'These men were waiting for us to grow up': Open letter to The Street Culture Project calls for action against 'culture' of abuse and silence
REGINA -- Twenty-two current and former staff of a Regina non-profit have written an open letter calling for change, to what staff call a “culture of abuse and silence” in the workplace.
In August, allegations of abusive behaviours were made against senior staff at Regina’s Street Culture Project.
The allegations resulted in Executive Director, Dustin Browne, stepping down from his position and CEO, Kim Sutherland went on leave and then retired.
The five-page letter makes 12 Calls to Action for The Board of Directors of The Street Culture Project and interim CEO, Scott Cruickshank, to implement including “a public apology, acknowledging the harm done to survivors and vulnerable individuals.”
"This letter is our response to the misguided and unethical actions that have historically occurred - and continue to occur," it reads.
The letter also calls for the removal of a current senior staff member.
All of the calls to action detailed in the letter can be found in the full document below.
Two current Street Culture staff members, who wish to have their identities protected, said since the initial allegations were levelled against former Executive Director, Dustin Browne, and former CEO, Kim Sutherland, issues at the organization continue.
One staff member told CTV News these issues resulted in many staff members quitting, and said care for youth has been negatively impacted.
"We thought maybe this would be a shift and kind of the opportunity that we all needed to take care of some of that systemic stuff," one staff member said. "But clearly, it's more systemic and more deeply rooted in the culture of agency because some of those top individuals are no longer there anymore and we're still having some of the same issues."
‘THEY EXPLOITED ME’
For a decade, The Street Culture Project was a large part of Samantha Bird’s life.
Street Culture is an organization for vulnerable youth. It provides youth with shelter, necessities and also teaches youth life skills.
But what should have been a safe-haven for Bird, wasn't.
"I was a 15-year-old homeless kid who needed help," Bird said.
Bird recalls the abuse she suffered as a youth employee of the organization.
"They put the label of family out there, and they made it seem like I was family," Bird said. "And then they exploited me. And then they abused me."
CULTURE OF ABUSE
Bird said as a young vulnerable girl, she felt exploited on many occasions while being in Street Culture's care.
"They would have me spew my hardships all over the media," Bird said. "They had me acting as a show dog in fundraisers, where they called my life story their 'give me money video.'
Bird said the level of verbal and emotional abuse she suffered while at Street Culture has scarred her.
"I would hear near daily that I was incompetent in some degree," Bird said. "Hearing things like 'I'm stupid' or I would be called degrading names."
Bird said the abuse didn't stop at verbal and emotional abuse, she alleges she was also sexually harassed by a supervisor.
"These men were waiting for us to grow up," Bird said. "The fact that somebody who had power above me felt comfortable enough to sexualize me at such a young age and given my status at the agency being a previous youth, it just kind of speaks volumes to the sexual culture that was ingrained in Street Culture."
In the summer, Street Culture appointed Scott Cruickshank to the position of CEO of the organization.
It also hired an independent investigator to investigate the allegations made against former and current staff members of the organization.
Cruickshank emailed a statement to CTV News, and said this letter speaks to the work that still needs to be done in the organization.
“These calls to action and the findings of the investigation will inform the current board more specifically what needs to be done,” Cruickshank said. “The authors of the letter need to be heard and understood as part of reparation.”
Cruickshank did not specifically address if any of the calls to action will be implemented in the short term.
“Street Culture’s volunteer board members have all been brought on because of their experience and skills to work through this time of change. Our leadership has been working with managers to work on some of the reparation and healthy culture building. Once the investigation is concluded the board will decide next steps - I await their decisions.”
RESPONSE TO LETTER
Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen, CEO of the YWCA in Regina, was appointed to the position of advisor to Cruickshank, following allegations that came to light in August.
Coomber-Bendtsen said her role as an advisor is to add stability to the organization.
"The anonymous letter makes it clear that for some people, there are still unanswered questions," Coomber-Bendtsen said. "My thoughts are that the reparation process is still underway and a lot of work still needs to be done. There is a lot of hurt and certainly there’s a need to address the harms that have been committed."
CALLS FOR CHANGE
One of the anonymous staff members CTV News spoke to, said the point of writing this open letter is to outline the changes staff and youth think need to happen and start building trust within the organization.
"We're doing this to force transparency and accountability and to say that you cannot adopt the policy of avoidance," the employee said. "You cannot wait three months for this to blow over and then potentially give abusive managers their jobs back. This is not okay. If you want this to change you have to show us you're going to make a strong commitment towards that change."
This staff member said the goal of the letter isn't to see Street Culture close, as this organization is extremely needed in the community.
The staff members said they hope to see a restructuring of the Board of Directors and management to include more women and youth.
"There's still a lot of good that the agency has had and can have in the community but it's got to be done with the right people in certain positions and the right people alongside making some of the decisions and policy changes," a current employee of The Street Culture Project said. "Being in the conversations, being at the table because they never happened in the past and that's what got us here.”
FUNDING OF STREET CULTURE
According to its annual return from 2018-19, Street Culture Project had a total revenue of $4.3 million and received nearly $3.6 million in government grants. The largest financial contributor is the Government of Saskatchewan through the Ministry of Social Services and Corrections.
CTV News asked The Ministry of Corrections about its obligation to address these allegations raised at an organization it helps fund.
The Ministry responded to CTV News with a statement and said it’s aware of the allegations but is waiting for the results of the third party investigation.
"The Government of Saskatchewan believes in the critical work done by Street Culture Kidz Project to help some of Regina’s most vulnerable youth,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Corrections said. “The Government is holding further comment on these specific allegations pending the outcome of the third party investigation.”