Open Letter: Shame on World Vision for Sponsoring Discrimination

Subject: Open Letter: Shame on World Vision for Sponsoring Discrimination
From: Keith Silver
Date: 3 Apr 2016

Shame on you World Vision.

In this age of Donald Trump proselytizing through a never-ending stream of racist and hateful speech, my ability to maintain a functional tolerance of discrimination has waned to an all-time low. Serving as an elected official in Washington, D.C., and as a leader in the once defining civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I patiently advocated and endured through the period of transformation that was necessary to allow America to convert from a Jim Crow directed regime to a more accepting society of covert racism. Trump’s enduring presence however, and emerging revelations concerning the pervasive practice of discrimination within the nation’s largest children’s humanitarian organization, World Vision, affirms the solemn truth that racism is alive and well today, just as yesterday. Along with this reality, which many marginalized populations have long since known, my meter of patience for allowing time for change has also expired. Cushioned by billions of dollars from both donors and federal funds/tax payer dollars, World Vision like Trump, operates in an oblivious silo of immunity with regards to respecting the human rights of all people—and it is simply deplorable and must end.

I first became aware of the disturbing behaviors occurring at World Vision in 2015, when an aggrieved African-American single mother of two, who recently relocated to Washington, D.C. for an AmeriCorps volunteer assignment, reached out to confide her employment experience with me. The lady painfully recounted how for almost a year, she worked at the World Vision Washington D.C. office, in the heart of the District, just down the street from Union Station and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); and a stone throw away from the region that I oversaw for so many years as ANC Commissioner. As the only African-American on staff in her entire department, and as one amongst but a skeleton-crew of other African-American staff members in the entire building, the lady was subjected to a daily ritual of dehumanizing treatment by senior leadership, which included having to leave sticky notes affixed to her computer terminal to gain permission to utilize the restrooms, and the experience of being ejected from an all-staff team meeting by management with the general advice that she was not smart enough.

In another disgracing incident, the college educated, mother of two, was penalized without mercy for utilizing just a few hours of unpaid-time-off to re-enroll her children in school. Several months following the “school enrollment” incident, management issued the staff member a written corrective action, and placed her on probation and a performance improvement plan. Management’s justification for the very skewed and aggressive treatment--which grossly exceeded the degree of discipline extended to other staff members, even in documented cases of misappropriation of donor fund for personal expenditures—was that the lady also delivered lunch late on one occasion, and was late to work in a separate incident [when her car was mistakenly towed, for which the tow company apologized and waived all fees]. Is World Vision not the self-same organization that markets itself on the education of children to prevent exploitation and on aid for the most vulnerable children? Yet, two young African-American children in the United States were valued as worthless for the sake of unfairly prosecuting a woman who was disliked for factors she did not choose and could not change.

I suppose from the World Vision vantage point, the staff members’ African-American children, were placed on a lower plane of consideration, separate from that afforded to the poverty-stricken children of a similar hue catered to by World Vision in Africa for example, because poor emaciated waifs in African with bloated bellies are a cash cow for the organization, whereas an African-American staff members’ children are not. For decades, World Vision has successfully been able to exploit the images of impoverished children in African to reap billions of dollars from unassuming compassionate donors, and nearly a quarter-billion dollars each year from the federal government. World Vison serves as a master in the domain of sponsorship, having virtually crafted the industry model for pulling on the heartstrings and pocketbooks of givers. In a controversial model at the best--where money donated for sponsored children, does not even go to the children, contrary to common donor beliefs—World Vision is a domineering bully, that strategically has established itself as the number one child sponsorship organization in the world.

But in America, the black children of a female staff member were damned, and a mother was admonished and subject to unprecedented disciplinary action for taking a few hours, unpaid, to facilitate the compulsory school attendance of her children and to attend to one of the most critical needs of a child--education. And to cement the level of hypocrisy in practice at World Vision, the mother worked on the Education Team!

I am simply astounded that discrimination can openly take place in 2016, in America, and in the nerve center of regulation, Washington, D.C. As a college graduate and as a mother of two, the treatment directed towards this lady was wholly unacceptable. Ultimately, she did what very few victims of discrimination at World Vision do: she filed a complaint with the EEOC, and was inevitably terminated as such, for the audacity of not “staying in her place” and for deviating from the fraternal code of silence. Her position was swiftly filled with the “preferred candidate,” an olive-toned new employee; and the manager at the helm of the direct discrimination was promoted for her good deeds. Good ol’ girls club.

