Jewish Employee Files Discrimination Suit Over DEI Interventions

Jewish Institute for Liberal Values created “The Nicole Levitt Legal Fund against a hostile DEI work atmosphere” to fund Levitt’s discrimination suit legal fees. | YouTube screenshot

A Jewish employee of Philadelphia-based nonprofit domestic abuse group Women Against Abuse filed a discrimination suit against the organization, saying that she experienced racial discrimination and a “racially hostile work environment.”

Nicole Levitt, a white Jewish woman, believed that in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, WAA created a “racially hostile” environment when implementing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, or DEI. She filed a discrimination suit at the
beginning of the year.

Levitt said that in June 2020, the organization created affinity groups separated by race, encouraging Black employees, Latinx employees and white employees to meet in groups by their respective race, which she said encouraged “segregation” in the workplace. The groups intended to “unpack how and where Anti Blackness showed up in childhood, young adulthood, and how it manifests today,” according to Levitt’s complaint. In its response to Levitt’s complaint, WAA said its staff is majority people of color, but its senior leadership team is predominantly white. The organization serves mostly women of color, WAA’s
position statement said.

In April 2021, Levitt said WAA asked employees to sign a “full value contract” as a member of the legal center’s “white affinity group.” Among 15 points, which included “Assume good intentions” and “Be present and engage,” Levitt took issue with one that read, “Own that all white people are racist and that I am not the exception.”

Levitt claimed in her complaint that when she refused to sign the contract, WAA “retaliated,” requiring her to either attend two affinity group meetings or meet individually with Ragina Arrington, a freelance consultant for WAA who now works for the Clinton Foundation. 

Levitt called the 90-minute meeting “thought reform,” and said Arrington questioned Levitt’s political views and values. The Clinton Foundation did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Following the meeting, Levitt and another Jewish employee brought an article about antisemitism to WAA’s Racial Justice Committee “in [an] effort to diversify the list of social justice readings” the committee supplied, the complaint read. Levitt said she was singled out by other members of the group.

Levitt is a consultant for the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, a nonprofit founded a year ago, which, per its website, hopes to “ensure that Jewish civic culture does not become dominated by a single ideology.”

The organization set up a legal fund on its website for Levitt’s suit.

At its core, JILV believes that everyone’s point of view, even if unpopular, should have space to be heard, founder and CEO David Bernstein said.

“It’s important for workplaces to ask questions about what does it mean to be diverse? And how can we constantly be inclusive places for employees? But that also has to include viewpoint diversity,” he said.

He was particularly wary of WAA creating a “white affinity group” and calling all white people racist.

“There’s a danger of demonizing whiteness here that we’ve also seen in the discourse, and that it’s not too far of a leap to go from demonizing whiteness to demonizing Jews, who are ultimately often regarded as the quintessential white person,” Bernstein said.

JILV Director of Education and Community Engagement Brandy Shufutinsky argues that in the case of DEI initiatives, discouraging free speech is counterproductive. 

“The idea of shutting down free speech and free expression for the sake of [it] doesn’t usually lead to productivity or to evolution; it actually leads to aggression,” she said.

Disagreement or reluctance to participate in DEI interventions can come from a place of feeling unheard, said Lesley Curtis, founder of Sagely, a Philadelphia-based trauma-informed anti-racism consulting group.

Curtis maintains the importance of DEI interventions in the workplace, particularly ones that are majority white. She said that when racism appears in the news or current events, white employees will often approach their Black and brown co-workers and ask them to make sense of or provide insight on the situation. DEI initiatives can help reestablish boundaries for employees of color.

“I will work with people who say, ‘Well, I’ve also experienced difficulty,’” Curtis said. “And so what they really want is, they want that experience of difficulty to be recognized and to
be seen.”

For individuals who don’t feel like their own identity or hardships are acknowledged in the workplace, acknowledging others’ hardships
is difficult.

“You want to really meet people where they are,” she added.

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