What Business Insider Is Getting Wrong About DxE (And Me)
An Unfiltered Q&A With A Publication That’s Planning An “Exposé” Of DxE
UPDATE: Business Insider ultimately decided not to publish their story.
When we started Direct Action Everywhere in 2013, we saw a catastrophe in the human relationship with animals. Billions of living creatures are confined in filthy cages, and diseased barns. Our efforts to expose this cruelty have been successful beyond what I imagined possible. We have rescued hundreds of animals. Reached millions of people. And mobilized a grassroots movement of thousands of nonviolent activists.
The success has brought attention. The national media now regularly covers our work. People occasionally recognize me on the street. And DxE and I are currently the main targets of the two most notorious meat industry front groups, which focus on undermining animal rights activism. For the first time in my life -- and in many cases, uncomfortably -- I have become a public figure. That has required me to learn, and grow, and fail in ways that I’ve never done before. That is mostly a good thing, as attention allows dialogue and change. But attention also brings negative scrutiny, which is important for a movement and its leaders to withstand.
It is in that spirit that I post this blog. The below questions were sent to us by a website called Business Insider, which plans to publish a negative article about DxE and me. (I previously blogged about my experiences with their reporter Saul Elbein, who engaged in a series of violations of journalistic standards including proposed payments to sources.) They say it will go up in the next few days. So, in an effort to provide full transparency, we are responding to their questions publicly on our blog.
It’s hard to write these answers, as they relate to difficult experiences I’ve had in life, including embarrassments and mistakes. I’ve done my best to learn from those mistakes, and I think it’s fair for people to ask me questions about them, to the extent that it relates to my fitness for the work I am doing.
What’s harder is when the person telling a story about me doesn’t want to talk to me at all. I’ve requested a conversation with the reporter (Saul Elbein) or editor (Siddhartha Mahanta). They have repeatedly declined my requests. Their story, instead, will be based mostly on anonymous sources, without any direct conversations with me on the issues they plan to write about. This is highly unusual; when a negative piece is written, it’s usually the other way around, with journalists trying to get access to the subject of their story!
But the story will run nonetheless, and sometime in the next few days. And these responses to a fact checker’s questions will be my only direct voice in the story. For that reason, I am posting the questions and answers in full, unfiltered by Business Insider, so you can decide for yourself what to believe. (I’ve omitted some questions that are redundant or irrelevant.) I am also open to answering criticisms publicly, and with any critic.
If Business Insider has follow-up questions, I am happy to add and answer them here.
On to the questions.
- The Steps to Healing document alleges, in its own words, that Hsiung and other core DxE members violated DxE bylaws, engaged in gaslighting and character assassination, abused and concentrated power, covered up instances of sexual assault, and failed to hold themselves accountable. Their document provides some examples of what they are talking about. Do you have a response to their allegations?
Steps to Healing was a letter written in July 2017 detailing a number of complaints against DxE leadership. It was signed by just over forty people across the United States, about a quarter of whom were in the SF Bay Area, out of thousands of activists who have participated in the DxE network around the world.
Before discussing the specific allegations, it’s important to start with some context.
First, while a handful of long-time former organizers signed Steps, about half of the signatories had minimal involvement in DxE. I did not recognize many of the names, and several had no understanding of the underlying issues. In an email several days prior, for example, one asked, “Who is [she]?,” in reference to the person who allegedly had their character assassinated. (See below.) Another signatory subsequently apologized for their role in the process, telling us that they regretted “being swept up in a mob.”
Second, the primary drafter of the document, Aidan Cook (who uses they/them pronouns), states that many of the claims in the piece were unsubstantiated, and they have returned to organizing with DxE.
Third, Steps was written at the height of a number of interpersonal conflicts and disagreements that had built up over at least six months. It was a painful and sad period, and nearly everyone involved made mistakes, including me. Most significantly, I did not give my personal relationships the time and attention they deserved, and I did not support certain key team members in the way that they deserved. My communication in conflicts was often cold and not empathetic, and reading some of it today makes me cringe.
However, the document is not an accurate portrayal of events.
The primary complaint in Steps to Healing concerned the removal of a lawyer and organizer from her capacity as a legal representative and fundraiser for DxE-- sensitive positions that require the trust of all the team members involved--and a chapter discussion about her removal and conduct. I have not discussed the details of this incident outside of our chapter until now.
