How Former Employees at a Berkeley Bastion for Literary Presses Ignited a Reckoning

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The Small Press Distribution offices in Berkeley on July 19, 2021, have operated at this location since 1995. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When J. Worthen was hired as a warehouse assistant at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley in 2014, they hoped to work there for the rest of their career. The mission of Small Press Distribution, or SPD, is to make writing by underrepresented communities more accessible. Worthen loved having a role in helping to make that happen.

But by 2018, Worthen said it became impossible to ignore the divide between the nonprofit's mission and how they were being treated because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

During a trip to Tampa, Florida, for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference that year, Worthen was eating dinner with their boss, Brent Cunningham, and Abigail Beckel, the founder of Rose Metal Press, one of SPD's publishers.

Out of nowhere, according to Worthen and Beckel, Cunningham said Worthen was asexual, and went on to ask a series of intrusive questions. Worthen said at one point he asked whether they would still be asexual if they weren't so close to their sister.

"I really was in escape mode. I didn't know how to address it at the moment without jeopardizing my job," Worthen said. "[Rose Metal Press] is one of SPD's top publishers. He had no problem creating an uncomfortable situation for both of us."

Beckel said she thought Cunningham's behavior was "wildly inappropriate."

A few months later, Worthen published an essay that described the experience. While Worthen did not name anyone in their piece, they still expected to lose their job, or for there to be some sort of reaction from the organization.

Instead, Cunningham "liked" the essay on Facebook and after that, Worthen said, they never heard from members of the SPD board or leadership about the incident until Cunningham apologized over two years later.

"It felt like I didn't exist. It just felt like the experience meant nothing to the people who played a part in it," they said.

J. Worthen, who started as a warehouse assistant at Small Press Distribution in 2014, says they loved playing a role in helping to make literature accessible. (Photo courtesy of J. Worthen)

Cunningham, who left SPD in June, said in a statement that he "profoundly misread" the dinner and a number of situations with Worthen. Worthen said Cunningham referred to them as "my J." and commented on their cheap lunches and "Midwestern work ethic."

"I deeply apologize for any and all comments I made that were insensitive, and regret them. I never intended to hurt but now understand the unintended impact of my words. I have worked on and will continue to work on rooting out as much unconscious bias as I can in the hopes of being a better ally to marginalized people going forward," Cunningham said in the statement.

Worthen said the issue was not just Cunningham's behavior but the way the SPD board responded when employees came forward and denounced his behavior in posts online. In February 2021, Worthen says, they filed a harassment complaint when a different employee persistently misgendered them and sent them condescending messages. Cunningham was one of two people who determined whether that behavior violated SPD policies, emails shared with KQED show, even though a majority of SPD employees had previously penned an open letter that called for his termination or resignation.

Alan Bernheimer, the president of the SPD board of directors, did not comment on the work dinner or respond to questions related to the complaint about Cunningham's behavior or how the board responded. He also declined interview requests and declined to answer almost all questions sent to him with criticism or allegations about Cunningham or SPD.

SPD did, however, hire a law firm, Oppenheimer Investigations Group, to conduct an independent assessment of the nonprofit earlier this year.

"The OIG assessment concluded that SPD needed a reboot of its management, workplace policies, and relationship between staff and leaders," Bernheimer wrote in a statement to KQED. "The OIG report was completed the first week in March, and we announced [Cunningham’s] departure as [executive director] on March 8."

In response to a series of questions sent to him last month, Bernheimer wrote in an email sent to KQED seemingly by mistake, "For any response we provide, we should strongly consider aligning with what Brent [Cunningham] is telling her [KQED reporter Holly McDede]."

He did not answer any specific questions after that, writing instead, "No further comment."

Worthen, who learned they had cancer in 2019, worried the stress of staying at SPD could affect their health. Soon after they filed the complaint, they decided to leave the organization.

