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January 9, 2020

The RWA Implosion: How Could the Problems Be Fixed?

Two bandages against white background with text: Can RWA Be Saved?

Last time, I summarized the RWA implosion and why it matters to all writers, no matter our genre. Unfortunately—but not surprisingly—the chaos has continued since that post.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the now-President of the Romance Writers of America and most of the remaining Board have been silent for the past 2 weeks. That lack of communication isn’t helping this rudderless ship right itself, much less steer away from icebergs.

Every day, more people are asking the question: Can RWA be saved? And if so, how? Let’s take a look at the extreme amount of work RWA would need to complete to re-earn members’ trust…

Step 1: Understand the Many Problems to Overcome

Before we come up with a to-do list for fixing RWA, we first need to recognize the many problems RWA would need to overcome. Yes, the initial wave of protest was prompted by the organization’s reaction to an ethics complaint about calling out racism, but as I mentioned last time, that wave has been followed by more revelations that add to members’ disgust and anger.

RWA—Leadership and Staff—Has Lost All Benefit of the Doubt:

Most importantly, nothing can or will happen until those in charge realize this: No one trusts them.

So far, RWA’s communications have assumed people will give them the benefit of the doubt. However, even if they do the “right” thing at this point, if it’s not done with radical transparency, members will assume it’s all lies or done for ulterior motives.

The two “in charge” people at RWA both have hellfire-level dark clouds hanging over their reputations, especially when it comes to ethical matters or acting in RWA’s best interest:

In addition, the limited messaging coming from RWA has misled members about the extent of their “legal audit,” which they’ve been touting as their “solution” to this implosion. The former RWA Presidents and board members who have been expressing concerns about policy discrepancies weren’t impressed with the largely incomplete response from the current Board, especially as direct conversations with the law firm doing the “audit” give a very different impression of the audit’s scope. Without trust, they haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt here.

Extensive Reports of Discrimination

This point is obvious, as it kicked off the whole implosion, but as I mentioned last time, the RWA has a long history of dismissing valid concerns of those not in power. From ignored ethics complaints to rudeness from staff or leadership, many members (and former members) have been mistreated over the years.

Even in the midst of all this attention on how RWA treats racism, the official RWA forums have allowed posts displaying bigotry…with no moderation in sight. The discrepancy between how they pushed through an ethics complaint against an exempt Twitter discussion, which started this whole mess, and how RWA’s own forums are run hasn’t been lost on most of the membership.

Severed Industry Relationships

In addition to the many members and chapters upset with RWA, many agents have cut their ties with the organization. Yesterday brought news of several publishers cutting their ties as well, which is significant as many of these publishers are major sponsors of RWA’s annual National Conference.

Of course, it costs publishers nothing to not spend money at the conference, so their support—while nice—doesn’t do much on its own. Only Sourcebooks’ statement included a stronger message about what those cut ties mean:

“We commit to using the time, energy, and resources we would have supplied to the national conference on furthering diversity, equality, and inclusion efforts.”

Part of the tragedy of this whole situation is that without RWA to push publishers to do better, authors—and diversity efforts—will likely suffer even more.

Extensive Chaos to Manage

The RWA board is structured so at least half of the members have Board experience at any time by using staggered two-year terms. Even if a board member leaves their position mid-term, with a Board of 16 members, at least 7 other members will know what they’re doing and be able to lead the others.

However, yesterday’s additions to the chaos brought news of 3 more board members resigning. That means out of 16 original board members, only 4 remain — and one of those is Damon Suede.

Can RWA be salvaged from its implosion? And if so, how? Click To TweetAdd in the issues with the staff (especially the Executive Director), the recall petition against Damon, calls for all new leadership from members through to publishers, financial issues, legal issues, and everything listed above, and there’s no end to the chaos.

Each issue would be a major project on its own, much less all taken together. For example, the loss of conference sponsors, agent pitching appointments, and many workshop presenters means cancellation of this summer’s National Conference might be imminent, but putting the breaks on such a major event is difficult and complicated. The hotel contracts alone would make cancellation a major financial hit to the organization.

Step #2: Identify Solutions to Fix These Problems, Part I
Address the Immediate Lack of Trust

Now that we have an understanding of the scope of problems we’re trying to solve, let’s take a look at what I think it would take to fix and rebuild RWA.

