After a barrage of accusations and threats to publish incriminating evidence to support their claims, the group of current and former Essence staffers who comprise #BlackFemaleAnonymous say their conditions have been met. The announcement, made via a tweet on Thursday night, came a day ahead of the collective’s pronounced July 3 end-of-day deadline, after a New York Times article seemingly confirmed that Essence Ventures founder and owner Richelieu Dennis, Former President and CEO of Essence Communications Michelle Ebanks, Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content and Creative Officer Moana Luu have all ceased to engage in daily business operations at the magazine.
The announcement came after a week of online exchanges, widespread speculation, a Change.org petition which garnered thousands of names in support of the effort to #TakeBackEssence and statements issued by the magazine itself, which is simultaneously celebrating its 50th anniversary year and virtually hosting its 26th annual Essence Festival this week. As recently as Thursday afternoon, the magazine sent an email to The Glow Up clarifying the role of Dennis at the organization, stating:
There was no interim CEO at ESSENCE Communications, Inc. (ECI), following the departure of Michelle Ebanks on March 31 until Richelieu Dennis appointed Caroline Wanga to this position on July 1. As owner, Dennis helped to lead the team along with the ECI senior leadership team, but never took on the roles or responsibilities of CEO. So he never stepped down from, resigned from or was replaced in any role.
The accusations against Dennis—which included claims of sexual harassment and misconduct as well as nepotism in the staffing of his holdings—were perhaps the most loaded of the litany of charges made by #BlackFemaleAnonymous, which threatened to make public proof of their numerous claims if Dennis and the other leaders named didn’t step down by week’s end. Aside from the clarification that Dennis never held the role of CEO and will no longer lead the team since having chosen new Chief Growth Officer Caroline Wanga as interim CEO, the Times reprinted portions of a statement by Essence spokesperson Latraviette Smith-Wilson, who called the coalition’s claims “accusations and demands” that were “unsupported and outdated.”
Additionally, the statement provided to the Times states that Ebanks has not been active in Essence’s business operations since resigning in March (though holding a seat on the board); a claim the coalition refutes. Collins Profet purportedly already planned to exit Essence for another role in advance of the #BlackFemaleAnonymous letter, and while there was no stated plan for Luu to resign from her role, the statement partly conceded to the letter-writers’ demands, disclosing that she “will step back from day-to-day operations during the course of the [independent] review.”
Dubious but nevertheless declaring triumph, it is the aforementioned review—which Essence leadership has promised will be independently conducted—that #BlackFemaleAnonymous seems to have set their sights on next.
“We’re confident should the ‘Internal investigation’ be conducted ethically...findings will corroborate every claim in our testimony,” they wrote in their three-page response on Thursday, adding: “Existing staffers continue to experience regular gaslighting and intimidation...Who will represent the Black female employees of Essence? This is why we demand full transparency on internal investigations, full stop.”
The writers directly tasked interim CEO Wanga with the responsibility of providing the requested information, as well as restating a prior request for an action plan “outlining how Essence will make its workplace more safe and equitable for Black women.”
Per their statement, some of their expectations of the proposed plan include “Equitable salaries at market-rate”; strict anti-bullying and intimidation policies; and a performance review process that assures staff not only opportunities for promotions and raises, but opportunities for fair, non-punitive feedback, all of which would be “based on performance, and not likeability,” they write.
“And finally, we expect you to introduce the most premier maternity leave policy in the nation, because Black female maternal mortality is one of Black America’s most urgent and unsung issues, and because Black female reproductive justice matters,” ends the list of revised demands.
As the Times notes, these are issues many industries, institutions and organizations are being forced to take stock of in our current climate—and many of the issues #BlackFemaleAnonymous highlighted over the course of the past week. But at a company long considered the pinnacle of Black female representation in the media, the demand that the inner workings reflect that outer image presents a reckoning specific to Black media outlets, as the “family” must address the dysfunction within its own ranks.
On a personal note: As a journalist at a fellow Black media outlet—one led by Black women—who both respects and often works closely with Essence, there has been no pleasure in reporting on the issues raised by #BlackFemaleAnonymous, and genuine hope that any issues present are resolved so that the brand may indeed live up to its revered image. As a Black female journalist who grew up with this now-legacy brand, processing the claims that the organization may not be the safe haven I once found in its pages has been saddening.
Nevertheless, as a Black female journalist who both admires the Essence legacy and strives for more equality and intersectionality daily, the dialogue and opportunity presented by this controversy have been both necessary and encouraging. These conversations are almost indescribably uncomfortable, but they have never been more crucial more than now, as we hope to use this pivotal moment to create a more equitable media industry. With work, it will become one in which Black women’s intellect and cultural cachet no longer merely serve as inspiration for others to mine and exploit but will facilitate the elevation and recognition of Black women’s brilliance in its totality. Clearly, that work must also begin within.
Updated: Friday, 7/3/20 at 4:00 p.m., ET: Echoing our assertion that the issues raised by #BlackFemaleAnonymous were never exclusive to Essence, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) issued its own statement on the matter on Friday afternoon. In it, the organization expressed support for the coalition’s bravery in highlighting these issues, dismay at the accusations leveled at Dennis and similar ones implicating the now-former CEO of Okayplayer/OkayAfrica Abiola Oke, and acknowledged that there may be more yet to surface.
“They must move swiftly to rectify the issues [and] provide remedies, resources, [and] apologies to the women impacted,” read a tweet from the organization, adding: “Change must happen now!
Updated: Friday, 7/3/20 at 2:36 p.m., ET: Inferring that some of the abusive behaviors described in their June 28 essay have continued even as Essence has publicly met their initial demands, #BlackFemaleAnonymous issued a tweet on Friday morning warning their threat to publish evidence of misconduct on Saturday [the dreaded Day 6 of their missive] would be reactivated if “covert gaslighting [and] bullying” by Essence and Dennis family “operatives” continued on their platforms. The Glow Up has reached out to the group for further comment and will update if any is given.
Updated: Friday, 7/3/20 at 11:05 a.m., ET: #BlackFemaleAnonymous reached out to The Glow Up to dispute the use of the phrase “Dubious but nevertheless declaring triumph...” as they felt it undermined the success of their effort. To be clear, the phrase was never intended as an assessment of their victory, but in reference to the groups’ outstanding concerns about Essence’s corporate structure and pending investigation.
#BlackFemaleAnonymous further expressed concern that we had not reached out to them directly for comment during our coverage. Our choice to let the coalition’s statements stand for themselves was consistent with our treatment of Essence, and additionally out of respect for the fact that the group had already expressed its terms of anonymity (of note: the Times reported that the group declined a request for comment; we do not know if we would have had a different response to such a request). Since this is an issue personal to this writer as a fellow Black female journalist, in a quest to maintain objectivity I chose to speak with third parties with direct knowledge of the situation at Essence Communications and its affiliates. All of those sources corroborated #BlackFemaleAnonymous’ allegations to the best of their knowledge.
What should also be noted here is that the issues raised by #BlackFemaleAnonymous are not exclusive to Essence as a Black media company, and their success in this brave effort holds transformative potential for how Black women are treated throughout our industry. While The Glow Up’s goal in covering this issue was not to over-editorialize but fact-gather, we stand in solidarity with any effort to increase parity and respect for Black women in the workplace.