Southern Poverty Law Center names new interim president, CEO

Staffers: Civil rights group suffers from ‘racism and sexism’
The SPLC, which has been on the front line of the fight against racial inequality and injustice in the United States since 1971, has been thrust into chaos after allegations over its treatment of minority and female employees.

The embattled Southern Poverty Law Center has tapped a new interim president and CEO, the civil rights organization announced Tuesday.

The Montgomery, Alabama-based nonprofit’s board of directors voted unanimously to name Karen Baynes-Dunning, a former juvenile court judge, to the position about two weeks after the SPLC fired its co-founder Morris Dees and later launched a workplace review. The organization’s president also stepped down.

Baynes-Dunning will serve until a long-term interim or permanent president is named, Bryan Fair, board chairman, said in the announcement. Baynes-Dunning will resign her post on the SPLC board and begin her new position immediately, the announcement said.

The civil rights nonprofit, which has fought against injustice and racial inequality for nearly five decades, was thrust into chaos over allegations over its treatment of minority and female employees. Some employees told CNN the group suffers from a “systemic culture of racism and sexism within its workplace.”

Those claims resulted in the leadership changes and the company-wide review.

Former Michelle Obama chief-of-staff Tina Tchen will oversee the top-to-bottom external review of workplace culture.

Last month, SPLC President Richard Cohen, who has spent 30 years at the center, stepped down after Dees’ dismissal. Cohen said his departure would help move the nonprofit forward.

‘A difficult time’ for the SPLC

The SPLC is known for tracking civil rights and hate crimes in the United States.

“As you may know, over the last few weeks we’ve faced a number of internal workplace challenges. It has been a difficult time for us, and we know that it has been a difficult time for many of you as well. However, we remain as committed to our work as ever,” Fair said in his letter.

Citing Tchen’s role in advising the nonprofit on workplace culture, Fair said: “But we’re also firm in our commitment to resolving the issues at hand.”

“We’re committed to enacting long-lasting changes following her recommendations. Our employees deserve a workplace that reflects our highest values, and we will ensure that it happens,” Fair’s letter said.

Naming Baynes-Dunning as the interim president “is a critical step in that process,” Fair said.

Baynes-Dunning holds a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law and a bachelor’s degree in politics from Wake Forest University.

She is president of Baynes-Dunning Consulting LLC in Greenville, South Carolina. She is also the federal court-appointed monitor overseeing reform efforts at the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services, according to the SPLC.

In 1998, she was appointed to the juvenile court bench in Fulton County, Georgia, and served until 2002, according to the SPLC.

Cohen did not cite a specific reason for Dees’ dismissal on March 13. The organization said Dees had previously been disciplined after a prior investigation into “inappropriate conduct.” It would not elaborate on the nature of that conduct.

“When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action,” Cohen said in a statement then.

Dees told CNN in an interview it was not his decision to leave the organization he co-founded in 1971.

He would not elaborate on the reasoning behind his dismissal. Dees said he “can let (his) life’s work and reputation speak for itself.”