James Beard Foundation Staff Demand Leadership Change in Internal Letter

On July 16, a large group of James Beard Foundation employees sent a letter to the foundation’s senior leadership team, outlining a list of demands for the future of the organization. The anonymous employees describe themselves in the letter, which was shared with Eater, as a group that has “dedicated years of their lives to the work of the James Beard Foundation despite pay disparity, inadequate benefits, long hours, and challenging working conditions.”

In the letter, the employees note that “recent civil unrest and Black Lives Matter protests instigated by the murder of innocent Black men, women, non-binary, and Trans victims have brought to a head issues of discrimination, oppression, and inaction,” and that while the foundation has put out public statements of solidarity and support, it “must now take real action and institute lasting and proactive change.”

The James Beard Foundation is one of the country’s most established food-focused organizations. The Foundation is perhaps best known for the yearly James Beard Awards, often referred to as the “Oscars of the food world.” In addition to the lauded awards, which open up all sorts of opportunities for chefs, and culminate annually in a black tie event, the organization hosts dinners at the James Beard House in New York, and operates a number of initiatives and scholarships across the country.

The foundation, which has been criticized for historically favoring men and white chefs through its award-granting, has made some modifications and updates to their programs in recent years, including to how chefs and media figures are nominated for Beard awards. These changes, such as waiving entry application fees, and diversifying judging committees, were aimed at diversifying the awards and making them more equitable. But the employee-signed letter suggests a divide between the Foundation’s stated values, and the way employees are treated and compensated within the organization.

Included in the letter, which the staff declined to comment on, is a detailed list of five prioritized demands, and a request that the Foundation “initiate a plan for both short-term and long-term action for those items marked as immediate within seven business days.” In an email sent to Eater on July 23, an anonymous employee said their demands had been “met with more gaslighting and deferred action.”

The five demands — each of which is followed by a thorough, bulleted list detailing next steps, are as follows: Diversify Senior Leadership Team; Diversify Board of Trustees; Incorporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion goals into every event and program; Full salary transparency with roadmap for merit-based growth; Hire a human resources representative that focuses on community culture, not just benefits.

Among the demands laid out in the letter is a call for an increase of Queer people and BIPOC, both on the Foundation’s board and in senior leadership positions. The employees ask that the board of trustees create an equity statement, and suggest that if parties can not agree on its contents, “they should be asked to resign.” The letter states that any board members whose terms end this year should be replaced, that two BIPOC board members should be added by the end of 2020, and that three more BIPOC board members be elected by the end of 2021.

The letter also stresses the need for increased salary transparency, and an end to senior leadership bonuses that far outweigh the ones awarded to employees. It states that the Foundation should “distribute bonus funds equally to all staff to reflect an equitable, modern non-profit pay structure which recognizes all labor as valuable.” To create equity and transparency surrounding salaries, the employees ask that salary ranges be provided for all new hires, and that no current staff or incoming hires make less than $50,000 a year.

Also included in the letter is a call for the Foundation to hire an HR rep who would, among other duties, “[r]eview all outstanding formal complaints made against managers, directors, or members of SLT (Senior Leadership Team), including both office and Beard House staff,” and “Immediately place any employee with complaints of creating a hostile work environment or harassment on administrative leave until the HR hire can review the cases without bias and, if appropriate, provide a path to reunification through proper training.”

Before events at the James Beard House were put on hold because of the current health crisis, chefs were invited to cook dinner in the space throughout the year — The opportunity is considered by many to be a distinguished honor. But the letter sent to Eater reflects concerns that this honor is inaccessible to many chefs.

Much like receiving a James Beard award, serving dinner at the Beard House can raise a chef’s profile and help them publicize their business. But for many chefs, the cost of doing so is simply too high. After jumping through the hoops to score an invitation to cook at the House, chefs must pay for travel and housing, purchase their own food and wine, at least partially staff the event, and are often asked to find an off-premise kitchen to prepare food in. Many chefs fundraise in order to cook dinner at the Beard House.

The letter demands that the Foundation “[d]evelop short-term and long-term programmatic goals and initiatives that will support and demand equity within the food and beverage community.” All events and programs hosted by the Foundation should be mission-focused, the employees write, and two BIPOC recruits should be added to the programming committee when the James Beard House reopens, to ensure this goal is met. Any event, the letter states, must serve the needs of the culinary community, and shouldn’t just be packaged as a “party with a purpose.”

Beard Foundation employees write that their listed demands are only a first step, and that their demands are aimed at making the Foundation more equitable both for employees, and for those who the Foundation claims to support. “As signatories of this letter,” it reads, “we are calling upon the James Beard Foundation to take immediate measurable actions to address the systemic racism, inequity, and discrimination that continues to affect our Foundation.”

Reached for statement, James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach tells Eater the organization is “working with outside consultants to prioritize talent, training, and culture to dismantle inequities within our organization. Our vision is to lead by action and example, creating a culture of equity within the Foundation and using our position of power in the industry to further equity for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, national origin or citizenship status.”

Reichenbach tells Eater the Foundation is in the process of hiring a Senior Director of People and Culture, to “ensure that we are creating a work environment that is safe, supportive, and inclusive for all.” According to Reichenbach, that new role will be responsible for conducting a salary review, and comparing current employee salaries to industry benchmarks. The Senior Director will also be responsible for ensuring that “there are clearly understood paths to progressing through the organization.” The Foundation is also in the process of hiring for a Human Resources position.

“I agree with most of what the staff is asking for in the letter,” says Reichenbach, “and the majority of the items are underway as part of the internal audit we are working on.”


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