Employees also spoke of overwork, low pay, and frequent turnover—none of the paid staff from 2014 remain
As climate groups work to build coalitions with organized labor, recent allegations of sexual harassment at Better Future Project (BFP), one of the state’s most prominent climate nonprofits, have forced hard questions about how the organization treats its own workers.
In the fall of 2014, BFP state divestment organizer Eli Gerzon sent a bombshell email to one of the organization’s board members. Gerzon, who uses they/them pronouns, said that Craig Altemose, the organization’s founding Executive Director, had sexually harassed them on multiple occasions. The board member responded quickly, promising “your concerns and your report will be addressed.”
But less than three months later, Gerzon was laid off by BFP, while Altemose stayed on as executive director. He remained at the organization until fall 2021, when he left following a new investigation spurred by public callouts. For some former BFP employees, the episode highlights how progressive organizations can fail to adequately protect their own workers.
“I had a low-level panic attack pretty much every day I worked there,” said Gerzon, reflecting on their time with BFP. “It was already a hostile environment. And then when Craig started saying more and more sexually inappropriate things, it became more hostile. But it was already hostile.”
Gerzon first got involved with BFP in 2012, initially as a volunteer working on campaigns to stop fossil fuel infrastructure and push the state to divest from fossil fuels. Based off of this work, BFP received a $50,000 grant from the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation for their state divestment program, allowing BFP to hire Gerzon as a full-time staff member in 2014.
At the time of the allegations, BFP had not yet obtained nonprofit status from the IRS, and was still working through the awkward transition from a grassroots movement to a professionally run organization, managing several subsidiary organizations including 350 Mass. These programs were still rooted in the work of volunteers, with the small paid staff working to coordinate and organize the various campaigns.
As reflected in conversations with workers who were present at the time, the BFP often lacked clear professional boundaries. Employees also spoke of overwork and low pay, and there was frequent turnover during this period—none of the paid staff from 2014 remain at the organization today.
Ben Ehler, who worked for BFP from 2013 to 2015, said that leadership consistently held unreasonable expectations and took advantage of workers’ commitment to the climate movement.
“I felt like my idealism and the values I believed in were kind of manipulated,” Ehler said. “It became it became a really unhealthy workplace for me, and I know that it was probably worse than unhealthy for other people who took the brunt of the sexual harassment.”
Several employees said this culture allowed for frequent inappropriate sexual comments that made some people extremely uncomfortable. One longtime staff member detailed how a co-worker made inappropriate sexual advances towards her during a staff retreat.
“Craig made direct comments about me and him engaging in sexual activity two days in a row, during the same time he was threatening to fire me,” Gerzon wrote. “He used sexual harassment as a form of intimidation.”
In a set of written responses to questions over email, Altemose denied that any of the comments were malicious or targeted, but also expressed regrets about his behavior and leadership at this time.
“While I did not intentionally harass nor retaliate against Eli Gerzon, I recognize that my immature words and behavior harmed them, and I am truly sorry,” Altemose stated. “I took their complaint seriously and changed my behavior. I still feel bad about it now.”
Gerzon first contacted the BFP board about the incidents in September of 2014. The board then tasked Grady McGonagill, a consultant who had been providing pro-bono work for the group, with looking into the allegations. McGonagill became involved with the group after first meeting Altemose in 2013, and served as the organization’s ombudsperson at the time of the allegations.
Based on his interviews with the staff and the board, he concluded that Altemose’s behavior did not constitute sexual harassment, and did not think Altemose retaliated when Gerzon was laid off later that year.
“There was no formal report, but I concluded that the charges were not substantiated,” McGonagill said in an interview. “He does have a poor sense of humor, in material, and so the jokes that are described in there I think are probably pretty accurate … based on Craig’s personality, my impressions of him, I would say it is implausible that he would retaliate against someone. He’s just not a vindictive person.”