In my last post, Shannon asked in the comments what steps RWA would need to take, so I’m going to build on my reply to her below. Of those 4 big-picture problems above, these solutions focus mostly on managing the chaos and addressing discrimination in ways that would help regain members’ trust…

  • Force the resignations of President Damon Suede and staff Executive Director Carol Ritter (and if she’s still with RWA as Controller, Allison Kelly, the former Executive Director, as well).
    • *Updated to Add: Done! *grin* (at least regarding Damon, and to some extent, Carol) But this is just the beginning… *gestures to below*
  • Suspend all non-critical activities to allow leadership and staff to focus on the rest of these priorities.
  • Waive the restrictions on parties’ ability to discuss Executive Sessions regarding these events so current and previous board members can speak transparently about the issues revealed by the implosion.
  • Conduct an independent investigation into who did what, not only in regards to these current issues, but also with discrimination and ignored ethics complaints overall.
  • Force out anyone involved with problems found in the investigation.
  • Conduct an independent, forensic audit to learn if any financial shenanigans were at the heart of these issues, and also to see if staff has been properly prioritizing spending to meet RWA’s mission (the amount spent on member services seemingly has been cut in half over the past couple of years, etc.).
  • Conduct an audit of the bylaws, policies, processes, procedures, and ethics code to determine if any loopholes were used.
  • Determine if any parties can be held legally liable for loss of value to RWA (including member rolls, conference fees, RITA fees, etc.) due to failure of fiduciary duty or related issues.
  • Provide full, honest transparency of findings — if these communications don’t make the organization feel ashamed (and/or outright mortified), they’re probably not being transparent enough.
  • Run a “special election” to rebuild the Board from scratch with those willing to dig into the rest of the to-do list.
  • Remaining board members should nominate and appoint winners from special election and then step down.
  • Apologize to all affected parties — this includes the full membership, given the misleading and false information shared in official statements throughout this process.

Step #3: Identify Solutions to Fix These Problems, Part II
Address the Broader Issues

Now that the chaos is somewhat managed, we can focus on the bigger-picture reasons for the lack of trust in RWA. As I mentioned above, many of these problems have been building for years, so we might need to backtrack and fix past issues before RWA can move forward.

When people see that past wrongs are addressed, they’ll have more reason to believe in the potential of long-term trust within RWA…

  • Conduct a review of the bylaws, policies, processes, procedures, and ethics code to find broken and/or insufficient policies, including: whether the Board should have more oversight over staff, if the Board should get copies of all complaints and responses before voting on accepting Committee recommendations, deciding the appropriate level of privacy of legal names and mailing addresses, etc.
  • Review the past several years of PRO and PAN applications to check for discrimination in unsuccessful membership decisions and determine which can be fixed.
  • Review the past several years of dismissed ethics complaints to check for discrimination in ignored complaints and determine which can be moved forward.
  • Review the past several years of ignored advocacy issues, such as failing to advocate for Dreamspinner Press authors, and determine which can be moved forward.
  • Fix the bylaws, policies, processes, procedures, and ethics code to prevent issues from reoccurring.
  • Establish a system for confidential reporting of issues, especially if those in power at the national or chapter level are the problem.
  • Maintain an attitude of transparency to the membership throughout all of these steps and decisions.

Step #4: Identify Solutions to Fix These Problems, Part III
Move Forward Together

Now that triage has stopped the bleeding and shored up the organization’s ability to heal, we can add in solutions that would help RWA move forward in ways that will rebuild relationships in addition to rebuilding trust.

For this rebuilding stage, we need to focus on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), which ensures all voices are included in the new-and-improved RWA. Inclusion applies not only to issues of race, but also to other underrepresented groups.

Everyone benefits when more ideas are brought to the table, and all parties can have a say in what it would take to rebuild long-term trust within RWA…

  • Conduct member surveys to get buy-in for the many hard decisions to come.
  • Decide once and for all what’s acceptable and what’s not in interactions between members in RWA spaces (such as conferences, chapter meetings, forums, letters to editor, etc.). (Note: This isn’t about pushing authors to write only certain kinds of stories, but about interactions.)
  • Decide the expectations of DEI practices for those who work for and/or serve members (i.e., volunteers and staff) — just an annual DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) training session isn’t enough. (As RWA author and DEI expert Kharma Kelley says, “Eliminating biases isn’t a training program or a “shame talk” away.”) Should the expectation be that they already know how to discuss their biases, be open to correction (even when not “nice”), are familiar with the concept of “white fragility,” etc.?
  • Decide the level of DEI training to be shared with members at large, such as teaching about biases, how to accept correction, why private correction isn’t always the “right” approach, etc.
  • Decide once and for all what happens to members who violate the rules within RWA spaces (such as conferences, chapter meetings, forums, letters to the editor, etc.) — a warning and offer of DEI training, banned from forums, initiate ethics complaints, revoke membership, etc.
  • Give authority to witnesses (conference volunteers, forum moderators, etc.) to take action, such as making complaints on behalf of others, so harm can be prevented and/or victims don’t have to do it themselves.
  • Set expectations of industry partners (publishers, agents, etc.) for commitment and action toward DEI goals before engaging them for industry memberships, sponsorships, pitch appointments, conference attendance, etc.
  • Update bylaws, policies, staff hiring practices, Board/Committee eligibility, and policies for chapters to hold everyone to the rules across RWA.
  • Establish structures and systems to further DEI goals within RWA, emphasizing inclusion at every level.
  • Establish regular DEI training for volunteers and staff, emphasizing how the learning doesn’t end.
  • Maintain an attitude of transparency to the membership throughout all of these steps and decisions.
  • Work with members to strengthen RWA’s mission and prioritize appropriately as the organization moves forward — such as whether RITA fees should be reduced, if RWA should pay judges, if the membership/forum structure should be reorganized, etc.

