RWA Las Vegas Chapter Disbands in Aftermath of Courtney Milan Censure, RWA Appoints Interim Executive Director

[This is the sixth update in a series which includes “Courtney Milan Suspended by RWA, Banned from Leadership”, “Courtney Milan Controversy Decimates RWA Leadership”, “As Criticism Snowballs, RWA Keeps Trying to Justify Treatment of Courtney Milan”, “Kathryn Davis Says RWA Encouraged Her To File Ethics Complaint Against Courtney Milan”, and “As More Issues Raised, RWA President Resigns, RITA Awards Postponed, and Many Publishers Withdraw Sponsorship of RWA Conference”.]

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY. Romance Writers of America, currently operating without a President, says they will determine a process for appointing an interim President to serve until the next election. Meantime, they have identified a replacement for Executive Director Carol Ritter. RWA announced on January 21: “Leslie Scantlebury Appointed Interim Executive Director”.

…As of February 1, Leslie Scantlebury will assume the role of Interim Executive Director of RWA. As announced earlier this month, the Board accepted the resignation of Executive Director Carol Ritter, and she will remain on staff until January 31 to ensure a smooth transition. In the meantime, she has recused herself from all duties pertaining to the audit, and Leslie is serving as RWA staff liaison to the independent law firm conducting the audit.

Leslie has nearly 20 years of association management experience. During her career, she has worked with volunteer leadership at both the national and local levels. Her background includes governance, member retention, education, and volunteer management for large nonprofit membership associations. Leslie also has served on the board of directors of several local organizations, including the Houston Society of Association Executives. Leslie holds an undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina and a master’s degree from the University of Phoenix.

Leslie has been an integral part of the RWA team cumulatively for more than a decade, serving most recently as Chapter and Professional Relations Manager. The Board is grateful to have Leslie’s leadership at this important moment for RWA.  

Leslie will be working with the Board and a DEI consultant to determine a process for appointing an interim President that will allow our members to have input in the decision. We understand the importance of this decision, and we know it’s a priority for our members. 

In August, every Board seat and officer position – including the office of President – will be up for election by the membership. Once the newly elected Board is installed, it will then form a search committee to identify and select a new, permanent Executive Director, in consultation with a DEI consultant….

RWA CHAPTER DISBANDS. The Las Vegas Romance Writers will disband. The chapter president explained why in a public letter to RWA:

It is with a profound sense of regret that, as the President of Las Vegas Romance Writers, I write to inform you that the Las Vegas chapter has voted to disband. The circumstances leading up to the closure of our chapter can be directly attributed to the censure of Courtney Milan and the chaos that ensued.

In the wake of her censure, a member of the chapter board resigned immediately. Other chapter board members expressed their unwillingness to support an organization that was so clearly in violation of its stated purpose and its own bylaws. They indicated that they would be letting their membership in National lapse, leaving the board without the officers necessary, by law, to run the chapter.

As a result of the positions of the individual board members, a meeting was called of the general membership to discuss the circumstances with national and see if there was a way forward for our chapter. We had no volunteers to serve on the board, to replace the members who were letting their national membership lapse. In addition, over half of the members of our chapter have expressed that they will not be continuing their membership with RWA.

Given these circumstances, the board voted to disband the chapter. Subsequently, a majority of the general members also voted to disband.…

CHAPTER PRESIDENTS’ LETTER. Other chapters have not yet given up trying to reform RWA.  Adriana Herrera tweeted the text of a letter from 29 RWA chapter presidents demanding that the organization take a list of specified actions. Thread starts here.

Some of their demands are:

Give serious consideration and respond to Courtney Milan’s settlement offer dated 01/14/2020. Remove Carol Ritter immediately and with cause. Begin the process of hiring an independent firm to conduct a full forensic audit.

Expand the current independent audit to incorporate a review of all ethics cases handled (or not) by RWA since 2017. In addition, we request: A review of how Damon Suede’s eligibility to run for President-elect was determined and qualified.

A review of the Executive Director’s duties and apparent overreaching control of the running of RWA as opposed to the RWA Board of Directors. A review of the retirement of the previous Executive Director and her temporary (and possible continued) reappearance as Controller.

A review of the current Board of Director’s questionable execution of their fiduciary duty. A review of Damon Suede and Carolyn Jewel’s questionable execution of their fiduciary duty in the matter of the complaint against Courtney Milan.

COURTNEY MILAN’S SETTLEMENT PROPOSAL. Courtney Milan, on January 14, tweeted a copy of her letter to the RWA proposing a basis for both sides to dispose of some – but not all – of the potential grounds for litigation between them. For one thing, it sheds light on just how many there are. Thread begins here.

PROGRESS ON RWA INTERNAL AUDIT. Courtney Milan shared more of her communications with the RWA leadership. Thread starts here.

CAN RWA SURVIVE? Courtney Milan lists a few key questions. Thread starts here.

