Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh employees allege racism, mistreatment of workers

About 100 current or former employees of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh have signed an open letter charging the 37-year-old institution with racism and poor treatment of workers.

“Black lives simply do not matter to the museum’s leadership,” says the letter, written by Will Tolliver Jr., the museum’s former manager of early-childhood education.

Tolliver and dozens of other employees were furloughed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Their positions were later eliminated by the museum, a week or so before he released the letter on social media, on July 31.

But Tolliver, like other signers, said this isn’t about lost jobs.

Will Tolliver Jr., a former Children's Museum employee, wrote the open letter calling out the institution.

Courtesy of Will Tolliver Jr.

Will Tolliver Jr., a former Children’s Museum employee, wrote the open letter calling out the institution.

“We’re not angry that we got laid off,” he said. “We’re passionate because we’ve seen a pattern of disrespect and dismissiveness toward people of color … staff, employees, students and educators, and our allies who have tried to speak up for them in the past.”

The letter alleges that while the museum seeks partners in the Black community and the funding that goes with them, it doesn’t fully support those programs or genuinely try to connect with Black students and educators. And it said the museum often ignores or punishes employees who voice grievances.

“It touched on a lot of things that we collectively had been trying to address for a few years since I’ve been there,” said visitor-services manager Jordan Robinson.

In a statement, the Children’s Museum said Tolliver’s letter was filled with “false claims and misleading statements.” The museum said it is “extremely proud” of its record of serving and partnering with Black and underserved communities, and that it remains committed to equity and access for visitors, staff and partners.

In a follow-up statement issued Thursday, the museum said, “We acknowledge that there are problems in our organization that we have the opportunity to work on more earnestly, creatively, and collectively than ever before.” It added, “The open letter has accelerated this work.”

Founded in 1983, the Children’s Museum welcomes some 300,000 visitors a year to its classes, workshops and hands-on exhibits. Its campus includes its main building and the Museum Lab, a facility targeting children 10 and older that opened in an historic former Carnegie Library branch location in 2019. With a budget of $8.4 million, it’s among Pittburgh’s largest cultural institutions. Its advisors over the years have included Fred Rogers.

Like most large cultural institutions in Pittsburgh, the museum’s patrons and leaders are mostly white. The museum’s stated values include a “commitment to diversity,” and some in the community said it adheres to them. Tenants in Museum Lab include the Manchester Academic Charter School middle school, with its 132 students, almost all of them Black. “It’s been a great experience for us,” said MACS CEO Vasilios Scoumis. “The museum has been very open to us.”

In terms of the artists it employs, museum spokesman Max Pipman said that of the 50 artists it has hired for its long-running Tough Art program, 37 have been Black or LGBTQ.

But as of this week, about 100 current or former employees had signed the open letter – double the staff still employed by the museum, which the pandemic has kept shuttered since March. Most signed by name, a rare move in the small world of Pittsburgh’s nonprofit cultural institutions.

In all, WESA spoke with 10 current or former museum employees. While they praised much of what the museum does, they said there is often a big gap between its practice and its ideals.

“The dissonance between that sort of nurturing image that leadership projects and the lack of those qualities demonstrated by those leaders is particularly jarring,” said Talia Stol, a former researcher with the museum who signed the letter.

The letter’s author, Tolliver, is Black and a rising star in the world of nonprofit education. Before joining the Children’s Museum, in 2018, he’d worked for groups including Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and Grow Pittsburgh. He’s now a full-time contractor with PBS, working on programming on race and racism for children, parents and educators. At the museum, he was manager of early-childhood learning.

Children’s Museum executive director Jane Werner praised Tolliver in a January 2019 profile on the Pittsburgh-based website Kidsburgh. “Will takes a layered-on approach and has risen to the occasion in many moments,” she told the site. “His work around love and forgiveness stands out. … He is a unique and wonderful talent.”

“In the … artist/educator world that I run in, you hear about Will being really sort of exceptional, talented, and clever and good at what he does,” said Dave English, a local puppeteer and educator who has worked with the Children’s Museum, and who also signed the letter.

