crisis counselor aliases.

The pattern of racial insensitivity, combined with the fact that eight out of nine company executives were white, created an environment where some employees of color felt tokenized and left the company with their mental health feeling strained.

This perceived insensitivity also manifested itself in the product. If a counselor believed a user to be actively suicidal, Crisis Text Line would call the police. Each time the police got involved was referred to as a life that had been saved. Over time, this became an important metric of success at the company. To employees of color, the feature was woefully naive — and potentially deadly. “I thought we should rely less on police and also ask consent before sending them to someone’s house,” a current employee told The Verge. “I was met with what I would call defensiveness.”

For years, employees had tried to hold the company accountable, even sending the board a letter in 2018 detailing their allegations of Lublin’s behavior. The board never responded directly to the letter, though an audit was done in its wake. Employees wanted to see more change. In June 2020, they went public, sharing screenshots and stories of their experiences with the hashtag #NotMyCrisisTextLine on Twitter. The stories dated back to when Lublin was CEO of DoSomething.org, a nonprofit youth organization. “In addition to daily microaggressions, labeling staff of color as “difficult” while promoting white staff with less experience and paying them more than their BIPOC peers. #NotMyCrisisTextLine” read one tweet from a former staffer.

Within a week, Lublin was fired.

In a memo emailed to The Verge, a spokesperson for Nancy Lublin wrote that “many of the complaints about Nancy are coming from disgruntled and anonymous former employees who were fired for performance issues at [Crisis Text Line].”

For Lublin’s advocates, her immediate ouster in the wake of a Twitter campaign was unfair. “When this came out the thing that struck me was where is the process, where is the investigation,” says former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who knows Lublin through the nonprofit world and has never worked with her in a professional capacity. “Nancy has invested in and mentored and developed women and women of color in her multi-decade career. This is in very sharp contrast to a CEO who has never put women or women of color into positions of leadership and ity. To me the person you want to worry about is a person who has led organizations and never mentored women and women of color. That’s not Nancy.”

The upheaval at Crisis Text Line reflects a reckoning now unfolding at organizations across the United States as companies publicly condemn racism, prompting employees to open up about discrimination and abuses of power. On Twitter, these callouts are becoming a new form of workplace organizing, one where CEOs are held accountable through a mix of employee pressure and public shaming.

Ashley Womble, the manager who’d questioned the relevance of Ahmaud Arbery’s death, disputed the way her remarks were categorized. “As I am sure you can appreciate, I am disheartened by these false accusations,” she wrote in a statement to The Verge. “I have spent many years believing in and promoting diversity and fairness. I have worked to advance the services to all who reach out to Crisis Text Line, regardless of race, religion, national origin, or sexual identity. Crisis Text Line is for everyone.” She added that her comments were taken out of context.

Alex* came to Crisis Text Line after interning at DoSomething.org., a nonprofit Lublin led with the goal of helping young people organize through digital campaigning. Shortly after starting the full-time role, Alex was sitting in the office when Lublin came over with a spreadsheet of potential aliases for crisis counselors (counselors don’t use their real names on the platform). Lublin asked for help picking out “black names” from the list. “Honestly, that was the first time that I had ever been professionally shocked,” Alex says. “I am black but I didn’t think that was okay to say.”

Alex was beginning to feel that the platform wasn’t designed for people of color. Counselors, volunteers who’d gone through a 34-hour training to be able to help people in crisis, were predominantly white. “We’re trying to target black and brown people to [use the service] but they’re talking to people who can’t even identify with their situations,” Alex says. Alex created training to help counselors be more culturally competent and surface any potential bias.

Before it was finished rolling out, however, Alex claims the director of education, a white woman, paused the initiative, saying it wasn’t part of Alex’s job. “Honestly that was the biggest slap in the face,” Alex says. “They tried to attack the work I was doing. It led to me becoming emotionally detached from Crisis Text Line and the work. You cannot hire me to work on one thing, but then meet with roadblocks.” The former director of education did not respond to a request for comment. The Verge spoke to Alex’s former manager about the experience. She said it wasn’t uncommon for employees to put their hearts into a project only to have it disappear when management decided to go in another direction.

