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Discrimination Lawsuit Against Feminist Org Will Go to Trial

The former vice president of the National Organization for Women will be allowed to take her racial discrimination case to trial after a judge refused to throw it out.

Gilda Yazzie, 69, sued the feminist group in 2019, alleging she was harassed, barred from the office, and removed from her position as vice president due to racism on the part of former NOW President Tony Van Pelt.

NOW denied any racist motivations for Van Pelt’s actions, or from the board’s decision to expel Yazzie from her role. Instead, they claimed Yazzie‘s termination resulted from her mismanagement of company money and inability to fulfill her job duties.

NOW asked for the case to be dismissed in May. This week, a federal judge in Washington, Randolph Moss, denied the motion on almost all counts, allowing the case to proceed to trial.

“[T]he Court is persuaded that a reasonable jury could find that Van Pelt was motivated by racial animus and that this started and later reinforced a chain of events that … ensured that Yazzie was unable to serve her full term as Vice President,” Moss wrote.

Yazzie said she is relieved—not just for herself, but for “people who are put in my position.”

“Hopefully this will help effect change in the future,” she told The Daily Beast. “I hope that I’m making NOW stronger by keeping them accountable.”

Her attorney, Angela Alioto, said she is excited to bring the case before a jury.

“I am just so tired of organizations representing something and then not doing it, not being it,” she said. “It’s so hypocritical.”

Van Pelt—who resigned as head of NOW amid an uproar triggered by a Daily Beast investigation into allegations of widespread racism throughout the organization—did not respond to a request for comment. NOW also did not respond.

In her suit, Yazzie alleges that after running with Van Pelt for the top positions at NOW, the president turned on her and began excluding her from key meetings, emails, and software programs she needed to do her job. Tensions boiled overon Jan. 29, 2018, when Yazzie claims Van Pelt chased her into her office, backed her into a corner, and yelled, “You won’t be here for three years!” “I am the president, so you have to do what I say!” and, “You P.O.C.” (Van Pelt has denied saying this.)

That spring, after an independent auditor found issues with some of Yazzie’s reimbursement filings, Van Pelt, board member Beth Corbin, and NOW attorney Tom Hart pressured Yazzie to resign and locked her out of the office and her NOW email when she refused to step down, she claims. She was eventually given access to her email but was instructed to work from the field instead of the office, and barred from representing NOW at public events without approval.

The relationship between Yazzie and the higher-ups continued to deteriorate until a consultant hired by the organization found issues with her work and the board voted to remove her from her role. She was replaced with Christian Nunes, a Black woman, who testified for the suit that Van Pelt was similarly discriminatory towards her.

Both Nunes and Yazzie’s allegations were included in the Daily Beast investigation. Dozens of former members, employees, or board members of the organization spoke about being harassed, ignored, or disparaged at NOW meetings and offices, and internal documents revealed that 15 national-level employees had signed onto a letter accusing Van Pelt of sidelining and disparaging women of color.

The series drove nine board members and the majority of the local NOW chapters to call on Van Pelt to resign, while the Washington, D.C., and Twin Cities boards quit in protest. The organization’s head of college students also resigned, saying in an email to The Daily Beast that “the organization’s actions have completely tarnished my work among many others.” Van Pelt stepped down in August 2020, citing health concerns.

Yazzie said she hopes to continue her progressive activism in her new position as a city council member in Durango, Colorado.

“That’s one of the reasons I ran for city council,” she said. “So I can continue on my personal mission to be a mentor for progressives, for people of color, and show them that we don’t have a voice unless we’re at the table.”


January 2024