In December of 2014, the BFP leadership laid off Gerzon. Altemose stated that this was due to a budget shortfall and performance issues. Internal emails about the decision at the time also cited budget and performance, and another member of the leadership team said that these were the reasons for their decision. Contemporaneous emails showed that the organization was facing an overall budget deficit of $192,534 for the upcoming year, and a deficit of $56,228 in the state divestment program. The V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation denied BFP’s request to renew the $50,000 grant that funded Gerzon’s position.
Gerzon said that the performance issues were never fully substantiated, and believes that they were fired in retaliation for speaking up about workplace issues, including sexual harassment. They point to the fact that longtime staff member Dorian Williams offered to work part-time to allow Gerzon to continue working part-time, and that BFP received a $15,000 grant from 350.org for their state divestment program.
“The burden of proof is on BFP because: one—I was doing my job well; two—I came out as queer, and Craig knew that; three—I reported sexual harassment; and four—I spoke out with other workers,” Gerzon said.
While lower-level employees engaged in extensive discussions with management about the workplace environment throughout 2014, several of the workers key to these discussions soon left the organization. Williams, who was also outspoken about issues at the organization including overwork and an undemocratic decision-making process, quit after Gerzon was laid off.
“I was in a really bad emotional place, extremely depressed, extremely burnt out in a way that took me years to recover from,” Williams said.
“If Craig’s goal in laying me off was to prevent workers speaking up together to change the organization and address problems at the organization, including and especially problems with his leadership, then laying me off had that result,” Gerzon said.
Altemose was the organization’s principal fundraiser, and never recused himself from the decision process to lay off Gerzon. Looking back, he said he wishes he had done so “to eliminate any question of retaliation.” He added that moving Gerzon and Williams to part-time positions didn’t make sense for the organization.
“Dorian’s role was focused on stopping new gas infrastructure which had become a core priority for the organization and its volunteer membership and required maximum capacity to support,” Altemose said.
Following McGonagill’s investigation in 2014, the case was essentially dormant until Gerzon’s social media posts about their experiences in the spring of 2021. BFP then hired an independent investigator, and placed Altemose on administrative leave.
BFP has not shared the detailed findings of this investigation. Members of the BFP board and staff declined to answer questions for this story, but did release a public statement following inquiries.
“The investigator concluded that the BFP sexual harassment policy and procedure were violated in 2014 and that the organization had failed to respond appropriately to the complaint,” the statement said. “BFP staff and Board are working together to establish culture, structures, and processes of accountability that will protect the safety of BFP staff and community, and empower them to do their best work.”
For several former employees, their experiences at BFP disillusioned them with the nonprofit model that the environmental movement has heavily relied on.
“It was just ridiculous and it just made me realize that nonprofits are not any better employers as far as exploitation,” said Tara Escudero, a former part-time employee who quit the organization in 2014 due to a lack of resources and support.
She said that these experiences, where she was given $500 a month to run a campaign alone, left her feeling burnt out, and pushed her away from the climate movement.
“I feel like they stymie social political movements rather than really make them powerful enough to create change, and that people just use it as a career,” Escudero added.
Dorian Williams echoed those sentiments, and said that workers need to be given more power in nonprofit organizations.
“I think the entire nonprofit industry needs to rethink how they structure themselves,” Williams said. “We have to not replicate those systems of oppression and power in order to confront those systems of power. So we need to be non-hierarchical. We need to be cooperative. We need to be strategic, because we just keep following the footsteps of the status quo, and all we’re ever going to do is burn our people out.”
Several employees pointed to unionization as an important tool to protect against the mistreatment of workers at nonprofits. And on April 27, Gerzon will moderate a discussion on workers rights at nonprofit organizations in conjunction with Boston DSA, featuring speakers from Jewish Voice for Peace Union, The Public Interest Union, and the MIT and Harvard Grad Student Unions.
“We will be stronger as movements for justice… if we don’t let a few people in positions of leadership be bullies,” Gerzon said. “And I also believe, as far as the climate movement, we are not going to be able to create the kind of change we want without the labor movement or without workers.”
Jon is a freelance journalist and a senior at Colorado College. He oversees the school's student publications and covers environmental issues for the Catalyst newspaper. Sign up for his newsletter at newenglandclimate.substack.com.