Discrimination within the hallowed walls of World Vision, the “Christian” relief organization, is hardly a new practice. Complaints have cautiously arisen from intimidated employees and terminated staff members detailing discrimination based upon professionally immaterial human attributes ranging from race and sexual orientation, to age and even for the almost applaudable pretext of employees not being “Christian enough.” But when were hatred, division, and discrimination accoutrements of Christianly behavior? I am not a pastor, and I only recently went to Church on Easter, but I know that the Bible preaches love; and that God is a God of love, forgiveness and acceptance. World Vision however, operates under the holy name of God, as a Christian organization, under the classification of “religious organization,” but yet the hiring, firing and employment practices of World Vision are anything but Godly.

Muslims should rejoice. They get a pass on the antics, as Muslims are banned from employment with World Vision. So again, Trump and World Vision reach yet another commonality: discrimination against Muslims. Prohibition of an entire religious group, the second largest on the face of the Earth, seems to makes a lot of sense for an “international humanitarian organization” with business operations in nearly 100 nations globally. Ironically, World Vision’s prohibition against hiring Muslims only serves as an advantage because it prevents them from being subject to the “bizarre and disappointing” experience of working for an evangelic, conservative, and discriminatory organization.

The pressing concern however, is how can one of the largest relief agencies in the world practice proper financial stewardship of its enormous financial resources, and actually administer without prejudice to vulnerable children with the greatest needs, when its policies and leaders are so discriminating?

One would alas question how such brazen divisive acts can be legal in America in an enterprise with more than 40,000 employees, and let alone in the nation’s capital, which is home to some of the most encompassing human rights laws in the country. The answer is to this is in the law itself. As a self-proclaimed “religious organization,” World Vision is lawfully able to evade many civil and human rights laws due to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and various other religious exemptions. Though World Vision receives nearly a quarter-billion dollars annually from the federal government/tax payer dollars, the aid group legally can discriminate and operate with very little oversight or accountability.

A 2013 letter to the White House which called for reforms to end federally funded discrimination, and that was signed by dozens of groups including the ACLU, NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, and Human Rights Campaign, stated the following:

Traditionally, religiously affiliated organizations that accepted government funds to provide social services were bound by the same rules as other non-religious providers, including the ban on discriminating in hiring based on religion for positions funded with taxpayer money. When the Bush Administration implemented its Faith-Based Initiative, it fundamentally changed these rules, allowing religious organizations to take government funds and use those funds to discriminate in hiring a qualified individual based on nothing more than his or her religious beliefs. We strongly opposed this change, as the federal government should never subsidize workplace discrimination. During the 2008 campaign, President Obama agreed with us when he said he would restore employment protections: “[I]f you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them—or against the people you hire—on the basis of their religion.”

With Obama’s term nearing a close, employment protections still have not been enacted to halt abusive practices like those found rampant in World Vision. In August 2015, a second letter was sent to President Obama at the White House, requesting reconsideration of a memorandum concerning the RFRA. On this attempt, 130 religious, education, civil rights, labor, LGBT, women’s, and health organizations signed the letter. While I support many of the measures that President Obama has enacted while in office, I do not support discrimination, and for that reason I cannot support World Vision. And notwithstanding what may be allowable by law, an organization that prides itself on “follow[ing] our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God," should abide by what is right rather than what is allowable.

I will be vocal in my complete disapproval and lack of acceptance for the pervasive culture of discrimination at World Vision. To donors, sponsors, employees, partners, the innocent children, and countless others, World Vision is disappointing in its lack of progress and piss-poor people policies. Shame on World Vision. The organization puts to disgrace every credo, principle and value that it was originally founded on by the minister and relief worker Bob Pierce in 1950. But as the Bible says, “Money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10).

I however will not latently complain and confine myself to an editorial platform. In addition to my appeal to law makers and to World Vision to make the critical changes necessary to end the discriminatory behavior in World Vision, I will also be out with my picket sign at World Vision offices in Washington D.C.; Federal Way, Washington, and Monrovia, California, so that the people (African-Americans, Muslims, the LGBT community, seniors, groups & organizations, etc.) and all those who have been silenced for too long can have their opportunity to speak and let World Vision that discrimination in any capacity is not OK.


Keith Silver
4-Term ANC Commissioner, Washington, D.C.
President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference,
Washington, D.C. Chapter 2007-2014 (Ret.)
Co-Founder, Martin Luther King Peace Walk