We hired the lawyer to help with fundraising as an independent contractor in the Fall of 2016. After several months, she had not accomplished any of the significant work milestones in the contractor agreement, and with the end of the year approaching and the fundraising period closing, I realized I needed to reach out to a number of donors myself. I asked her to prepare a spreadsheet of our largest donors, which she did. I noticed that several names were missing -- a serious concern given that these were our most significant financial supporters -- and I asked her about them. She then sent me the spreadsheet again and pointed to specific lines containing the individuals I had named. I initially wondered if I had made a mistake, and I asked her, “Were these just added from another sheet?” She responded by stating--as the Google Sheet history confirmed, falsely--“No. Just resorted.” That exchange is here.
I asked her about this, and she admitted to lying, stating that she was under a great deal of stress. She said she had not done the work she had promised to do. She apologized. We mutually agreed that she would no longer work in her fundraising capacity but, because she said she was in a difficult financial situation, she would receive approximately 1.5 months of severance pay (after having completed a few months of paid work). We agreed, further, that her other work would not be affected. In particular, she would retain her position as a legal representative for DxE in a high stakes lawsuit involving an investigation and rescue led by me at Diestel Turkey Ranch.
I was concerned about her deception; she was representing not just DxE, but me personally, and in a matter in which I had significant personal liability. But I understood the behavior to be a one-time issue that would never be repeated. So she retained her position.
In June 2017, another Core member told me that the lawyer was saying negative things about me to other people. I asked the lawyer for clarity, and she sent me an email on June 25 that began by stating, “You don’t trust me because I didn’t tell you that I had added [REDACTED] to a list of over $500 per annum donors. And frankly, I was wrong.” Her email then stated that my fundraising asks had been “inappropriate” and “beyond humiliating,” and that the situation represented a “fatal power imbalance.” That section of her email is here.
I was shocked by the email. It mischaracterized the incident seven months prior and showed a lack of remorse and accountability. She had indeed re-sent me a Google Sheet without telling me she had added (multiple--not a single) names, but it wasn’t the mistake that led to her removal. It was lying about that mistake. I responded with a suggestion that we should probably stop working together.
2. Conflict Escalation
Several days after the lawyer’s June 25 email, I reached out to other members of Core and told them that I was no longer comfortable with her being a legal representative for me and DxE or having access to confidential information. I was the person who had the highest potential liability in the case, and I’ve subsequently become the only named defendant in the lawsuit. Our Core then voted 5-2 to relieve her of her responsibilities. Around this time, she filed a complaint against me with our (now defunct) conflict resolution team.
Over the next few weeks, the lawyer further mischaracterized the lying incident with others. One community member asked me why I was punishing her for an administrative mistake. Steps to Healing itself later described the incident as “an error she had made with records relating to her time doing fundraising work.” None of these statements were true; it was not an error but a lie.
Around the same time period, I was told by a former organizer that she was involved in misconduct in the securities industry. I thought this was a joke, but when I reviewed the links he had found, they seemed credible -- including a New York Times article showing that her ex-husband had been imprisoned for securities fraud. We reached out to someone who claimed to be a victim of hers online, and he shared a story that was similar to my own. He stated that she and her ex-husband had come to them promising to undertake certain securities services, but lied about their experience and services in the area. An order from the Utah Division of Securities, setting out punishment against his firm that ultimately led to its dissolution, was consistent with his account. (It is important to note, however, that the lawyer was not herself named in these documents; the documents were reason for concern but not definitive proof of any wrongful conduct.) The situation in the community escalated when a friend of the lawyer circulated an email to our community stating that DxE leadership was “digging dirt on people’s pasts and doing what seems to be very clear blackmail.” Fifteen minutes later, ten community members, the lawyer included, submitted a petition to Core asking me and others for an apology for, and an undoing of, our removal of the lawyer from her legal position, among other demands.
3. Community Discussion
I debated with others in DxE leadership for several hours. We decided that, given the repeated deception, the petition, and the open accusation of blackmail, we needed to provide transparency to our community as soon as possible. A number of individuals who supported leadership were already planning to meet that night to discuss an upcoming governance vote, and we decided to shift the focus to the lawyer’s removal.At the meeting, we offered to the chapter an opportunity to vote on whether we should discuss our reasons for removing her. Overwhelmingly, the chapter voted for us to openly discuss the issue. We disclosed what we had found in our background checks of her: She was credibly alleged to have been involved in fraud with respect to compliance and website work she did in the securities industry, and she had founded and led for many years a Republican organization in Arizona that expressed public support for Joe Arpaio, an aggressive anti-immigrant crusader, despite her claims to a long history of progressive activism. (We had known about her involvement in right wing politics before we removed her but wrote it off as an aberration. In hindsight, this was a serious mistake.) We also explained that the team had lost trust in her, partly due to these biographical inconsistencies and partly due to a series of other deceptive behaviors over a period of six months.
