Friends of MAGFest, a group of MAGFest employees and volunteers, went public on 11/19/2020.
Our purpose was to inform the community that MAGFest is facing an unprecedented, existential threat—the MAGFest Board of Directors and Executive Director.
The issues detailed on this site were raised privately numerous times. The Board of Directors and Executive Director did not respond to any of them a timely manner, and ultimately failed to resolve any of the concerns presented to them. Instead, they chose repeatedly to act in a way that is unquestionably harmful to the wellbeing of the entire MAGFest community.
Our concerns are:
Abuse of power by the Board and Executive Director
Financial neglect of the organization
Mismanagement of the Executive Director by the Board
Mismanagement of the organization by the Executive Director and the Board
Verbal and emotional abuse by the Executive Director
Repeated and blatant disregard for community wishes and desires
Perpetuating a harmful environment with no accountability
Dismissing all concerns raised privately
Retaliating against those who raised complaints
Inappropriate actions include:
Every MAGFest employee filed an official HR complaint about Executive Director Paul Birtel with the Board in August. Multiple members of the Board stated they took the complaints less seriously since they were submitted as a group, and after over 3 months of silence, the employees were notified that the Board considered their complaints closed. No visible actions were taken or change in the Executive Director’s behavior occurred. (See Ev, Faith, Dac, and Debra’s letters.)
One MAGFest employee, who did not report to the Board, was given a surprise performance review by the Board before her own HR complaints against the Executive Director had been resolved. This performance review was largely composed of complaints that the Executive Director had brought to a mediation with the employee previously, making it seem heavily retaliatory. Despite having an exemplary record with the company, including serving as interim Executive Director previously, the employee was later terminated with that performance review cited as the reason. (See Debra’s original letter and Debra’s post-firing letter.)
Two MAGFest volunteers were elected by the community for potential appointment to the Board. After putting the two candidates through months of unprofessional “onboarding”, the Board ultimately rejected both nominees. (See Josiah’s and Shir’s letters.)
One Board nominee was the subject of an unsubstantiated harassment report by a Board member. The Board took inappropriate disciplinary action against him instead of following the normal processes for handling those reports and handing it off to the appropriate committee. (See Josiah’s and Shir’s letters.)
The Executive Director repeatedly bullied both employees and unpaid volunteers, and explicitly refused to accept coaching or constructive criticism. (See Ev, Faith, Dac, and Debra’s letters and Debra’s letter to the board.)
The Board bypassed normal spending protocols and tightly restricted budgets during a year of pandemic-induced financial distress and spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal counsel and external consultants.
Note: All linked documentation can be found in the Friends of MAGFest Google Drive.
We continue to call for:
An immediate removal of Paul Birtel as Executive Director of MAGFest.
An immediate removal of Joel Attanasio, Jack Boyd, and Eli Courtwright from the MAGFest Board of Directors.
An immediate stop to inappropriate employee and volunteer disciplinary actions.
A new set of bylaws mandating clearer Board member term limits and staff-elected Board members.
Since the Friends of MAGFest site first launched, several new developments have occurred:
The Board split on their opinions about the concerns raised. Three Board members (Dom, Paul G, and Tresch) reached out to us to begin conversation and work to resolve the issues we presented. The other Board members (Eli, Jack, Joel, and Executive Director Paul Birtel) continued to dismiss the concerns raised and the desires of MAGFest’s employees and volunteers.
Dom, Paul G, and Tresch were given 2 weeks by the rest of the Board to meet with FoM and act as a bridge between the groups. They truly listened to what was wrong and worked tirelessly with FoM and the other board members in an attempt to bring all parties to the best possible resolution.
On 12/28/20, at the end of the 2 weeks, Executive Director Paul Birtel chose to fire Debra, the Events Director, as well as 3 FoM members who were active staffers (Shir, Josiah, and Ian). This decision was supported by Eli, Jack, and Joel, and condemned by Dom, Paul G, and Tresch.
Debra’s severance pay and health insurance were tied to a Separation and Release of Claims Acknowledgement. Signing this would have removed her right to sue MAGFest for wrongful termination or speak up about the situation further.
