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Racial discrimination at Amnesty International?

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The last time Toni Moore faced so much racial animosity was in college--a mostly white school in Appleton, Wisconsin. "We'd walk down the street and people would turn and stare like they had never seen black people before," says Moore. "Some would yell 'Nigger.' But in some ways what I'm going through now is worse, because I never expected it."

What she's going through now is a contentious legal proceeding involving a charge of racial discrimination, against, of all things, Amnesty International, the well-known and highly regarded human rights organization. Moore contends that she was denied a promotion in Amnesty's Chicago office because she's an outspoken black woman who dared to criticize company policy. In April she filed a federal discrimination lawsuit, seeking lost wages and compensatory damages.

"You deal with racism all the time as a black person in America, but not since college has it ever been so up-front," says Moore. "Amnesty treated me differently than similarly situated white people, and now they're trying to crush my spirit."

Amnesty officials refuse to comment on the case, but their lawyer denies Moore's allegations. "Moore didn't get the job because she wasn't the most qualified," says Gil Abramson, a Baltimore-based lawyer representing Amnesty. "Differences of opinion are tolerated within Amnesty. . . . Of Amnesty's staff nationally, 42 percent are people of color."

But Moore isn't the first black employee to charge Amnesty with discrimination, and her case has won the support of dozens of local activists. "There's no question in my mind that Toni was denied a job because of her race--what they did to her was awful," says Ashanti Chimurenga, director of Amnesty's program to abolish the death penalty. "A lot of racism exists at Amnesty."

By training Moore, a Hyde Park resident, is a trial lawyer, long active in campaigns against apartheid and capital punishment. For six years she worked for the Legal Assistance Foundation, handling hundreds of cases involving aggrieved tenants, battered women, and abused children. In April 1991 Amnesty hired Moore as deputy director in its midwest regional office, in downtown Chicago.

She was thrilled to get the job. "In a way, it was an ideal job for me. I acted as a spokesperson to the press. I was responsible for Amnesty's death-penalty work in 13 states." In states where the death penalty was already law, Moore organized protests every time an execution date was set. And in the other states she fought against proposed legislation that favored capital punishment. "I had so much respect for Amnesty--I still do, at least for their stated mission. I figured, here's my chance to do full-time what I had been doing part-time for years." In addition to her death-penalty work, Moore emerged as one of Amnesty's most prominent spokesmen, particularly in the black community, where she regularly appeared before civic groups and on the radio.

She was outspoken within the organization too. Not long after Moore started working, Keith Jennings, a black man, resigned as director of Amnesty's mid-Atlantic office, charging the organization with racism.

After Jennings resigned, several black, Asian, and Latino interns from Amnesty offices all over the country collaborated on a letter to the national office in New York, demanding that his charges be investigated. Moore defended Jennings and the interns to her superiors. "I'm polite and civil, but I'm not afraid to speak my mind," says Moore. "Keith's allegations disturbed me; I felt they should be investigated."

She also wrote a critical opinion of a report by Jack Healey, Amnesty's former executive director, on the state of the organization. "Jack distributed the report, asking for opinions [before he published it]," says Moore. "I wrote my opinion--I called it Eurocentric. I didn't think anyone would hold that against me. I figured, here's an organization dedicated to basic human rights. Surely they'd value freedom of expression within their ranks."

Indeed, there didn't seem to be any immediate reaction against Moore for her outspokenness. She got along well with her colleagues and received evaluations of "outstanding" on her performance reports. She was even asked to temporarily assume the job of director of the midwest office in January 1992, when the previous director, Ruth Barrett, went on special assignment.

In June, Barrett resigned and Moore applied for her job. "I thought I'd get it," says Moore. "I mean, I'd been doing the job since January. And besides, Jack Healey told me that Amnesty likes to promote from within whenever possible."

But Marj Byler, the midwest office's deputy executive director of programs, asked Moore to continue on a temporary basis, Moore says. "Marj told me that she wanted to post the position for others to apply. That was strange. As I said, they like to promote from within. Right then and there I knew something was up."

An advisory committee was formed--consisting of Byler, Chimurenga, Amnesty employee Surita Sandosham, and Colleen O'Leary, a local volunteer--to interview candidates. Moore and Sonia Rosen, an Amnesty volunteer from Minnesota, were the leading contenders.

"Everybody on the committee acknowledged that Toni was doing an excellent job as temporary director, and that she clearly had more managerial experience than Sonia," says Chimurenga. "But attitude was mentioned a lot--at least by Marj. Marj wondered if Toni had the 'right attitude.' She said it bothered her that Toni had disagreed with [the Amnesty position on] different things, particularly about Jennings."

According to Chimurenga, she and O'Leary wanted to hire Moore, and Byler and Sandosham wanted to hire Rosen. "Marj said she'd speak with Sonia and Toni," says Chimurenga. "As I understand it, Marj was going to talk to Sonia about her lack of management experience, and she was going to explore with Toni the issue of how they could work together. We decided that this would be a hard decision to make, and we would meet again. But the committee never did meet."

By then it was July, and Moore was attending a human rights seminar in France. "I got a long-distance phone call from Marj, and she said she had one final question about my attitude," says Moore. "She said, 'We haven't always seemed to agree on everything; how do you think you would deal with that if you become the director?' I told her that disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing. Constructive debate is good for an organization."

A few days later Byler called Moore again--this time to say that the job was Rosen's. "She said Sonia had more international experience," says Moore. "Well, I went back and looked at the job announcement. It talked about the need to have experience supervising staff and writing budgets and working with racial and ethnic groups--all things I had--but it didn't say a thing about international experience. In all my interviews with Marj she never even asked one question about that. If she had, I could have talked about my trips to Africa, Cuba, Europe, and Central America. I could have talked about my work against apartheid. It was an issue I hadn't emphasized because they never asked me about it at all."

Byler wouldn't comment, and Amnesty counsel Abramson would say only that Rosen was more qualified for the job.

"I'm convinced they're retaliating against me because I'm a black woman who dares to speak out," says Moore. "Why else did Marj keep talking about attitude? I believe that some white people are intimidated by opinionated black people. They talk about the need for free expression, but they don't like it when blacks speak their minds."

In August Moore filed an internal grievance with the national office, charging that she'd been denied the job on the basis of race and retaliation. Amnesty dismissed her grievance without an explanation or hearing.

As for Rosen, she stayed on the job for about five months before resigning in February. "After Sonia left, Marj asked if I wanted to take the job on a temporary basis," says Moore. "I said, 'I've been doing the job all along.'"

But in March O'Leary was hired as acting director. A few weeks later, Moore filed her suit. "The only gratifying thing about this experience is that so many people have rallied around me," says Moore. "There must have been 50 people at the press conference we had announcing the suit--people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. It was very moving."

While her case works its way through the system, Moore is continuing to work as deputy director, though her differences with Amnesty are far from resolved. When Moore asked for permission to teach a part-time course in foreign policy at Columbia College, Byler said no. And O'Leary has reduced Moore's performance rating.

"I've taught law courses in the past; now suddenly Amnesty has an objection," says Moore. "My performance evaluation was always outstanding; now it's 'needs improving; does not have positive attitude.' It's rough. I'm seeing a therapist. I've lost appetite and sleep. I must be driving my poor husband out of his mind--I talk about this all the time. I gave Amnesty my heart and soul--I can't believe they would treat me like this."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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