Racial disparities in mental health care are a known problem: a 2001 report from the surgeon general found “striking disparities” in access to mental health care by race: minorities have less access to care, are less likely to receive care, and when they do get care, it is more likely to be low-quality. Between 1990 and 2003, black people were half as likely to receive treatment for psychiatric disorders as white people with similar conditions, according to a 2008 paper published in Health Affairs.

The American Psychological Association has even drawn up guidelines for reform to make care more accessible. They include a recommendation for “culturally and linguistically competent” care, fostering positive relationships in minority communities, and increasing the accessibility of services.

To Alex, the problem went even further. The employee worried Crisis Text Line could put people in real danger by calling the police on black users. If ities showed up and found a black person in crisis, there was a risk they would use lethal force. The company took these concerns seriously, convening a team to research other options. But the policy stayed in place, and the company continued to partner with police forces across the country, including the New York Police Department.

In a statement, Lublin’s spokesperson said the former CEO was the first person to raise questions about police involvement, a policy that had been recommended to her by mental health professionals. “She was concerned about sending police into Black or immigrant neighborhoods due to the possibility that [police involvement] could put people at risk from aggressive police actions or ICE involvement,” the spokesperson wrote.

In 2018, Lublin was working on a new company called Loris — a for-profit offshoot of Crisis Text Line that used the company’s data to help customer experience agents be more empathetic. In a promotional video for the product, an animated character named “Nancy,” narrated with Nancy Lublin’s voice, describes the product and its connection to Crisis Text Line — a “24-hour support line that I created to help support people in crisis.” The animated Nancy was black.

Lublin asked an employee at Crisis Text Line, Jared Lyons-Wolf, what he thought of the video. He remembers asking her tactfully why she had chosen that skin color. He says she told him it was a character, and she wanted the video to look diverse. He noted this might be misleading. “She would kind of listen, and never learn,” he says. On Slack, Lublin said the video was “slapped together very quickly and it felt important to have diverse representation.” She added, “three white faces would not be okay with us.”

“This is an example of Nancy being criticized for trying to be inclusive,” Lublin’s spokesperson said. “When it was pointed out to her that the revised video was offensive, Nancy explained her intention, apologized, and killed the video, despite spending more than $30,000. It was never shared.”

Lyons-Wolf was also in charge of training new crisis counselors. For months, it had been a point of tension that Lublin had never taken that training, yet would frequently go on the platform and offer counseling to users. “Her conversations on the platform with [users] were absolutely horrifying,” says Lyons-Wolf. “The tone of her responses was so short and clipped. I think she thinks it comes off as conversational but it comes off cruel, in that context.” When she finally agreed to take the training, Lyons-Wolf was shocked at how poorly she did during the final roleplay. “I would have failed her if she wasn’t the CEO,” he says.

Employees brought up these incidents in the 2018 letter sent to the board. They mentioned that Lublin had given a black employee a printout of a “PhD in chicken wings” as a secret Santa present and said she “regularly refers to staff only by their identifiers such as ethnicity, religion, or sexuality.” (The employee who received the gift did not respond to a request for comment.)

In a statement, Lublin’s spokesperson explained that her assistant had met with the employee and learned the woman liked educational courses and that her favorite food was chicken wings. “Nancy apologized when she learned that the gift was perceived as insensitive. (Note: She was unaware at the time that chicken wings are considered anything other than a favorite Super Bowl food. When she learned how this was perceived, she was mortified.)”

The board hired Lublin’s executive coach, Whitney Hess, to do an independent audit. She met with employees one-on-one outside the office. Employees say they did not see the results of the audit and did not feel that anything substantively changed. When contacted for comment by The Verge, Hess said she could not speak about specifics due to confidentiality agreements with clients. She added, “That said, my work centers on helping leaders to cultivate empathy and compassion within themselves and their companies. I actively and vehemently oppose bigotry, discrimination, and abuse of power. I take every opportunity to dismantle systems of oppression and empower progress with dignity and love.”

The board would not comment on the letter, but in a blog post published on June 12th, they wrote that they’d been aware of Lublin’s conduct since 2018 and “were given the opportunity to take action, but failed to do enough.”

