Amanda Maitland told CBC News that the speech was supposed to be delivered on an anti-racism tour of schools in Alberta in February and March 2019. She said WE staff initially made minor changes but later told her to deliver a different speech altogether, largely written by them.
“I felt like I was sinking in sand. I felt anger,” said Maitland. “They took my story, and they wanted me to elaborate on things that were just, I guess, more socially accepted.”
Maitland told CBC News that when she tried to speak up about some of the problems within the organization at a WE town hall a few months after her tour, she was “aggressively” shut down by WE co-founder Marc Kielburger in front of a room full of her peers.
WE is an international organization that operates educational and social justice programs in Canada and internationally. WE Charity is the non-profit arm of the organization, with programs like WE Schools. Me to We is its for-profit social enterprise. Last week, WE Charity stepped back from a $19.5-million contract to administer a $900-million federal government student grant program amid criticism of the sole-source nature of the contract and WE’s ability to carry it out.
WE said in a statement to CBC News, it “stands firmly for inclusion, diversity and the equitable, open treatment of all.” “We have directly and publicly apologized to Amanda and to all current and former BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of colour] employees for past instances involving unconscious bias,” the statement said.
But Maitland’s story — which she first shared on Instagram — has sparked widespread discussion on social media about WE. Some have begun sharing their own experiences while working at the organization, and a petition signed by 150 current and former employees is circulating, calling on WE to take specific anti-racist measures.
CBC News has spoken to 15 former WE employees, some of whom confirm Maitland’s speech was changed, and some who were at the town hall where Maitland spoke out publicly. Most described a “culture of fear” within the charity when it came to challenging or criticizing decisions.
Maitland said she was hired by WE as a motivational speaker and leadership facilitator in the fall of 2018. She was asked to deliver a speech about her personal experience with racism on an anti-racism tour in Alberta in early 2019.
“I have a lot of experiences when it comes to racial injustice. So, I was excited — I was over the moon,” said Maitland.
She began writing the speech, initially going back and forth with a WE Charity team who made minor edits, she said. She said she delivered her speech several times on the tour, but on a brief return trip to Toronto, WE Charity staff gave her a different speech to deliver.
“I was literally … told that there had to be changes made,” said Maitland, who said it was the first she’d heard of any issues with her speech. “I had no emails while travelling. I had no phone calls. No messages of anything within, like, an update that a speech may have to get changed.”
Maitland claims her personal experiences with racism as a Black woman were largely erased and watered down with subjects she hadn’t written about.
“It wanted me to talk about cornrows, and it wanted me to talk about the Oscars, and the language was just completely different. I pride myself on being someone who’s very raw with how I speak. So, they completely shredded that.”
Most of the former WE employees who CBC News spoke with asked not to be identified over fear of backlash from the organization. Most have signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that precludes them from speaking.
Four former employees told CBC News they were aware of the speech change, including Brianna Polden, who was in Alberta at the same time as Maitland, on a parallel but separate speaking tour for WE Schools.
“It became really obvious to me that this was done without her consent and also without her knowledge, and that it had kind of been forced on her,” said Polden.
She said Maitland told her about the changes to her speech made by the leadership team, “who I knew to be primarily white.” Raia Carey, who was on a different speaking tour in Alberta at the same time as Maitland, was also aware of the speech change.
“I said, ‘Do not read that speech,'” said Carey, who resigned from the organization a few months later.
“That was the final straw for me. Especially because it goes against our standard protocol that our speeches are supposed to be collaborative.”
Maitland said she tried to amalgamate the WE team’s version and her version, but ultimately decided to deliver the speech she’d written.
“I wasn’t willing to shut down my story for anybody — definitely not WE,” she said.
Maitland also resigned, a few months after the anti-racism speaking tour, but not before attending a staff town hall with Kielburger to talk about issues related to workplace culture. Maitland said she was one of the first to speak.
“I began to speak about the culture of fear. I began to share that what is happening in this organization is that employees are having siloed conversations,” said Maitland.
“There were a lot of people nodding their heads, and Marc Kielburger immediately … kind of stepped forward and shut me down.”
CBC News spoke to four former WE employees who were at that town hall. They all confirmed Maitland spoke up, and that Kielberger tried to quickly end the conversation.
“The automatic response was her being shut down by Marc Kielberger, and him being visibly angry,” said one former employee.
“Sitting in that room during the town hall, you could feel it,” she said. “Most staff — at least my group of peers — have talked about the things that we’re uncomfortable with and don’t feel we can bring up, or have brought up and have felt silenced.”
‘People were afraid’
Maitland said she decided to post a video account of her experience on social media more than one year later because of the discussions about race following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. She said she wanted to highlight that Canada is not immune to racism.
“[Racism] happens within the charitable spaces. I felt like I need to share, as a Black woman that was hired to go on an anti-racism speech, why it is not OK for a panel of white women and men to rewrite a Black woman’s story.”
“I didn’t want to just be another person that was OK with being silenced.” Most of the former employees CBC News spoke to said there was a “culture of fear” within the organization. Carey said she was felt she was penalized when she tried to speak up and push back on decisions by management.
“Never in my life before had I felt unsure about my opinion, my values and where I stand because of how they made it seem like I was negative or bad,” said Carey. A former manager of the WE Schools team told CBC News: “People were afraid to speak out because they didn’t want to lose their jobs.”
Another former employee of colour on the WE Day team said: “I was so scared to speak up. If you ever said anything that’s out of line, or questioned anything [which they didn’t like], you would end up not being in [my former supervisor’s] good books. She would find any way to get you kicked off her team or fired.
“The explanation to the wider team would always be: They weren’t a ‘good culture fit,’ a ‘positive team player,’ or ‘It just didn’t work out.'” WE Day is a recurring celebration of youth empowerment, hosted by the organization.
In response to such allegations, WE Charity said in a statement to CBC News: “WE members can anonymously submit on a ‘feedback portal’ any concerns or issues they have. They can also request a phone call or in-person meeting with any of the human resources or leadership team.”
WE Charity did not respond to a request for an interview from CBC News. However, about 12 hours after CBC News submitted its request, Kielburger and his brother, Craig, the founders of the WE organization, apologized publicly on their personal Instagram pages.
“We want to start by unreservedly apologizing to you,” the apology said in part. “You shared in your video that the words of your speech were altered. It simply should not have happened.”
An apology was also posted on the WE website. In the statement to CBC News, WE Charity said it has publicly released a list of actions on how it can “do better” and has launched what it described as a listening tour to hear the experiences of its current and former BIPOC employees.
Maitland confirmed WE also reached out to her personally last week — prior to CBC News contacting the organization — and said she’s taking time to process the apology.
“I need to know that it’s coming from a genuine place,” she said. “I need to understand that it’s not coming because there’s havoc on social media.”