We shared that we only removed her in her capacity as a legal representative where she would receive confidential information, with the support of most of the grassroots investigators who worked on the team. We also explained that she was still welcome within the community but that the specific roles she had maintained, which included access to confidential information, required trust. The principle that a client must trust their representatives in legal matters is absolute, and clients are entitled to remove their representation for any reason--even an arbitrary one. In this case, the reasons were not arbitrary: repeated deception, biographical inaccuracies, and unprofessional conduct. The chapter overwhelmingly approved our decision to remove her.
A final note: in re-reading some of my correspondence from this time period, I made a number of mistakes in handling this conflict. In particular, I was unnecessarily cold, and I sent some communications too quickly and harshly, without properly discussing things with all the relevant parties. As I said above, I cringe today reading some of my correspondence here. The decision was the right one, ultimately. But there is a way decisions have to be made in grassroots movements that allows everyone to contribute. I failed to listen sufficiently to differing perspectives on the situation because I was sure I was “right.” But grassroots organizing isn’t just about doing or saying what’s right, in the abstract. It’s about a process of determining what’s right for the entire movement and community. And that process requires everyone, to the greatest extent possible, to feel heard.
I have since apologized to most of the parties involved, including the lawyer who was removed, for these errors in judgment and in communication. (She did not accept the apology, and she and her allies have consistently harassed DxE members ever since.) This is one of the many ways in which I failed. But I’ve learned from the experience.
2. Leading up to the Steps exodus, several core DxE members complained that Hsiung had ignored their concerns about DxE’s record on animal care, its spending, and focus on fundraisers, and that he had at times dismissed these grievances to others by suggesting that people were “shit talkers” or infiltrators.
We never had any significant disputes about DxE’s record on animal care or fundraisers. There were disputes about spending, but they had to do with the effectiveness of various projects. (In particular, one dispute related to a Core Member’s use of significantly more funds than we usually budgeted for travel on rescue projects. That Core Member has since left DxE.) I also never dismissed someone as an infiltrator for voicing a complaint. Concerns about infiltration or other corporate interference -- which has been clearly documented in one recent case by The Intercept -- were brought up only when signs of such behavior were present: e.g. biographical stories that were inconsistent with available facts; insistence on obtaining confidential information unnecessary to the person’s work; and unexplained access to significant financial resources (e.g. buying a new Prius) when someone was self-described as living in economic distress. The only person I have openly speculated might be an infiltrator, from what I can recall, is the lawyer who was removed. The red flags were all present in her case.
3. Hsiung shut down the DxE listservs leading up to the Steps exodus.
The listserv was changed to allow for moderation, not shut down, and no emails were intentionally blocked that I am aware of. A tech team member inaccurately described the listserv as being “shut down” and apologized for his mistake afterwards. When people objected to what they saw as a “shut down,” they were allowed to raise their concerns openly on the listserv.
4. In the wake of Steps, many chapters folded with the people that left, including all of Ohio, Connecticut, Michigan, and Philadelphia. New York and Colorado splintered. Is that correct?
Connecticut’s chapter had no significant activity in the months before the conflict. Michigan consisted primarily of one person. New York did not splinter, as Sabina Makhdomi (who was mentioned in Steps as an aggrieved party with complaints against me) can attest. The main organizer in Colorado was Aidan who, as mentioned, subsequently distanced themselves from the document and remains an active member of DxE. The Ohio group did splinter, and a few of the group’s members were signatories. But the split in the chapter had little to do with national issues and rather related to interpersonal conflicts within the chapter.
5. We’re aware of the Dismantle DxE website that was published in 2015. The anonymous commenters claim they experienced bullying, character assassination, sexism, racism, and saw the protection of predators and tolerance for rape jokes within DxE.
One commenter claimed that when they told Hsiung that another DxE activist made inappropriate sexual advances and racist jokes, Hsiung apparently replied that “he is still a great activist.”
We addressed the allegations on the Dismantle DxE website in this document. I have never responded in this way to an allegation of inappropriate sexual advances, and the commenter at issue (who was one of the authors of the Dismantle DxE blog post) was himself removed for inappropriate sexual advances and groping. He reported this other instance of inappropriate behavior after we removed him. However, we investigated it and did find that the other individual was engaged in inappropriate sexual jokes and asked him to remedy his conduct. The other individual subsequently left DxE and has not returned.
