Update: This article has been updated with new signatories, with over 100 individuals adding their voice to the collective. On Friday, July 27 at 5:00 pm, Executive Director of Love City Strong, Meaghan Enright, announced on a Facebook post (of a St. John resident set to public) that Jeff Quinlan resigned from Love City Strong. This open letter was already under review by State of the Territory News at the time of announcement. The open letter is presented here in its original form. We appreciate this step in the right direction and would like to see Love for Love City follow suit. We look forward to responses from Love City Strong and Love for Love City about the rest of our concerns. — Signatories
Disasters and subsequent recovery projects can widen inequality gaps and displace vulnerable people. This has been evident in the US Virgin islands post-hurricanes Irma and Maria, and especially on St. John. Both the disaster and the recovery planning process can benefit some and harm others, or as the National Center for Disaster Preparedness warns, “It is a cruel fact: disasters discriminate.” What we see on St. John in the post-storm recovery process are organizations that appear discriminatory in leadership and management choices, thereby creating a divisive environment instead of an inclusive one that is welcoming to all island residents. The organizations have also often ignored or minimized important conversations about inequitable power dynamics that are part of the island’s disaster recovery process. We can do better than this.
One key concern is who leads and manages disaster recovery organizations. On St. John, almost two years after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the long-term recovery organizations created post-storms are not inclusive enough of St. John’s diverse populations. Why is that? At Love City Strong (LCS), for example, the management staff is White and comprised entirely of people who are not from St. John, the US Virgin Islands, or the larger Caribbean. While its Executive Board of Directors and Go Team are more diverse, the organization’s structure has some troubling racist and colonial power dynamics. Without question the optics of White American Management and a primarily Afro Caribbean Go Team are unsavory. The organization’s hiring practices appear to overlook qualified ancestral and generational Virgin Islanders who are capable of filling leadership and management positions. The same dynamic appears to be true at Love for Love City (LFLC), Kenny Chesney’s disaster relief fund for St. John and other islands affected by the storms; the leadership is predominantly White and continental American.
It seems there is little room for people from the Virgin Islands or other Caribbean islands to join in the management of these organizations. There is considerable overlap between LCS and LFLC, meaning fewer available positions. For example, John McInnis is Co-Chair of the Executive Board of Directors at LCS and serves as Director of LFLC. Jeff Quinlan, Chesney’s ‘man on the ground’ on St. John, is a staff member at LCS. Furthermore, LCS’s Executive Director Meaghan Enright was previously the community relations person for Chesney’s foundation before she was director of LCS. In an environmentally just recovery, the management team and board members of critical relief organizations will be culturally sensitive, knowledgeable about the VI and its people, and appropriately qualified to recognize the relationship between inequality and vulnerability in disaster areas. This means a more diverse staff that is representative of the island’s population.
At times, we may be inclined to overlook these issues and focus on the positive impact of the groups’ initiatives. Certainly, the relief efforts are appreciated, as are the tireless efforts of Virgin Islanders who provide relief to their community. But we need to resist the inclination to focus only on the positive. Instead, we need to focus on the entire context of the situation, and call for a pathway to resilience that is rooted in environmental justice. “Doing recovery differently means: 1) having a clear sense of how race, class, and gender are already embedded in our recovery practices; 2) performing ongoing racial, economic, and gendered audits of our recovery activity; 3) and trading in some of the expediency that characterizes recovery efforts for a commitment to performing them more justly, as social movement scholar Rachel Luft (Seattle U) argues.
Over the past week, we witnessed a particularly striking example of this problematic dynamic play out on social media. It came in the midst of us watching – with great respect – the protests led by our friends, neighbors, and cousins in Puerto Rico calling for the resignation of Gov Ricky Roselló. We celebrate with them that Roselló will step down on August 2nd.
While the protests focused on corruption within the governor’s administration and leaked texts revealing his disdain for many of the people who elected him, we also know this discontent is steeped in a centuries-long history of colonialism on the island of Borinquen/Puerto Rico. It was no surprise to see Puerto Rican protestors raising this point. It was also not a surprise to see a St. John resident re-post (publicly) an image of a protestor calling for decolonization, and, encouragingly, seeking solidarity among the other U.S. territories in the Caribbean and Pacific. What followed, though, was disturbing. An employee of Love City Strong, Jeff Quinlan, posted this in response:
While some Virgin Islanders may find themselves asking similar questions about how the territory would survive a federal pullout in the short-term, we certainly do not need an employee of Love City Strong (who, as a reminder, is also the organization’s liaison to Kenny Chesney’s Love for Love City) presenting such important discussions in a crass and disrespectful way. He ignores our long and ongoing history of advancing our self-determination, nastily attacks our friends and family in Puerto Rico, and crudely sows division on one of the most important issues that face us as Virgin Islanders. When challenged, Mr. Quinlan gave this response:
As our neighbors in Puerto Rico have and continue to show us, we can not stand for disrespect or arrogance. Mr. Quinlan’s comments display a judgmental attitude that is all too familiar for those of us from the Virgin Islands. In particular, his dismissal of the idea that the Virgin Islands could ever function without “outside help” displays a paternalistic and condescending lack of faith in the territory’s government, and indeed people.
