Open Letter Calls for Removal of WonderRoot Director Chris Appleton

The exterior of Atlanta arts nonprofit WonderRoot on Memorial Drive.

An open letter calling for the removal of WonderRoot co-founder and executive director Chris Appleton was released this morning, bearing the signatures of Atlanta arts nonprofit veterans including MINT founding director Erica Jamison and artists such as Stephanie Dowda, Angela Davis Johnson, and Jessica Caldas. The letter alleges years of “inveterate disrespect and intimidation” directed at WonderRoot employees by Appleton, including racial insults, violations of personal and professional boundaries, and financial dishonesty with employees, artists, and funders. Appleton, along with Alex West and Witt Wisebram, founded WonderRoot in 2004.

These actions stand in sharp contrast with the social change-oriented mission WonderRoot has publicly advocated in recent years. The mission statement on the organization’s website describes WonderRoot as a “nonprofit arts and service organization with a mission to unite artists and community to inspire positive social change.” The letter released this morning, however, describes the “implementation of the same dynamics of racism, classism, and heteropatriarchy that the organization purports to dismantle.” Additionally, it claims that staff members have repeatedly attempted to privately contact the organization’s board about these issues over the past five years.

Read the full text of the letter below.

An open letter to the WonderRoot Board of Directors:

We stand together, as the named and unnamed, to condemn the egregious and systemic harm that we have endured at the behest of Executive Director, Chris Appleton’s leadership. We come to you as former employees, contributing artists, partners, community members and affiliates of WonderRoot. Our experiences with this abuse are firsthand.

WonderRoot’s mission is to unite artists and community to inspire positive social change. It is a mission we believe in and one that the current staff and contracted artists bring to life in transformative, impactful ways. Yet, we find ourselves uniting across our shared experiences of harm and abuse by Chris Appleton. Repeatedly, this problem in leadership was brought to your attention–in fact, we have privately reached out to members of the Board in 2014, 2017, and in 2019. We have done our due diligence in reporting this abuse. We believe that WonderRoot’s Board of Directors has been complicit in these grievances, including:

  • A top-down workplace culture of inveterate disrespect and intimidation–including frequent outbursts and insults; consistent violation of personal and professional boundaries; inappropriate attempts at intimacy inside and outside of the workplace; and deflection of any responsibility for mistakes
  • A full force implementation of the same dynamics of racism, classism, and heteropatriarchy that the organization purports to dismantle–including racial insults and language; solely taking credit for and presenting the work of PoC, women, and/or LGBTQ staff; direct character attacks of this same staff through brutal and public reprimanding; and the deliberate manipulation of power dynamics
  • Financial dishonesty with employees, artists, and funders–including inaccurate and incomplete accounting of financial records, failure to pay staff and artists on time or at all, and refusing access to basic budgetary information
  • Mismanagement of basic operations–including cutting off staff health insurance without providing advance notice, failure to provide staff W2s after repeated requests, and forcing staff to work in a building without AC or heat

Past harm can never be erased, but future harm can be minimized. We demand that you finally respond in actionable terms. While we have no malice towards Chris, we believe WonderRoot will continue to be negligent if it continues to support Chris as Executive Director. Until Chris can conduct himself in an ethical, honest way, we feel strongly that he should not serve in an executive leadership role, nor serve on the board of any arts or social justice organization. We further implore you to protect and prioritize current staff members. WonderRoot’s brilliant work and successes are due to the staff’s efforts and talent. We celebrate and are thankful for them.

This letter is far from exhaustive. We cannot recount every grievance here. For the sake of WonderRoot, the arts and social justice community, and those of us who have suffered in this way, we want to make sure that all have a voice. This letter will not be the last word on these abuses.

#RemoveChrisAppleton #BelieveWomen #BelievePOC

Sincerely,

Jessica Caldas

Angela Davis Johnson

Stephanie Dowda

Erica Jamison

Stephanie Kong

Jennifer Lobsenz

Amanda Mills

Matthew Rosenfeld

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Disclaimer: Chris Appleton was a member of the inaugural Board of Directors for BURNAWAY, serving as Chair during his tenure. Signatory Stephanie Dowda, another previous member, served as Chair of the Board of  Directors in 2012. No current BURNAWAY staff worked with Appleton during his tenure on the board.

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