RESOURCES. Shari Heinrich steamed into MLK Day with a list of reading she’s doing, and a list of questions she’ll be posing to future conference organizers about diversity and antiharassment policies, Thread starts here.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE. Sarah at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books tells why it’s hard to answer the question “Where Does RWA Go From Here?” (January 10)

…Setting aside the question of leadership for a moment (and again, the current RWA board should be removed and re-elected in its entirety) it’s important to ask over and over: whom does this organization serve?

Who is the priority?

Because it cannot be both.

If RWA serves the current membership of RWA, well, that membership contains a substantial number of people who:

  • openly embrace and promote racist ideologies
  • post on RWA Facebook pages and in internal message boards about their homophobia and racist views on people of color
  • write transphobic and racist articles for and letters to the Romance Writers Report
  • …and I could keep going but it’s depressing.

A substantial part of the current membership of RWA is a substantial part of the problem with RWA.

If the organization wants to serve any marginalized writers, it can’t also serve that portion of the current membership. It’s impossible. One side has demonstrated in PAN forums, email messages, and social media posts that it refuses to recognize the humanity of the other, and refuses to recognize their culpability in maintaining a White supremacist, classist, heteronormative, racist culture inside RWA. Nor can it commit to changing that culture.

The organization also can’t serve marginalized writers if the leadership has a documented history of not acknowledging ethics complaints from marginalized individuals, and of publishing and allowing screeds against those individuals in print and online. RWA can’t serve anyone if the organization doesn’t fully reveal what happened in the specific case of the ethics complaint and process against Courtney Milan, and what happened to the complaints from every writer who has reported a problem.

RWA can’t maintain its current membership nor its leadership and at the same time say it’s going to rebuild. Rebuilding requires people in leadership positions who are trusted by current and prospective members. And it requires trust in fellow members of the community.

IMPACT ON OTHER ORGANIZATIONS. Alyssa Day has resigned as President of Novelists, Inc: The International Organization of Multi-Published Novelists, which she says suffers the same failures of diversity a RWA. Thread starts here.

SKEPTICAL APPROACH.

In “RWA the Sequel,” YouTuber KirkpattieCake spends an hour challenging the criteria used to assert racism, looks forward to the results of RWA’s independent audit, and also takes a moment to scorn the cancel culture that fell on Vince Vaughn for shaking President Trump’s hand. (January 20)

And Sarah A. Hoyt scoffs at the issues in her blog post “De-Worse It Gets” (January 15.)

So, what was the last writer of color you read?

Hint, the answer is “whatever writer you read last, since I’ve still to find a single transparent writer.” Which is good, since it would be disturbing. And I hope one of the last you read is this chick Sarah A. Hoyt and her novel Deep Pink(which is profoundly weird, yes, but come on you guys, if you didn’t like weird, you wouldn’t hang out around here, would you?)

Anyvay….. I swear there are people who never read a book trying to dictate not just what the rest of us MUST write, but also what the rest of us must read.

I thought the “challenge to read writers of color” was stupid enough when I first heard of it 10 years ago, but it’s only gotten stupider. Now entire writers’ organizations (puts hat to chest and holds a minute of silence for RWA. I’d do it for SFWA but RWA was once far more useful including teaching and mentoring stuff SFWA never had. Besides SFWA is long dead and rotting, so I’m going to edge away from the coffin.) are falling into this insanity.  We’re hearing that BLIND-JUDGED-CONTESTS, where you can’t even guess at the name of the writer (and these days, honestly, it won’t help. I swear my kids, now mid to late twenties are the last properly spelled names in their generation.) are “racist.”…

MAINSTREAM MEDIA COVERAGE. These are some of the articles that have appeared since the previous roundup.

CNN – “A romance novelist accused another writer of racism. The scandal is tearing the billion-dollar industry apart” by AJ Willingham (January 13)

…The RWA also needs to fill several vacant seats and choose a new leader, a Herculean task made even more difficult by the erosion of trust and conflicts of interest the scandal has created. The RWA declined to comment when contacted, but directed CNN to the statement mentioning Suede’s resignation. In the statement, the RWA says the association has hired an external firm to conduct an audit of the events leading to the controversy and has brought on a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant to “assist RWA with diversifying Board and staff recruitment” as well as future programming and events….

Jezebel – “Inside the Spectacular Implosion at the Romance Writers of America” by Kelly Faircloth (January 15)

…RWA, an organization founded almost 40 years ago by a black woman, has frequently been an unfriendly place for marginalized writers, and attempts to change that have been met with pushback that now threatens to destroy the institution itself. Romance novels, at their most fundamental level, are about protagonists being seen clearly and loved—and this is a story about who gets to be seen and valued in the romance genre, and whose pain matters.