Tolliver, 28, lives on the North Side, a block from the museum’s campus. “That’s where I rooted myself because I love that place!” he said.

But several allegations in his open letter concern Tolliver himself. In it, Tolliver says the museum’s furloughs early in the pandemic affected “the only Black employee in a leadership role” – Tolliver himself. He writes that most of the museum’s Black, Indigenous and employees of color “hold cleaning or service positions — jobs the Museum’s leadership views as less valuable to the museum community.”

Museum spokesperson Pipman said the museum values all its workers: “Our team is our family.” Prior to the pandemic, Pipman said, the museum had about 200 employees, of whom one-third were nonwhite. After the furloughs, the figure was about 12 percent nonwhite. But, he said, in the layoffs, “Based on race, no one was singled out.”

Among Tolliver’s other concerns, meanwhile, was a move to end his work with two Pittsburgh Public Schools pre-school classes held at the museum. He said the work involved “social-emotional learning and identity education.”

“We would focus on educating those young learners about different types of people in the world. And we would focus on using the artifacts in the museum as catalysts for them to learn that,” he said. The children also helped prototype new exhibits, he added.

“Our leadership wanted to cancel the programming that my team did for them because it wasn’t making any money,” he said.

The museum said funding for the program had run out: Tolliver maintains the initiative is low-cost and largely part of everyday museum functions.

Other former employees WESA spoke to seconded concerns in the letter. Stol, the former researcher, said at a meeting last year, she described some of the museum’s equity-related work to a museum partner. Afterward, she said, she received a message from museum leadership. She said she was told that leadership “does not want the museum positioning itself as prioritizing equity and diversity, that we should not be pushing that message, in our conversations internally or externally.”

The museum denies it sent the message.

Dissatisfaction with museum leadership was widespread among workers.

“The staff was very discontented,” said P.J. Zimmerlink, a curator who worked at the museum for five years until the recent layoffs.

Other worker complaints included understaffing of afterschool programs and off-site initiatives primarily serving black children and families. Molly Dickerson staffed the museum’s MakeShop, and the Buzzword language-building program for preschoolers in Homewood. Buzzword is a grant-funded partnership involving several local institutions who rotated responsibility for the monthly events, including the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Dickerson said the other partners often sent two or three staffers even to sessions they were not programming. But although all the partners received the same funding, she said she was usually the lone Children’s Museum staffer in attendance.

“It looked good that they supposedly had programmatic diversity, but in reality that support wasn’t really there. And the dedication to those relationships and communities wasn’t really authentic,” Dickerson said. She said that after she complained to museum leadership about Buzzword staffing, a part-time worker was budgeted for but never assigned.

Museum spokesperson Pipman responded that no programming partners had complained about Buzzword staffing. “Typically that program is well-staffed with one person,” he said. Staffing, he added, “is always going to be a challenge in any organization.”

Multiple current and former employees criticized the museum’s handling of training sessions on inclusion, diversity, and antiracism. Former visitor-services manager Robinson said workers in her department – among the employees who deal most closely with the public — were typically unable to attend the sessions because they were held during museum hours.

Several current or former staffers added that management-level employees were often scarce at such trainings.

Pipman said the museum does value the trainings. “We want everyone to be involved,” he said. “We look at those trainings as mandatory and very, very important.”

Pipman acknowledged, however, there were “times when we could have done a better job” on getting full participation, and said the museum would work to improve the inclusion of part-time employees and visitor-services staffers. He said managers were sometimes unable to attend due to travel, illness, or other conflicts. But he added that participation in recent months had been “100 percent.”

In his letter, Tolliver alleged that museum employees with grievances are often ignored or retaliated against. Several former or current staffers WESA interviewed said they feared voicing complaints to museum leaders.

Several cited a series of events that occurred after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, in 2018. Tolliver and two other employees objected to museum leadership that the museum’s response – to promote “kindness” with a week of free admission and other programming — felt like “marketing.”