"I really felt like this could kill me, staying in a situation with no end in sight, having to deal with the person who harmed me, while the people who should have been holding him accountable were protecting him," they said. "I needed to get away from that so that I can heal from cancer and have a fighting chance."

Small Press Distribution currently warehouses some 350,000 books. (Photo courtesy of Sam Lefebvre)

A Reckoning for Literary Spaces

Since its founding in 1969, Berkeley-based Small Press Distribution has distinguished itself as the place for indie publishers to get experimental, avant-garde works in the hands of booksellers and customers nationwide. The nonprofit has a staff of fewer than a dozen people and works with some 400 presses, and has distributed titles that have won prestigious awards, like Pulitzer in poetry winner "Olio" by Tyehimba Jess. On its website, SPD emphasizes this commitment: "Everything we do is aimed at helping essential but underrepresented literary communities participate fully in the marketplace and in the culture at large."

But some former employees said that incidents like what Worthen experienced, and an overall lack of personal or professional boundaries, were part of a broader problem at SPD. They said management seemed to push the idea that employees were more like friends than co-workers. Workers said that contributed to a toxic environment where staff concerns were not taken seriously or addressed through formal mechanisms, and it felt impossible to hold people accountable.

Bernheimer said in a public statement that human resources departments were not commonplace when SPD was founded in 1969, particularly in small nonprofits.

"But it's inexcusable that we failed to grow with the times and that SPD employees suffered as a result," Bernheimer wrote. "We believe a holistic HR approach, run by specialized experts, will preclude recurrences, as well as foster a healthy workplace with interactional and procedural justice for all."

Nonprofits have a reputation for low pay, burnout and high turnover. Some former employees said they expected disorganization or poor treatment at SPD because those issues are common in arts nonprofits, bookstores and other creative industries. Former employees said the SPD board, which included poets and publishers, was absent or out of touch when it came to working conditions at SPD.

Cunningham said in a written statement that the working conditions and the culture at SPD were not meaningfully different from or worse than those at any under-resourced nonprofit. He said the primary obstacle to any change was always a lack of resources rather than a lack of will, and that there was also a lack of agreement or articulation among the staff about the real, practical changes they wanted to see.

"For many years, long before me, SPD was a small group of poets trying to get books out," said Jeffrey Lependorf, who was the executive director at SPD until 2020. "We were not HR professionals. We were artists running an arts organization. We were doing our best to learn and to institute HR processes. We, in many ways, did a good job, and failed a lot in our best efforts. I think that's fair to say."

Bernheimer said since allegations were first made online in December, the SPD board has invited staff to attend board meetings and created a staff-board liaison process to improve communication.

Clay Banes, a former Small Press Distribution employee, also worked at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, where he organized a reading series. (Photo courtesy of Clay Banes)

But while some of the longstanding problems at SPD may be common to many organizations, SPD holds a unique position as the only nonprofit literary distributor in the country. Small literary presses rooted in social justice and committed to bringing underrepresented voices to readers have few other distribution options.

"There's pretty much no other. Whoever has existed, SPD is the one left standing. Even as we speak, everything is getting consolidated in the commercial distributing world," Clay Banes, a former employee at SPD, said. "So many writers, so many publishers, so many poets, for the most part, none of these people want to get into the fray of this. No one wants to harm SPD, including me."

But the pandemic caused workers all over the country to question not only their safety but also how they're valued on the job — including at nonprofits and bookstores. Current and former Black and trans booksellers at Pegasus Books in Berkeley and Oakland created an anti-racist bookstore initiative to demand better treatment. Booksellers at Moe's Books in Berkeley and Bookshop Santa Cruz voted to form unions this year, a rare move for any independent bookstore.

Rows of books line the second floor at Moe's Books in Berkeley on July 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"I think there still is a perception that somehow these professions are special or have cultural capital," said Amy Wilson, a poet, an organizer and a master's student at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. "But what workers are saying is you can't eat [or] can't pay your rent with cultural capital."