One of the few Muslim employees on staff who was involved in writing the 2018 note says she often felt tokenized by Lublin and singled out because of her faith. In 2017, Crisis Text Line was asked to speak at a conference in Europe on anti-terrorism, and executives invited this employee to go on the company’s behalf. She had no idea why the company was participating in the conference, as to her knowledge it didn’t work on anti-terrorism. As a member of the coaching team, she also felt unqualified to speak. “It felt like I was being targeted because I was Muslim and would have a ‘special lens’ about what was happening,” the employee says. Crisis Text Line would not answer The Verge’s questions about why this employee was sent to an anti-terrorism conference.

At a Wired conference in 2016, Lublin called the same employee out on stage, promoting her as a member of the engineering team, though she was not, and congratulating her for working so hard while observing Ramadan.

Despite her alleged insensitivities, Lublin was masterful at getting positive press, even landing a sympathetic New Yorker profile in 2015. At times, she also used Crisis Text Line data to capitalize on big news events, even when the data barely rose above the level of an anecdote. After the Paris and San Bernardino shootings, she briefed CNN about how anti-Muslim sentiment was on the rise, saying, “The number of conversations referencing being Muslim and feeling bullied, feeling anxiety, etc. increased significantly in November and are trending the same way in December.” An employee who worked on the campaign says that, in reality, the number of conversations that mentioned being Muslim and feeling bullied went from two to four. Crisis Text Line would not comment on this allegation.

When the company pulled data for internal purposes, the results could be just as problematic. Once, when a team was trying to figure out who the “best” crisis counselors were, the numbers seemed to indicate that the most productive counselors were white — and the company conflated the two metrics. “We don’t want to stop recruiting POC, but we should look into the underlying reasons why Black and Hispanic [crisis counselors] are less productive so far,” a document about the project reads. “If anything that just shows who we’re not supporting on the platform,” Lyons-Wolf remembers thinking.

Employees felt that promotion and salary decisions were also made based on likability rather than performance. One former worker, Nya Anne, says she was denied a promotion three times for “lack of leadership skills,” though she felt she’d worked at the level required for the higher position. Anne had gone out of her way to lead initiatives outside her job function, including implementing a mandatory reporting policy for crisis counselors that was used years after she left the company. “Sometimes I was praised for my leadership and skills and Nancy would say ‘I adore you,’ and other times it was I wasn’t enough,” she says.

A current employee who asked not to be named for fear of legal retaliation says she came into her position with a master’s degree, yet had to advocate for a salary of $55,000. “I’ve managed teams,” she says. “They wanted to start me at $48,000.”

Patty Morrissey, who worked at Crisis Text Line from April 2015 through January 2016 as the director of training, says she tried to advocate for black women on her team who were passed over for leadership positions. “The white women on my team were the ones chosen for those roles, overlooking the black employees who I flagged as high potential,” she wrote in a Medium article.

Employees say the experiences made them feel that, while Crisis Text Line was supposed to be data-driven, in reality, decisions were made based on Lublin’s whims — a situation not uncommon in startup culture. “People got promoted for reasons not related to their ability. It was related to likability,” Morrissey says. She noted likability was often linked to being attractive and white.

A current remote Crisis Text Line worker who asked to remain anonymous disputed the claim that Lublin could hold bias against people of color. “Nancy is a really tough manager, I’m not gonna lie,” she says. “She’s had moments but I’ve never known her to be outright racist in any type of way.” She added that Lublin has a type A personality.

In early February, the number of people texting Crisis Text Line increased significantly. The company investigated the spike and found that it was linked to a post on the website iFunny, which included Crisis Text Line’s phone number. Employees said the website was sometimes used by white supremacists and worried some of the new texters could have this affiliation. One white supremacist had written in saying he was in love with a black woman.

While the situation was being discussed in Slack, Lublin said, “If these actually are white supremacists, it’s a great opportunity for us to love on these hateful people!” The sentiment showed a clear split between those who thought Crisis Text Line’s resources should be available for everyone and those who thought serving white supremacists was dangerous and irresponsible.

In a statement, Lublin’s spokesperson said, “This anecdote has been taken out of context and twisted into something it’s not...She said CTL does not discriminate against people in crisis; the organization is here for everyone, no exceptions. Nancy thinks that helping – even loving – hateful people could cause them to reexamine their beliefs.”