(Many thanks to those who publicly mulled the various issues on Twitter so I could listen and translate the many concerns into potential action items. *smile*)

So Is It Really Possible to Fix RWA?

Uh…that’s obviously A. Lot. And that’s just off the top of my head based on what I’ve been hearing from those sharing their concerns.

In other words, yes, it’s possible. But it would take a strong commitment by whoever the new leaders are and be a lot of work.

RWA’s implosion isn’t something they can just wait to blow over (as they seem to be currently doing). These issues with RWA’s leadership and staff have been building for a long time, and we all know that it’s harder to re-earn broken trust than to establish benefit of the doubt in the beginning.

How could RWA rebuild trust with its members? Click To TweetAs we’ve covered above, those currently in power at RWA don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. So they’re not going to make any progress (or consider taking any of these steps) until they recognize and accept that disconnect.

RWA has always relied on the strength of their members—a belief in volunteering and service is baked in—so the ability exists. The question is about their will and their attitude, but at the core, we all need to remember—leadership and staff especially—that RWA belongs to the members.

Despite this incredible amount of work, I’m not eager to let all the extensive chapter organization and the $3,000,000 RWA has in reserve just disappear, even if contests, magazines, conferences, etc. all have to shut down for a year while things are fixed and rebuilt. I hope real leaders will step forward to do the right thing and ensure RWA’s continued existence — that way it can advocate and push the industry to improve for all writers.

If RWA could do this—if they could tackle this list—and come out the other side stronger and better than ever, they would become a model and beacon of hope to other organizations. And that happy ending is exactly the kind of inspirational tale we like in our genre. *smile*

What do you think of this list? Can you think of any to-do’s to add to it? Can you think of any other “big picture” problems they need to overcome? Do you think it’s possible for RWA to overcome their problems? Do you hope they can fix themselves?

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Christine Ashworth
Christine Ashworth

Hi Jami, I do hope you’ll run for office within RWA, or volunteer for them in some capacity. We who are members of RWA, ARE RWA. Never forget that. Thank you for your insights…now lets get to work and rebuild. Lots of love!

M.F. Hopkins

This situation is very fluid, to say the least. With Suede and Ritter resigning today, we’ll have to see what happens next. I’m still going through the RWA threads, and it looks like some of the steps that you’ve mentioned are what’s being discussed right now.
Let’s all keep our fingers (and toes) crossed.

Laurie Evans
Laurie Evans

Indie romance writer here, but never joined RWA. I have been watching discussions on Twitter, though. I don’t see how they could possibly hold the national conference this year, especially with publishers pulling out. A lot of hard work is needed. Your list is a good, comprehensive list. I’m so disheartened by the treatment some authors of color have received at events. More stories are coming out every day.

Evelyn Vaughn

I think they only way they could hold the conference is by changing its focus to the subject of Jami’s post — How Can RWA Become a Model and Beacon of Hope? We are a woman-majority genre and industry, damn it. If anyone can lead the way in how to treat others, it should be us. BUT, we must each–especially those of us who may be listened to, the published and unfortunately too often the “older white ladies” — go out into the romance writing community and start the process of easing our “unconsciously bigoted” colleagues into being open to correction.

Kelly Larivee
Kelly Larivee

Hi Jami, As a subscriber I read your posts every week. I usually find something relevant as you’re an insightful writer with experience to share with old writers like me, newbies testing the water, and everyone in between. But I don’t think you’ve ever written a more important, on point, truly meaningful set of posts than those you’ve shared re: the RWA Implosion these past few weeks. All I can say is, Thank you. You hit the nail on the head so many times…in particular when speaking of Damon Suede and Carol Ritter, though you don’t hammer either into the ground as I am so tempted to do. The one thing I will say with regard to Ms. Ritter is that she has been around for a very long time, and suddenly–a light bulb goes on. Some things have been said on RWA Forums that now brings things into wicked clarity for me, and I begin to regret ever polite exchange I’ve ever had (polite on my part) with that person. The call for a DEI Advocate position is strong within the RWA membership, and I think this is one of the changes we must make immediately. I also implore the mediator of the RWA forums to lay off all posters–in particular anyone within the membership who feels they have been mistreated, marginalized, demeaned, harassed, dismissed, unheard, etc.–who want to share their story. Let them have their say! I want to hear that story. As a PRO member who is…  — Read More »

HSS
HSS

Brilliant article. I would humbly add that some committees should outlast one presidential board term.To make the real lasting changes, as outlined above, require long term committees with perhaps a voted in chair, such as a DEI committee, policy and procedure changes, revamping the RITA judging, etc. I have found that the change of committees yearly with new mandates determined by each new president is detrimental to real lasting change.

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