6. A few commenters also claimed that Hsiung and Sawhney used information shared in private in a public way to discredit them once they criticized DxE, and that many who spoke out against DxE were labeled sexist and racist by DxE members.
DxE apparently published a post on its house blog after these allegations went public, fighting some claims and denying knowledge about others. DxE also claimed the website was put up by a male member who was kicked out for sexual harassment. (That post has since been taken down as far as I can tell. I know of it through an article that wrote about it.)
It was not a blog post but a Google doc that was circulated on social media. It’s still available and viewable to anyone here.
7. According to former DxE members who spoke with [Susan] on a group call in the summer of 2017, she said that she went through the conflict-resolution process – the one she apparently said she felt pressured to go through – because not doing so would mean having to leave the DxE community. Do you know why she may have believed that? Were there consequences for not going through the process?
This question deals with “Robert” and “Susan,” as named in our sexual misconduct FAQ. Business Insider has not spoken with either, so the above and below questions come exclusively from third party sources.
Susan would not have been removed for failure to engage in the conflict resolution process. There was at least one email sent by one of the members of the conflict resolution team, an organizer in Chicago, that placed inappropriate pressure on her to participate in the process. (That member is no longer a part of DxE.) The email indicated the member’s frustrations with her shifting response on reinstating Robert. She had first indicated that she wanted him reinstated, then reversed her position months later. He stated it would be unfair to the conflict resolution team for her to change her mind again. But this was inappropriate; survivors should have as much time as they want to process. I have apologized to Susan for that email and experience on behalf of DxE. I have also apologized for my leadership failure to intervene in the process, when she requested that I do so, and for allowing a conflict resolution team with untrained volunteers to facilitate a process that requires extreme sensitivity and experience. I put multiple people -- most notably a survivor, but also the conflict resolution volunteers -- in bad situations. We have since changed our process for sexual misconduct and now instead seek outside professionals to manage investigations and accountability. However, we have never required anyone who reports any violation of our code of conduct to undertake a conflict resolution process to continue to participate in DxE.
8. According to a former DxE member who oversaw part of the conflict resolution process, the DxE core never seriously considered that the alleged attacker would not be brought back into the DxE fold, in part because they were doing useful work for DxE involved publishing content online.
The former DxE member who has stated this publicly, in fact, herself advocated for Robert to come back. In contrast, the core team did in fact “consider that the alleged attacker would not be brought back into the DxE fold.” I said this expressly to the person at issue on the day I called him: “You may never come back.” The decision was left in the hands of the conflict resolution team.
At the time of this process, moreover, the allegations at issue were not an attack or rape. The allegation by Susan was deception by Robert about his sexual history, verbal pressure to engage in sexual relations, and an inappropriate sexual advance (towards another woman, who did not see herself as a victim) at an animal rights conference.
Approximately one year after the initial report, Susan alleged that Robert had raped both her and the other woman, who had stated publicly that he had not done so. Robert then sued Susan for defamation. Both Susan and Robert subsequently left DxE, and neither has since sought to return. They settled the lawsuit under confidential terms.
Subsequently, and to my great surprise, Robert and Susan reconciled. They drove together from Chicago to the Bay Area in January 2019 and insisted on a meeting with me. They demanded $50,000, explaining that they would be forced to share their story publicly if I did not comply. I declined the request, explaining to Robert that I saw it as extortion. He has apologized to me for making it.
9. Hsiung befriended LaVen when she was not legally an adult and in a vulnerable position, played a role in introducing her to situations in which sex was discussed, befriended her mother, and when she turned 17, the age of consent in Illinois, sent her and her mother an email expressing his feelings for LaVen, some of which he said he’d had since soon after meeting. Furthermore, he admitted that these feelings and him sending the email were wrong.LaVen, for her part, considered it to be a betrayal of her trust in Hsiung.
LaVen (and her mother) both met me at animal rights protests in 2007-2008. Most of my interactions with LaVen were in the context of the punk community, where she was a well known lead singer, and where I was unknown. Sex was being discussed in those spaces and many others without any introduction by me.
It’s also important to note that I was not grooming someone for sex. Far from it, I was extremely hesitant towards any physical contact at the time. I was suffering trauma from physical assaults I had endured throughout my childhood -- including one instance where I was hospitalized and stitched up for slashes made to my face by someone who had a history of calling me an “ugly chink.” (The Business Insider reporter has mocked me on Twitter for sharing this experience, describing it as just a “redneck in high school.”)
