Three months ago, Small Press Distribution came under fire from current and former employees regarding wage violations and allegations of workplace discrimination. On Monday, the Berkeley, Calif.-based indie publishing distributor announced the pending departure of executive director Brent Cunningham, who has been the focus of the majority of the employee complaints.
Board president Alan Bernheimer confirmed that Cunningham’s departure is due to the findings of an internal investigative commissioned by the organization’s board of directors. “The board agreed that [Cunningham’s departure] is what is needed for SPD to move forward,” Bernheimer told PW. “It's certainly because of the issues that have been brought up and then reviewed and assessed in the report itself,” he said.
Cunningham will step down to a short-term, limited role in operations, in which he does not work directly with staff and is no longer executive director. Finance director Andrew Pai will handle all matters involving staff until SPD appoints an interim executive director in the coming weeks. Cunningham will leave the company entirely by the time a new permanent executive director is brought on board, at the latest. Board members and staff will next take up a conflict resolution process, using the report as the foundation for repairing fraught relations between the two.
The announcement of Cunningham's departure came just days after the completion of the internal investigation. The findings of that investigation were provided to staff and management last Friday. The board declined to disclose the contents of the report citing privacy concerns, but many of the underlying issues have been clear since December, when a former employee published an anonymous article under the name Damaged Book Worker, outlining detailed allegations of wage theft.
Those allegations were resoundingly backed by current employees and gave rise to further complaints about Cunningham’s leadership, and pervasive issues regarding discriminatory language in the workplace. A public letter calling for Cunningham's resignation gained hundreds of signatures from across the publishing community. In response, the board launched the investigation and committed to a mediation and conflict resolution process with staff.
J Worthen shared their experiences with the investigators because the board promised that the report would be released, and wrote that they were dismayed to see the board reverse that decision. Writing on Twitter, Worthen wrote that the report "states that the 'majority' of staff experienced 'problematic' behavior from the ED, that the evidence of this behavior is 'abundant'" & therefore shouldn't have been a surprise."
But Worthen said the issues go beyond just the executive director, prompting their painful decision to quit SPD. "The transphobic and inappropriate behavior of a staff member (not the ED) prompted me to quit," Worthen wrote in an e-mail to PW. "This behavior, plus the toxic work environment and the stress of reliving painful experiences during the OIG interview process with no hope the assessment would lead to positive change, was physically and emotionally draining for me. I’m trying to recover from cancer treatment, and to do that, I can’t keep subjecting my body to the toxicity at SPD." Worthen's last day was Friday. Citing similar workplace issues at least one other employee on the company's small staff quit during the investigation.
Damaged Book Worker, whose allegations against the company prompted the investigation, wrote that there was still substantial work to be done. DBW said that their anonymity was violated by the board during the process. "Those on the SPD board who’ve enabled or committed abuse must be immediately removed," DBW said. "They have proven that they will not protect the most marginalized and vulnerable people in this industry against abuse. If every board member is complicit, as it seems is likely, then the entire board must resign."
Thus far, no board member has resigned. In a letter shared with publishing clients on Monday the board wrote, “This has been an extremely painful time for the SPD community and the board recognizes its share of responsibility for that. We’ve heard and understand the deep frustration with how long this process has taken. We needed an independent assessment of the many allegations and complaints, corroboration where available, and the implicated parties’ response to those allegations.”
With the report complete, Bernheimer said the board has given a list of three potential mediation organizations to the staff, and will defer to their selection in the hope of beginning a conflict resolution process as soon as this month. Staff will also be part of the hiring committee for the interim and permanent executive directors, and two employees will report monthly to two members of the board in order to create an ongoing dialogue.
In their letter, the board asked publishers to recommend potential candidates to succeed Cunningham. “Publishing experience is helpful,” they wrote, “but fundamental expertise in progressive nonprofit management will be the primary emphasis.”
Bernheimer expressed optimism that the current and upcoming steps being taken at SPD are heading the distributor in the right direction. “We think there's an opportunity here, not simply to rebuild the organization, but in some sense to reimagine it; and ensure that it's doing the best job possible serving the small press community at the same time as providing a healthy and supportive workplace to everyone who works there,” he said. “Maybe it's presumptuous to say that we're turning the corner, but I feel like the corner is in sight.”
An earlier version of this article misstated that DBW was not asked to participate in the internal investigation when they in fact were.