Toxicity in the Workplace

Many of the former workers who spoke to KQED said they had tried to fix the culture and structure at SPD internally, but not enough seemed to change. The environment became increasingly hostile in 2019, they said, when employees were told SPD was in the midst of a financial crisis.

"SPD is making available books that don't make a lot of money," said Jeffrey Lependorf, then-executive director of SPD.  "And the book industry at that time was facing tough times. And we were a part of it."

Employees said it seemed like workers who were vocal about changes they wanted to see at SPD were also under the most scrutiny during SPD's financial challenges.

"It's like SPD could fall apart at any moment, [so] we have to be hypervigilant and never change how we do anything," said E Conner, who worked at SPD during that time.

E Conner worked at Small Press Distribution until late last year. (Photo courtesy of E Conner)

Former employees said managers began an "efficiency audit" to identify redundancies. As part of that effort, staff said they were asked to describe in detail what they did during the day. But Conner said it felt like even when she explained how she spent her workday, the manager didn’t believe her.

"As I was explaining what I did, I was told, 'But you don't really do that, right?'" Conner said. "And I explained that 'I'm just trying to tell you what I do.' Everybody was terrified we were going to lose our jobs."

Another former employee at SPD, Nich Malone, said he was outspoken about some of the issues at SPD, like the lack of clear job descriptions or the need for professional boundaries. But he said his suggestions only seemed to make some of his bosses uncomfortable, and the efficiency audit felt like an attempt to wear him down.

"It was literally, like, sitting in a room for an hour, not doing work, so you could justify your job," Malone said. "It would sort of break you down so that you work harder so that you'd keep your job."

While these audits were happening, Lependorf lived on the other side of the country — another issue that employees said they found frustrating as they, and their lower-paid co-workers, faced the threat of layoffs. "He lived and worked in Hudson, New York, while Small Press Distribution is in Berkeley, California,” Conner said. "The knowledge and the skill to navigate through this very chaotic organization was all on the lower-paid workers to do, and do well."

Lependorf said the remote position made sense for years, considering that many valuable ties in the publishing industry are in New York. But he said his distance from the nonprofit seemed less practical as the climate at the workplace became more toxic.

"There were issues of misgendering, there were issues of gender bias, there were issues of crossing boundaries, and [it] became more difficult ... it was certainly difficult for me not being present," he said. "I was in a position of being a little helpless to deal with some of that."

He said management was working hard to make sure employees could keep their jobs, but he could also understand how the financial issues made staff feel threatened.

"We were really, really trying to listen. We were out there trying to pull in pennies to keep everyone employed," he said. "You don't want to scare your staff, but you also don't want to hide things from them. It's a tricky balance."

Poetry covers the walls of the break room at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley. (Photo courtesy of Sam Lefebvre)

Lependorf left SPD last year, and Cunningham said Lependorf's departure was the solution to the financial challenges. (Lependorf said he was planning to leave within a year or two anyway.) Cunningham, who became executive director after Lependorf left, said he could not comment on personnel matters out of concern for privacy. Cunningham said of himself that he treated all employees fairly and equally, and that while in leadership at SPD, he did not witness any other SPD director treating any employee in a way he would call unfair, unequal or retaliatory.

Then around the time of the nonprofit's financial issues, staff learned from management about errors related to payroll. SPD leadership said in a statement last year that a total of five employees had been underpaid, and that staff had also been given pay stubs that were not in compliance with the law; they did not show hourly wages or hours worked.

One person was underpaid a total of more than $4,000 throughout most of 2019, documents shared with KQED show.

The SPD board of directors, Cunningham and SPD Finance Director Andrew Pai released a statement saying that as soon as the payroll errors came to their attention, leaders apologized to staff, informed all staff of the error and remedied the mistakes — including paying missing wages with interest to those affected. They said they also switched to a different payroll processing company that complies with current regulations.