“We didn’t think the language fit the reasoning why we were opening our doors,” said Tolliver. “We wanted to change the language to be ‘a week of solidarity’ because that’s what we were doing: We were standing in solidarity with our community, with the people that visited the Tree of Life and worshipped at the Tree of Life.”

“We were then yelled at and reprimanded by leadership and told it wasn’t our job and it wasn’t our place and that we should do our work,” he said.

Tolliver says the three of them were punished by being assigned, outside their job descriptions, to staff XOXO, a pop-up exhibit about kindness that appeared in locations around town (and one that Tolliver himself had helped develop).

The museum’s Pipman denied the response to the shooting was driven by marketing, and said that Tolliver and the other employees were not being punished.

The Children's Museum Museum Lab opened in April 2019.

Kathleen Davis / WESA

The Children’s Museum Museum Lab opened in April 2019.

Tolliver’s letter also criticized the museum’s policies on visitors wearing hate symbols, like Confederate flags. Staff meetings on the subject were held in the months following events like the Tree of Life shooting and the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally for white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va.

Museum policy requires that a visitor wearing clothing with messages inappropriate for a “family facility” be asked to cover up the message in some way, or else to leave. In one meeting, said former museum researcher Talia Stol, a staffer asked leadership why the same shouldn’t apply to hate symbols.

“There was a reluctance to agree to that, even though people in the room were sort of saying, ‘Isn’t there a way to couch it in terms of what we’ve already stated in writing, that we as an institution, value and require?’” Stol said. Instead, staffers were told that those who felt uncomfortable around such symbols could leave the floor temporarily.

Stol says she objected to that approach. “I was trying to emphasize the point [that] it wasn’t about being offended. It was about a feeling of personal safety and security,” she said.

The discussion is not hypothetical. Several staffers mentioned a couple who visited the museum with Confederate flag tattoos. Robinson, the former visitor-services supervisor, said staff and visitors complained last summer when a man entered the museum wearing swastika patches on his jacket. She said museum leadership was informed.

“What we were told was that if he’s not causing a commotion, or whatnot, then there’s basically nothing wrong,” she said.

But Robinson said museum management responded differently when a Black woman entered wearing a shirt conveying a Black Lives Matter-themed message. There were a few visitors that were upset about this shirt, and it followed up the chain of command, and she was actually told to change her shirt or leave.

The museum confirms that it handles complaints about such symbols on a case-by-case basis. “We have to see it to know and react,” said Pipman. The museum calls such cases “extremely rare” and said it has no record of the incidents Robinson describes of visitors wearing swastikas and a Black Lives Matter-themed shirt.

As to the Confederate flag tattoos, Pipman said, “There was word of a Confederate tattoo but no complaints from anyone on the floor.”

Along with the open letter, Tolliver sent the Children’s Museum a list of demands. They include: a full audit of its finances to determine the equity of its spending patterns; a commitment to quarterly mandatory diversity and inclusion training for all staff; increasing to “at least 50 percent” the proportion of museum leadership that is Black, Indigenous and people of color; and making admission to the museum and Museum Lab free. He also wants the museum to “continually learn [from] and listen to staff, communities and the people that we serve” and to provide a forum for affected staff and constituents to meet with the board of directors.

In a statement, the museum responded that it already closely reviews its spending, conducts regular diversity and inclusion training, and is “always working on being more inclusive and diverse.”

The museum also recently posted a job listing for a manager of diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion, a move it said has been in process for months. It noted that “very few museums in the world” have free admission, but that the museum offers free field trips and discounts for underserved communities.

The statement added that in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and ramped-up movements for social and racial justice, it is “expanding and recommitting” to its process for listening to staff, communities, and those it serves. And it is developing plans for affected staff, particularly those who signed the open letter, “to participate in engagement sessions.”

Still, some workers expressed skepticism about how the institution would ultimately respond.

“I think [the letter is] being misrepresented in the museum,” said one current employee who signed it anonymously. “It’s about trying to better the museum. … I think it comes from love.”

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