Jo, the employee who encouraged the company to speak out in support of racial justice, told her manager she found Lublin’s note “outrageously offensive.” She added, “white supremacists aren’t white supremacists because they weren’t loved enough...they’re a group of people who consciously decide that people of color don’t deserve to exist.” Her manager reiterated Lublin’s message: “it’s important for Crisis Text Line to be a place for everyone — and that includes all texters. No matter what a person has done, when they are coming to us for support, we support them.” Jo told her this was hurtful to victims of hate. Her boss responded that the “tone wasn’t coming off well via Slack,” and shut down the conversation.

Lublin later apologized for her remark, saying it had been insensitive. To employees, this was part of a pattern of behavior in which Lublin would make an offensive comment and then beg for forgiveness from non-white workers. Not everyone thought she was being purposefully harmful. But even those who said she may have meant well conceded that the result of her repeated obliviousness could be a strain on their mental health.

Years before, after two women had spoken up in agreement in a meeting, Lublin said “Asian women for the win!” which made both people uncomfortable. Lublin later followed up in a Slack message, apologizing to one of the women and asking how to be more “culturally sensitive.” The two went to coffee and discussed — a productive conversation that none the less felt burdensome to the worker. She told The Verge, “If I had to compare Nancy to anyone it would be Michael Scott from The Office, but in a really monster-like way. Michael Scott was not mean.”

Bea Arthur, a therapist and entrepreneur who met Lublin through a networking group seven years ago, said that while Lublin can be intense, she doesn’t see her as racially insensitive. “I can see a situation where she’d hurt somebody’s feelings but I don’t think it’s because they’re black or brown,” she says. Arthur added that Lublin has always championed her work and introduced her to people in the tech community. “I’ve never worked with Nancy so it might be a different dynamic, but she’s looked out for me before Black Lives Matter when she really didn’t have to,” she says.

The shooting of Ahmaud Arbery was not the first time Lublin had been asked to do more to support the black community. As CEO of DoSomething.org, she hired a woman named Camonghne Felix to head up racial justice initiatives. Felix had studied critical race theory and had deep ties to the Black Lives Matter movement.

From the beginning, however, Felix worried that she was hired to be Lublin’s token — not to implement real change. “She would tell everyone we have this new black girl, she’s so pretty,” Felix says.

In 2015, when an avowed white supremacist murdered nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, Felix pushed Lublin to make a public statement and invest more in black communities. Lublin wanted to poll the DoSomething membership base, which skewed white, about how they felt in the wake of the shooting. “I spoke and said ‘as the racial justice campaign lead, it feels really important that we talk about how we will invest in black communities moving forward, and we’re not just polling white people about how they feel about black people being killed.’ It wasn’t a nice thing to say but it wasn’t a nice moment.” This experience was corroborated with another former worker who was present during the exchange.

After the meeting, Lublin told Felix she was fired.

Lublin was let go in the wake of the allegations about racial insensitivity and the Twitter campaign of unhappy workers. Womble was placed on administrative leave. In a blog post, Crisis Text Line’s board admitted the company “is not the safe and welcoming place it should be” and vowed to take anti-racist trainings.

The board’s swift response allowed for two narratives to emerge. Lublin’s friends and advocates saw a 25-year career up in flames without a thorough investigation. While such an investigation might not have saved Lublin’s reputation, it could have quelled allegations about a disgruntled Twitter mob. Her advocates, who The Verge interviewed at the request of her spokesperson, weren’t asking for her to be exonerated. They just wanted some kind of process.

But current and former employees say they’d tried to go through the typical channels and felt their concerns had largely been ignored. Now, a boss who they felt had been cruel to them was leaving, and they’d made it happen on Twitter.

Crisis Text Line would not answer any questions about specific allegations outlined in this article. In a statement emailed to The Verge, the board wrote:

For nearly seven years, Crisis Text Line has helped over 2 million people in their most vulnerable moments. Our focus remains to ensure the mission of Crisis Text Line is always at the forefront of what we do. The recent changes announced last week are the first in a series of steps we will take to ensure our employees and Crisis Counselors are all able to do their best work. We are dedicated to collaborating with staff to ensure that Crisis Text Line has a safe, inclusive, and empowering work environment, and continues to improve as we move forward.

*Pseudonyms were used for one former employee and one current employee to protect their anonymity for fear of professional retaliation.

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