His comments also overlook the processes by which colonialism creates and deepens Virgin Islanders’ dependency on the federal government for disaster recovery. In the Caribbean, colonial histories create dependency and frame disaster recovery. His words, therefore, perpetuate racist stereotypes and colonial myths, which are particularly damaging in disaster recovery projects intended to help us, and move us forward. The colonial mentality displayed by Mr. Quinlan will not be tolerated. We do not accept this.
We appreciate LCS Executive Director Meaghan Enright and LCS Board Member Ian Samuel’s willingness to engage in these conversations and their responsiveness to the community’s call for accountability. We appreciate that Ms. Enright wrote, “Jeff’s opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the organization.” She also invoked Love City Strong’s “commitment to honor and respect the communities in which we serve,” and pointed to disciplinary actions against Mr. Quinlan.
We do not believe this is enough and are hopeful and expectant for further action. Mr. Quinlan should not have a position with any St. John community organization holding the views he does about the US Virgin Islands and its people. Mr. Quinlan has engaged twice before (on June 3 and June 16) in public discussions with a dismissive attitude towards ancestral St. Johnians and St. John residents who voiced their concerns about perceived inequality and identity issues. Therefore, this is not an isolated incident. It is a pattern.
As concerned Virgin Islanders and supporters, we believe the following must happen quickly in order to move forward with our recovery on St. John in a positive and collaborative way. We ask that Love City Strong and Love for Love City do the following:
- Remove Mr. Quinlan from positions at Love City Strong and Love for Love City.
- Hire and onboard a qualified cross-section of Virgin Islanders (including Ancestral Virgin Islanders, Virgin Islanders from other Caribbean islands, and long term residents) as part of management teams and boards of directors. The immediacy of the post-storm world may have required putting together a quick team, but there has been enough time since to bring on a wide-range of residents into management and leadership positions.
- Follow best practices for actively recruiting diverse and qualified candidates for ALL positions. These candidates must reflect and represent the community they are to serve.
- Train all members (including the Board) in St. John and US Virgin Islands history, environmental justice, antiracism, and cultural sensitivity.
- Do not limit key public issues to private conversations. Embrace true public accountability. These decisions significantly shape our community and we should have a voice in them.
- Recruit Ancestral Virgin Islanders, Virgin Islanders from other Caribbean islands, and long term residents for leadership positions on the Board of Directors. Currently, all of the Love City Strong’s Board’s leadership positions are occupied by Tom Secunda (Chair), John McInnis (Co-Chair), and Jarrod Bernstein (Secretary-Treasurer).
- Commit to transparency and accountability regarding your non-profit’s structure and makeup. For example, the “About Section” on the Love for Love City Foundation’s website includes no details about their team. Viewers currently cannot use the site to learn about the team’s leaders, staff members, or organizational structure. However, news reports and blogs detailing its charity work give the appearance that the organization is predominantly White continental American. This information should be easy to access.
- Address the question, “Why are the leadership and management named on Love City Strong’s site but not the Go Team?”
- Consult with Natural Hazards Center (U Colorado Boulder), the University of the Virgin Islands, the University of Puerto Rico, and other organizations with expertise in how to address race, class, and gender for a just recovery.
- Provide transparency regarding potential conflicts of interest, especially in instances where board members serve multiple disaster relief organizations.
- Offer live-stream access to recovery-oriented public meetings so that Virgin Islanders and supporters who are not on St. John can have access to critical discussions. This is important as many Virgin Islanders live in the continental U.S. but have family and loved ones on island. Additionally, many residents had to leave after the storms (some still have not returned); this would be especially valuable to them.
Some find these topics to be difficult discussions. Ms. Enright, for example, wrote in her response to criticism about Mr. Quinlan: “We value the integrity of all hard conversations that must be had as the Territory at large and St. John, in particular, go through the arduous process of recovery, and we believe that respect is a core tenet of any difficult discussion.” We value respect as well, but we do not find the conversations difficult. They are necessary and must be public. We will readily and continually engage in them. Will you join us?
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