At the time I met LaVen, I sometimes carried a stick that I called the “affection stick.” I told people that I would prefer they not try to hug me or shake my hand but that they could instead poke me with the stick from a safe distance. I was half-joking, but the trauma was serious. I did not like being touched. And I was not able to successfully have intimate relations with anyone until years after I met LaVen. To this day, I still struggle sometimes with being physically touched by others because of a deeply ingrained, subconscious trauma response. (It’s part of the reason I’m an animal rights activist today. I know what it’s like to live in constant fear that you’re about to be struck.)
Business Insider’s narrative falsely portrays me as a sexually aggressive person who was trying to groom someone who was vulnerable. In fact, I had zero experience with sex at the time and was traumatized by physical touch. I wrote to her (and her mom) because I wanted a safe place, and a family who would love me, at a time when I was lonely and estranged from my own.
I nonetheless reported myself to the DxE leadership team immediately when LaVen raised her concern. In light of our new sexual harrassment policy, they commissioned an independent lawyer to review all my communications with LaVen; the investigation’s conclusion was that there was no sexual harassment or misconduct.
Writing to her was wrong, however, even if it was not technically a violation of our code of conduct, because it did not consider the impact the email might have on someone significantly younger than me. (You can see the substance of those communications here, which I provided to LaVen at her request.) I have apologized to her for that. It is one of the many mistakes that I hope I have learned from.
10. Carol J. Adams posted on her website a letter criticizing DxE, saying young animal advocates were abused within DxE, and that the organization had come to function like a cult because of the way DxE isolated its members from families and other support networks and criticized its detractors.
We do not encourage anyone to isolate from their families. In fact, doing so is directly contradictory to our publicly-stated theory of change, based in part on a Harvard study, which focuses on people developing and strengthening their ties to non-animal rights supporters.
11. Chicago’s VeganMania denied DxE’s petition to table and wrote that “members of our … core group have been bullied by Wayne ….” and that more broadly, “other members of the Chicago community have been harassed and even raped” by DxE members. (I believe this may be a reference to [Susan’s] allegations, since these were in Chicago.)
We have no knowledge of this, and the alleged rape in Chicago is addressed above.
12. San Francisco Veg Society also banned DxE from its Veg Fest after a member complained that “many local vegans in the area have been verbally harassed, targeted, and bullied by DxE members,” and that it was a safe space for “rapists and abusers.”
A close friend of the lawyer who was removed from DxE was on the Board of the Veg Society. The Veg Society did not engage in any fact finding, but they did remove us. The Board Member who talked to us apologized to us for doing so, and said he didn’t necessarily believe any of the allegations but didn’t want to deal with the headaches of fighting with one of his board members.
13. A former senior DxE member stated that while in theory deciding who got a DxE stipend should be made by consensus, in practice this process was directed and controlled by Hsiung.
There are many people who have been awarded fellowships without my direction or control. The team makes decisions collectively about whom to recommend for fellowships. I sometimes had no direct experience working with people who have been awarded fellowships. Moreover, a number of people have been awarded fellowships since September 2019, when I officially stepped down as lead organizer, with no input from me whatsoever.
14. One former DxE member who requested a pseudonym said that when she told Hsiung that she had been asked not to invite DXE to an animal rights event, she was told to “pick a side.”This same member said that DxE members were being told that people who complained of sexual predators or other issues within DxE were “haters” and were to be countered with testimonials about how great DxE was.
It’s hard to say anything about anonymous allegations with no context.
15. One sanctuary took in several turkeys from DxE, as part of a rescue in which DxE stated that money from a fundraiser would go on to support sanctuaries that took in the animals. A worker at the sanctuary claimed that they tried very hard and had to ask many times before receiving the money from DxE a year later.
DxE has had and continues to have a positive relationship with this sanctuary. The executive director told us to inform Business Insider that there was a miscommunication, and we are all on the same page now.
16. Another sanctuary also took in turkeys from DxE, in a similar scenario in which DxE stated money from a fundraiser would go on to support sanctuaries that took in the animals. A worker at the sanctuary claimed they contacted DxE about this, but DxE redirected them to ask PETA for money.
The rescue being referenced was a rescue of 100 turkeys, for which we worked with PETA to find placement for such a large number of animals. The particular sanctuary at issue was contacted by PETA and was not in touch with DxE until they later reached out asking about funds. We explained that the money DxE raised from the rescue did go to the turkeys, both in the form of paying for their transport to sanctuaries and in grants to sanctuaries that requested them. The founder and president of this sanctuary has since acknowledged that there was an assumption on their part that led to the confusion. She also told us that no one from Business Insider had contacted her.