As an author of historical romances who served four years on the RWA’s elected board of directors, Milan has been one of the most prominent voices in the struggle to make RWA a more equitable environment. (In fact, she just won a service award.) She’s also known for her vocal Twitter presence, where she doesn’t shy from calling out injustice in very blunt terms, whether it’s around racism in romance or the strange plagiarism saga of #CopyPasteKris. The efforts of Milan and many others had put the RWA on a path to helping create a more inclusive organization, genre, and publishing industry more broadly. As 2019 drew to a close, it looked like years of dedicated effort and activism by many people, particularly by women of color, to build a more inclusive genre and an RWA equipped to fight on behalf of its marginalized members, were bearing fruit.

But that hope is collapsing. After Milan’s censure, board members resigned en masse; two presidents left under a cloud of controversy. Major publishers, including Harlequin, have pulled out of RWA’s annual national conference. Members are furious, and the work it will take to restore their trust in the organization is so enormous it’s potentially insurmountable.

…But since its inception, there has always been a certain amount of tension over RWA’s priorities. Was it a social club? A professional networking group? What constituted “professional,” anyway? (See: the great swan hat controversy of 2007.) Was it for published authors, or unpublished authors? Was it a conduit between writers and publishers? Or was it potentially a body for collective action, including against publishers? Equally important but less tangible was the question of the right way for a woman to act, even in an organization composed largely of women, and just how important it was to be nice and conciliatory, not to raise a big, disruptive fuss—even, or perhaps especially, over issues of racial and queer representation.

…The internet, too, has challenged RWA’s position within the romance ecosystem. RWA conferences are full of panels on various aspects of self-publishing, but nobody needs RWA to put their book on Amazon. They’re not a collective bargaining agent; they can’t, say, negotiate better self-publishing terms with Amazon. But romance authors need a fierce advocate more than ever, because they’re increasingly at the mercy of powerful tech platforms, as major channels for mass-market paperbacks like B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Borders have vanished. RWA’s presence at least means there’s somebody authors can call if they need an institutional voice to advocate for them. “If you are the member who calls in, who says, ‘Facebook for some reason shut down my author site, and I had 40,000 followers,’ we have contacts at Facebook and at Amazon and at Barnes and Noble that we can get in touch with at a micro level to help our members immediately,” former president HelenKay Dimon told me.

But in recent years, perhaps the central dispute within the industry has been about inclusion and intersectionality. While there’s always been a feminist thread in romance, the genre has also been dominated by straight white women for much of its history. Despite Stephens’s central role in shaping the modern romance, she was frustrated by bosses’ foot-dragging, even as she acquired diversely. Plantations abounded in historical romance well into the 1990s, as did books featuring appalling depictions of Native Americans with the word “savage” thrown around. Black authors have frequently been relegated to “ethnic” imprints and even shelved elsewhere in bookstores. And often, that “be nice” culture has suppressed attempts to fight any of it.

The article concludes:

…In the midst of the tumult, Bowling Green State University’s Popular Culture Library, which has an impressive collection of archival material related to the history of romance, tweeted out a picture of the first board of RWA. That board included two black women (Vivian Stephens and her sister) as well as a Latina author, Celina Rios Mullan. “The issue in RWA is not, per se, that we didn’t have diversity. Because we have diversity. Our issue was inclusion and access,” C. Chilove told me. That has been the case for a very, very long time. The photo testifies to a long history of missed opportunities to do better, in RWA and in the genre more broadly. For a while, it looked like the organization was finally getting it right, after years of chances that were thrown away. Then they blew it all up.

Kirkus – “Is Romance Writers of America a Sinking Ship?” by Jennifer Prokop (January 15.)

RWA’s handling of these complaints has brought the entire organization to the brink of collapse: Citing a gap between policy and process, the board voted to rescind the penalty against Milan; eight women of color on the board collectively resigned, saying they lacked faith in RWA’s leadership; the 2020 RITA awards were cancelled after hundreds of authors and judges resigned from the contest; and publishers, including giants Harlequin and Avon, announced they would not attend the national conference. Many predict that RWA will have no choice but to cancel the national conference entirely—a staggering financial blow to an already crippled organization.

7 thoughts on “RWA Las Vegas Chapter Disbands in Aftermath of Courtney Milan Censure, RWA Appoints Interim Executive Director

  1. So is Las Vegas the first chapter to outright dissolve?

    What form does KirkpattieCake have? The positions quoted don’t suggest they’ll be worth reading, but I’m wondering whether they’re in Sarah Hoyt’s … class.

  2. Chip Hitchcock: While many RWA chapters have issued statements — most of them calling for the resignation of RWA leadership or (now former) President Damon Suede in particular — the Las Vegas chapter is the only one to announce it has disbanded. That was one of my questions, and in addition to my own searches, I combed through the chronologies two people are maintaining without finding any other examples.

  3. The “Kiss of Death” chapter (which is for mystery and suspense romance writers, rather than for a specific region) had a number of key resignations, including the chapter President, President-Elect, Treasurer, and more. I’m not entirely clear on the details, but this may be related to the chapter’s earlier decision to remain neutral in the whole debacle, for which they received a great deal of criticism.

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