E Conner's desk at Small Press Distribution, where she worked until late 2020. She advocated for better working conditions while an employee there. (Photo courtesy of E Conner)

Former employee Malone said that these financial issues and mismanagement contributed to the hostile environment at SPD, where employees felt they had to justify their positions, and eventually it became too much. Malone decided to leave last March.

"I just figured, if I could leave the organization, that means my friend who is also on the chopping block, at least ... they probably won't lose their job," he said. "I couldn't still be part of something that I loved so much, watching it slowly die."

More than 60% of employees who worked at SPD in September 2019 have since left the nonprofit.

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The Conversation Moves Online

It took a Medium post published last December by a former employee to force the conversation open about working conditions at SPD. Hundreds of writers, publishers and community members signed an open letter calling for Cunningham to resign from his leadership position at SPD. 

We're using a pseudonym — Marisela — to protect the identity of the former employee who wrote the post because of concern that being identified would put their safety or employment opportunities at risk.

In the post, Marisela described how management continued to ask them to perform intensive physical labor in the warehouse in spite of a reported physical disability.

They wrote that Cunningham would regularly "unload" to them about his personal life. They said he would approach their desk in the morning and begin complaining about personal issues with his family — emotional labor that Marisela, as well as several other former employees, said made them uncomfortable, particularly from a boss. Marisela described feeling like a "captive audience" as he overshared details about his life.

Marisela was also the employee who was underpaid more than $4,000 in 2019, documents shared with KQED show.

A former employee at Small Press Distribution, who asked to be called Marisela, published a piece about working conditions at Small Press Distribution last December. (Photo courtesy of Marisela and Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Marisela said over a month before first learning they were underpaid, they had to borrow money from a church to pay rent. They said their mental and physical health continued to decline, and the stress was making it impossible to work there. They felt like they had no choice but to leave.

In a statement, Cunningham said he apologizes for and regrets "any instance of sharing too much personal information with staff members." He also said he responded to all safety and employee health concerns as soon as they came to his attention.

A few days after Marisela handed in their resignation, SPD offered them a $2,500 severance agreement. In order to receive the money, Marisela would also have to sign nondisclosure and nondisparagement clauses, requiring them to pay $500 for every instance they disparaged SPD or broke the agreement.

While Marisela did not sign it, and thus did not receive any severance pay, they said it made them afraid to talk about their experience at SPD for months.

"I didn't have any other resources. I didn't expect them to do that. It did what they wanted it to do. I felt like disappearing was my only option," Marisela said.

SPD Board President Bernheimer said the nonprofit has "rarely but occasionally offered severance to departing employees and, like the vast majority of organizations, used agreements that provided for confidentiality and mutual non-disparagement."

Then, less than a month after Marisela quit, the pandemic hit. Marisela was not only unemployed but even more isolated. By December 2020, they decided to come forward publicly.

"I felt like I physically needed to speak the truth, or my body was going to cave in," Marisela said. "This whole thing has been an act of survival. I didn't feel like I had any other choice."

That post launched a reckoning at SPD that previous, internal demands for change had not. Bernheimer said after the post was published, SPD added a board member with HR experience, and brought in a law firm to conduct an assessment of employee concerns and the nonprofit's culture.

The law firm found Cunningham was insensitive around issues related to gender identity and ethnicity, according to a portion of the assessment shared with KQED and publicly. The SPD board said he stepped down as executive director in March after the report was complete, though he continued to work for SPD in other roles for months afterward. The SPD board has not released that assessment, citing privacy concerns.

A Boycott and Social Media Campaign

But seeking accountability through social media has also been complicated and, at times, hostile. Since December, Marisela has been running Twitter and Instagram accounts aimed at keeping the pressure on SPD and and bringing attention to working conditions in the book industry. Then, in March, someone set up a Twitter account to mock them. Marisela said soon after that account was suspended, someone claiming to be a friend of Cunningham sent them an abusive and threatening email, which they shared with KQED, telling Marisela to "move on."