Shir and Ian were fired from staff indefinitely. Their ability to even attend MAGFest events for at least 3 years was tied to a Separation and Release of Claims Acknowledgement. Signing this would remove their right to sue MAGFest or speak up about the situation further.
Paul Birtel claimed none of these actions were related to their involvement in FoM. He announced these actions in a MAGFest Slack post which has since been deleted.
Due to Paul Birtel firing the Events Director and several key staffers less than a month before Virtual MAGFest and lacking the necessary skills to act as Events Director himself, Virtual MAGFest was cancelled.
Eli, Jack, and Joel selected 3 volunteers to sit on the Board, and implied they may be willing to step down themselves after another 7 months as full Board members.
Eli, Jack, Joel, and Paul Birtel have continued to hurt the volunteer community and perpetuate a harmful environment with no accountability.
Despite all this, we are still hoping for change. The situation continues to develop, and while it’s been a long, exhausting fight, it’s not over yet. We are unbelievably grateful for the community’s support, and the continued efforts to help MAGFest move forward in a more productive, healthy manner.
Thank you again for your support. We could not have made it this far without you.
On the current site
The original documentation and website for Friends of MAGFest was written for an internal audience, and may be confusing for those with a different frame of reference. The site was rewritten and relaunched on January 11, 2021 to the version you’re reading today. In an effort to clarify the situation to those outside of our volunteer community, we are working on a timeline of events that occurred and will post it here as soon as possible. We hope this will provide context for the rest of our documentation, which can be found on our Google Drive. You can also view the original Friends of MAGFest site. We will continue updating and clarifying documentation as we are able.
On community involvement
Our campaign is fundamentally one against abuse and harassment, and we ask that nobody perpetuate this cycle further by attacking individuals on our behalf. We do not stand for or encourage harassment of any person involved, regardless of their actions—board members, employees, volunteers, performers, or attendees alike. A healthier community starts today with every one of us. We remain focused on our mission and demands, and ask that you do, too.
The following is the original contents of the Friends of MAG site. This site was originally written for an internal volunteer audience. On January 11, 2021, a new, rewritten FOM site was launched with the goal of being clearer and more accessible to a larger audience.
Over the last 24 hours, we’ve witnessed the incredible outpouring of community love and support in response to the unjust and retaliatory actions taken by Paul Birtel and his supporters on the MAGFest Board. It’s clear we have truth, justice, and the power of community on our side. But this morning, the Board put out a statement (uploaded to our Google Drive) that shows they still believe otherwise.
We need your help to tell Paul Birtel and the MAGFest Board that the community does not stand with them. If you have a moment, we ask that you send Paul Birtel and the Board an email demanding they step down. You can click the button below, which will open your email client with the pre-written email below, or send your own email to email@example.com. Fill out the [bracketed placeholder text] to let them know who you are and why you care, and feel free to add your own message at the end.
We appreciate your support more than we can say, and we will never stop hoping for a brighter future for the entire MAGFest community.
SUBJECT: Save MAGFest!
To Executive Director Paul Birtel and the MAGFest Board,
I’m writing to you today as a concerned member of the MAGFest community. [STATE AFFILIATION WITH MAG—ATTENDEE, STAFFER, VENDOR, PANELIST, ETC]
The community has seen the gross abuses of power displayed by the Executive Director Paul Birtel and the Board of Directors, including Joel Attanasio, Jack Boyd, and Eli Courtwright. We have seen how employees and volunteers have been bullied, harassed, and silenced. We have seen the retaliatory firings, the squashing of dissent, and the campaign of abuse perpetrated by these parties.
We call for an immediate removal of Paul Birtel as Executive Director of MAGFest, and a removal of Joel Attanasio, Jack Boyd, and Eli Courtwright from the MAGFest Board of Directors. The remaining board members, Dom Cerquetti, Paul Good, and Dusty Peterson, have agreed to work collaboratively with the employees, volunteers, and community to rebuild trust, restructure the board, and support a healthier, happier future for everyone at MAGFest.
Paul Birtel, Joel Attanasio, Jack Boyd, and Eli Courtwright have demonstrated an inability to lead MAGFest as an organization.
