HOPE Works Sees Mass Resignation

By HATTIE LEFAVOUR

HOPE WORKS VERMONT
Runners at a HOPE Works charity event.

A storm of internal controversy at the Burlington-based sexual assault help center HOPE Works led every employee and, as of Friday, Jan. 11, executive director Cathleen Barkley, to resign from the organization. 

Despite concerns over the lack of resources, much of the community has come out in support of the eight former staff members of HOPE Works. The group has made its story public, sharing its frustrations on a collective Facebook page where it posted both the legally filed formal grievance that preceded its strike and, on Friday, Jan. 4, its resignation announcement. Its Facebook page now has over 400 likes.

Within the announcement, the former staff expressed their sadness at having felt no other option but to leave. They also unapologetically renounced the actions of executive director Cathleen Barkley and the HOPE Works board. The posts alleged that these parties discriminated against gay, trans and minority staff members, made threats against employee organizing and repeatedly manipulated and emotionally abused their workers. 

Also cited in their Sunday, Dec. 16 formal grievance were accounts of carelessness, gaslighting and policy breaches on the part of executive director Cathleen Barkley, all of which caused the team of eight to walk out. This group included three victim advocates, two clinical therapists and three educational and developmental workers, some of whom had been with HOPE Works for as long as 18 years. 

HOPE Works had previously served approximately 75 Vermonters per month as Chittenden County’s primary resource center for victims of sexual violence, and the organization’s newfound lack of staff has left many concerned for assault survivors who may now struggle to access resources. 

HOPE Works has been active in the Burlington area since 1973, providing victims of sexual violence with a 24-hour hotline, personal advocates, individual and group therapy and an online emergency chat line. Since the mass resignation of eight staff members on Jan. 4. following a three-week strike, however, HOPE Works has been forced to limit its services. 

Mary Cronkite, a sexual assault survivor and medical assistant at a local health center, told VTDigger that there has been no known therapy, education or advocacy services from the organization since the staff went on strike. Although the hotline has remained open, incoming callers may now experience delays in service. Victims have been encouraged to consider seeking assistance from Voices Against Violence in Franklin County and WomenSafe in Addison County if HOPE Works is found to be unavailable. 

Of the organization’s leadership, the group claimed in its Jan. 4 Facebook post, “They have demonstrated that they have no intention — nor did they ever — of participating in this work with sincerity, empathy or integrity.” 

The post goes on to explain that several of the former employees are also survivors of sexual violence and that many of Barkley’s actions have been triggering, adding, “We know that when we choose our safety we choose survivor safety.” 

The posts have received a shower of support from the community including messages of thanks, solidarity and job offers. The group has also created a GoFundMe to cover living and legal expenses for the affected staff, which has raised more than $19,000 in the last month. 

According to VTDigger, the eight staff members first left HOPE Works after victim advocate Lucy Basa was allegedly fired for messages shared on her private Facebook account, in which she called the organization’s leadership “comic book evil.” 

The messages, which were posted but have since been deleted from the group’s Facebook page and are supported by the whole ex-staff, called for her fellow employees to organize against the board’s proposal of selling the HOPE Works lawn and green space to real-estate developer Eric Farrell. Basa explained in the messages that these outdoor areas were often used for therapy purposes. Her firing was considered the last straw for the rest of the former employees, who went on strike shortly thereafter, requiring that HOPE Works both reinstate Basa and terminate Barkley in order for them to return. 

Former employee Jas Wheeler explained to The Campus that there were also internal struggles over how much emphasis to place on HOPE Works’ dedication to serving marginalized victims. The employees’ prioritization of intersectionality allegedly clashed sharply with the leadership’s reluctance to take an outspoken stance. 

“We found ourselves consistently blocked by our leadership when we tried to institute change,” Wheeler said. This divide is evidenced in the group’s formal grievance, which, among other incidents, cites that Cathleen Barkley barred the staff from posting support for the Black Lives Matter movement on HOPE Works’ now-deactivated social media accounts, which the staff vehemently disagreed with. 

Wheeler said, “Retaliation for this work is what pushed us to strike. Dismissal of this work is what pushed us to resign. Commitment to this work is what pushes us into our future as advocates,” said Wheeler of the staff’s efforts to expand inclusion. Wheeler went on to express the staff’s ongoing dedication to helping sexual assault victims and their need for the organization to restructure its approaches toward such issues. 

One of the group’s main demands during the strike — the removal of Cathleen Barkley — came to fruition as of Jan. 11, when HOPE Works announced Barkley’s resignation, though she will continue work for the time being. In a statement, the former staff renounced Barkley’s continued attachment to the organization and the lack of further progress from the board, stating, “Cathleen’s leadership was one part of the problem. HOPE Works continues to be an unsafe place to work until the Board intensely and permanently transforms.” 

The eight former employees announced that they would meet with the board on Tuesday, Jan. 15 to discuss the future of the organization, though they claim that they are still unsure of what the future holds for them and have shown no sign of returning to the organization. For now, the group has shared that it is taking time to heal, and implores that the HOPE Works board make changes so that the brunt of the fallout no longer has to fall on Vermont’s sexual assault survivors.

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