Many of the people who have advocated for change at SPD say they're doing so in spite of backlash from the literary community.

"For a lot of people, it's not just a fear of losing their job. It's a fear of losing social access," said Conner, who left SPD last year. "And I will say I've lost a lot of friends. A lot of friends. There's a lot bound up in why it was so hard for anybody to say anything publicly for so long. It's work, it's art, it's this whole community and really important things for people, their livelihood, and what they're trying to create."

Since the issues at SPD have been shared online, a few presses have been trying to find other ways to distribute their books. But that hasn't been an easy process.

"I don't think there's an awareness about how much the publishers have to lose, and the books they represent," said KMA Sullivan, founder and publisher at Portland, Oregon-based YesYes Books, which describes itself online as a publisher of provocative collections of poetry, fiction and experimental art. "Presses are just trying to survive. Does that mean we shouldn't speak out for justice? Of course not, we should."

Game Over Books, a Boston-based publishing company of emerging and marginalized writers, announced it was ending its ties with SPD last year.  Founder Josh Savory said they are still searching for a distributor.

"What SPD does is [get] your books into bookstores, libraries, university bookstores. You can't just go to most stores and say, 'Please carry our books,'" he said. "And without distribution, I think that you're doing a disservice to your writers and your authors and their work."

It's also not clear what impact the social media callouts have had on the willingness of the SPD board to adopt changes.

This tension all came to a head in June when members of a recently formed group of anti-capitalist writers and publishers called Poets Union weighed in. The group, which is not an actual union or tied to SPD, decided to boycott SPD. One SPD employee released a statement anonymously supporting the boycott and saying that she had no faith in the SPD board and felt isolated.

In an email sent to staff, and later shared online, the interim executive director of SPD Cindy Myers wrote in response: "Torpedoing your employer on social media is truly not acceptable, in any organization. What is really needed is a statement from staff that conveys confidence that SPD is solving its problems collaboratively and is not a hostile workplace. I can't make that statement for you - and you don't have to make that statement at all, it's really up to you. But I am telling you, that is what is called for.”

Myers declined interview requests.

After the email was sent, SPD employees released a statement that said all but one worker opposed the boycott.

"We are SPD workers writing to express our dismay at the recent calls to action made in our name. At this time, the Poets Union boycott does not align with our wishes or needs as workers. We are a fragile, overworked crew and fear coming forward publicly would expose us to online harassment, which is why we are writing to you anonymously," the statement reads. It was signed "7 of 8 Current SPD Workers."

J. Worthen during a reading. Worthen and other former workers at Small Press Distribution want to see working conditions improve. (Photo courtesy of J. Worthen)

Still Hoping for a Transformation

SPD staff members recently completed mediation, a process where employees agree to changes in the workplace with the help of a third party. In an email sent to the small press community, Myers said details of that mediation are confidential. Board President Bernheimer did not comment when asked what the next steps are for improving practices at SPD now that mediation has ended.

That means many in the literary world and former employees will have to continue to wait and see what SPD will look like over the next few months from the outside.

About a month into the pandemic lockdowns, Worthen shared a fundraiser for SPD online. In that post, they asked people wanting to help with expenses related to their cancer treatment to instead donate to SPD. They said they could not imagine a literary world without it.

More than a year since then, Worthen said it’s hurtful that people now claim they're a threat to the nonprofit's future. They said former employees have the right to speak about harm experienced in the literary community, and about improving the situation at SPD.

Both Worthen and Malone say they still care about the future of SPD.

"I would love the closure of, like, 'Cool, close this book. And SPD is going to be OK," Malone said. "Instead of being like, 'Cool, close this book, and everything's on fire.'"

Disclaimer: Holly J. McDede volunteered at Small Press Distribution in 2013.

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