They have repeatedly shown a lack of judgment and inability to execute positive change.
They have punished and terminated those who have publicly spoken out against them.
The MAGFest community deserves better. It’s time for a change. It’s time to #savemagfest.
[YOUR NAME HERE]
MAGFest as you know it is over.
On the morning of December 28th, Debra was fired from her job as Events Director by Paul Birtel. Shir, Ian, and Josiah were removed from their staffing positions without explanation beyond “violating the Code of Conduct” and indefinitely banned. Further documentation has been uploaded to the Google Drive.
The Friends of MAG made every effort to work with the board and move forward productively. Board members Dom, Paul Good, and Tresch also worked tirelessly on trying to mediate and lead the board towards a better path.
The remaining board members, Paul Birtel, Jack, Joel, and Eli, refused to collaborate or negotiate. Instead of choosing a productive and uplifting path forward, they chose to continue walking their path of fear, harassment, and abuse.
They have failed in their duties to MAGFest the organization and MAGFest the community. They have failed us, and they have failed you.
The tools that were created to keep people at MAG safe have been abused and perverted by the people who should have been the ones to uphold them. Half of the people who spoke up against the Board and Executive Director’s actions, abuses, and code of conduct violations have now been removed under the guise of breaking the code of conduct themselves. The ones who remain are on borrowed time.
In the board’s communications around their actions, they have made it clear that dissent at MAGFest will no longer be tolerated. The only people who are allowed to continue working for MAGFest are those who will be quietly complicit in their abuse.
A MAGFest run by abusers will create more abusers. A MAGFest run by abusers will create an environment where no one can staff, volunteer, or attend safely. A MAGFest run by abusers will create an event full of fear, toxicity, and hatred.
We cannot in good conscience recommend anyone continue to support MAGFest with their time, effort, or money. While MAGFest as an event may live on, it will not be the MAGFest you know and love. The people who have poured their heart and soul into making MAGFest happen are gone now, and there is no returning from the decisions the board has made.
Everyone has choices. The board has made theirs—now, it’s time for you to make yours.
Original Site Follows Below
Dear MAGFest Community…
We are writing to you today with heavy hearts to let you know that MAGFest is facing an unprecedented, existential threat. This threat is undermining the years of work you all have poured into building this community, and every core value we collectively hold. It is endangering the safety of the MAGFest office employees’ working environments. It is destroying the relationships and mental health of volunteers. It is creating a culture of persecution and harassment against innocent people. It is a true, existential threat to MAGFest, beyond anything COVID-19 has posed.
That threat is MAGFest’s Board of Directors.
The Board of Directors are the people who have the legally final say in what happens to and at MAGFest, although from our perspective, our events and community thrive in spite of them and not because of them. No matter your role at MAGFest, they impact your day-to-day work, whether you see it or not. Their actions and inactions affect every employee, staffer, volunteer, and attendee. The MAGFest you know and love cannot continue to exist with the current board in charge.
Over the last year, the board has:
- Harassed and threatened multiple office employees
- Harassed and threatened multiple volunteers, including the staff-elected board nominees
- Asked employees to compromise their personal and professional ethics in the course of their normal job duties
- Not responded in a timely manner to formal HR complaints made about the Executive Director by all 6 full-time employees
- Not taken appropriate steps to resolve formal HR complaints made about the Executive Director by all 6 full-time employees
- Not communicated any resolution to formal HR complaints made about the Executive Director by all 6 full-time employees
- Subverted existing HR procedures in order to retaliate against and discipline employees inappropriately
- Subverted existing internal procedures in order to retaliate against and discipline volunteers, including the staff-elected board nominees, inappropriately
- Created a culture of fear and secrecy around all dealings with them
- Removed employees from key situations, including those in the employees’ written and signed job descriptions, with no warning or explanation
- Delayed and subsequently refused to add staff-elected board nominees to the board
- Refused to act on any attempts at feedback, honesty, and collaboration from employees, staff, and volunteers
- Took attempts at feedback, honesty, and collaboration as material for retaliation against employees, staff, and volunteers
- Acted in bad faith, repeatedly and unquestionably, to the detriment of the organization and everyone in it
We have extensively documented the details of these incidents in this Google Drive. While we are unified in what we’ve seen, the specifics of our experiences are different, and we urge you to take the time and read through as many of our letters as you are able.
As you read, we hope you start to understand that we are not speaking hyperbolically when we say the board poses an existential threat to the organization we all know and love. These situations have occurred again and again, in ways that cannot be explained away as being misunderstandings. The board has their own rationale for the actions they have taken—we feel the facts speak for themselves when it comes to showing the board’s unwillingness to collaborate, properly lead the organization, or work for the benefit of MAGFest.
We have taken their actions in good faith for as long as possible. We have tried to talk to them, time and time again. They are not willing to listen, and they are not willing to change.
When things are festering, we have to drag them out into the light to move forward. The board wants to let this fester in the hopes that over time, these legitimate and serious complaints will fade away, as they have in the past. We want to get back to work. It’s time to take action.
WHAT WE WANT
We want to do our jobs, paid or volunteer, without fear of retribution or harassment. We want to be able to communicate openly and honestly. We want to stop living in fear of the board.
To that end, we request:
- The entire current Board of Directors to step down, to be replaced by the top 3 candidates from the most recent nominee election, and further members to be added via a new staff election.
- An immediate stop to inappropriate employee disciplinary actions that have taken place outside of the existing HR process.
- An immediate stop to inappropriate volunteer disciplinary actions that have taken place outside of the existing Staff Operations and/or SAFE processes.
- An immediate stop to private meetings requested by the existing Board of Directors of individual office members, for the purposes of harassing, disciplining, or intimidating them.
- An immediate stop to private meetings requested by the existing Board of Directors of individual staffers or volunteers, for the purposes of harassing, disciplining, or intimidating them.
- A new set of bylaws mandating clearer board terms and staff-elected members.
We request concrete, demonstrable action be taken to address the above actions by December 20th, 2020, and ask for the community’s help in holding the board and ourselves accountable to this deadline.
Board members may contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss these further. We are no longer willing to communicate via private 1-on-1 conversations, as the board has repeatedly utilized those as a way to harass, intimidate, and avoid accountability.
Staff and volunteers may contact us as a group at that email address, or may reach out to any letter signer individually, via Slack, email, or phone. When communicating via MAGFest channels, such as MAGFest’s Slack or @magfest.org email, staffers should be aware that the board may wind up gaining access to those conversations, and has shown a disregard for personal privacy and ethics in the past. We strongly recommend that any conversations take place outside of MAGFest channels.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The names and Slack handles of every member of the Board of Directors are below. Please reach out to them, ideally in a public forum, and let them know that you stand in support of these demands and the timeline.
We strongly advise against attempting to contact board members privately. Other staffers and volunteers will likely share your concerns and will benefit from seeing public discussion around these topics. Additionally, the board has a long history of weaponizing private conversations and using them as tools of manipulation and secrecy.
You can contact the entire board by emailing at email@example.com or tagging @Board of Directors on Slack.
|Jack||@jack||President & Member|
|Bunny||@radrac||Secretary & Ex-Officio Member|
|Eli||@eli||Treasurer & Member|
|Paul B.||@PB||Ex-Officio Member|
We expect retaliation for this letter. Speaking truth to power is never easy, and the board has shown themselves willing to take quick action to stamp out disagreement with them, and silence perspectives they find inconvenient. By writing this, we face professional and personal losses. Some of us may lose our jobs, some of us may lose access to our friends and community, some of us may face even worse reprisal.
Knowing all that, we chose to write this anyway. MAGFest—the MAGFest we all know and love—is worth it. We want that MAGFest back. We hope you do too.
Friends of MAGFest
Support Positive Change
Together, we can create a better, stronger MAGFest that lives and breathes our shared core values. Please sign below in support of our quest for transparency, accountability, and positive change!
Friends of MAG would like to clarify that signatories may not agree with every point presented. Those who sign below are signing in support of our overall sentiment of transparency, accountability, and positive change.
468 members of the MAGFest community signed onto this open letter. The form for signing and list of signatories is no longer available.