The two big headlines of this summer — COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement — have roiled through Seattle Children’s Museum, putting it in hibernation for the foreseeable future.
On Monday, Seattle Children’s Museum laid off nine of its remaining employees, saying a nine-week federal Paycheck Protection Program loan had expired, leaving a skeleton crew of six.
“The remainder of the employees, including me, will be laid off at some point in the near future,” said SCM director Christi Stapleton Keith. (Pandemic shutdowns had forced SCM to lay off most of its 21-member staff in March — the PPP loan allowed a handful to come back from early May until late July.)
The layoffs hit in the middle of a weeks-long controversy over three official SCM social-media posts, including lists of suggested children’s books, that went up on May 30 and began with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
Keith had edited out “Black Lives Matter” shortly after the posts went up, angering staff, which told SCM management it was going on strike.
“We were prepared to suspend our labor,” employee Anthony Noceda explained, until five demands were met: reinstatement of the original posts; an apology from Keith to the staff, particularly staff members of color; a public apology from Keith explaining why she edited out “Black Lives Matter”; a private meeting between SCM staff and the museum’s board; and the revocation of Keith’s administrative access to SCM’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.
“We never demanded a guaranteed job, never demanded raises, never demanded anything for ourselves,” Noceda said. “We just wanted the executive director and the children’s museum to do the right thing. A lot of us who work in a public-facing capacity at the museum are people of color. A lot of the families the museum serves are from Black communities or communities of color — of course we as a museum should want to say ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
On June 1, two days after the “Black Lives Matter” posts, several staff members met with SCM directors on a Zoom call where Keith explained her reasoning for cutting that language, saying the posts hadn’t been vetted through proper channels (the staff disagrees) and could have damaged SCM’s fundraising efforts.
“Black lives matter and I think all of us personally agree with that,” she said during the Zoom call. “Not everybody agrees. And what happens if we lose funding? What happens if we lose donors, right? So all of these considerations have to be considered when we write the language around this and I think that it’s important to discuss as a team whether or not we want to put out a statement.”
Later in the call, SCM finance director Autumn Tooley said the staff should consider whether the museum saying “Black Lives Matter” might attract the attention of Proud Boys or the extremist website 4chan (whose users have been associated with extraordinary violence such as the 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand).
Mimi Santos, who worked at SCM for five years, rejects Keith’s argument about jeopardizing SCM’s funding.
“To think she’d be okay receiving funding from organizations that can’t say ‘Black Lives Matter’ and don’t support that movement?” she said. “I can’t work for an organization that relies on funding from people who don’t.”
Former SCM employee Daniel Ashman, who had only been working at the museum since early 2020, found the controversy baffling.
“It was all shocking because we literally teach programs on equity and inequality at the museum,” he said. “I assumed that was part of the integrity of the organization. And during that time, several very large corporations were coming out for Black Lives Matter. It was disappointing that a local organization, involved with the education of children in Seattle, would say that.”
This friction at SCM may not be an isolated event. In fact, former museum employee Maya Burton thinks it’s an object lesson. She said many friends have similar stories about their jobs — and she suspects some version of this drama is quietly playing out in workplaces all over the country.
“It’s happening everywhere and I’m glad,” she said. “Folks are done with management living on a pedestal outside of reality.”
Meanwhile, the museum’s PPP clock kept ticking.
The striking SCM staffers had a few of their five demands met: The posts were reinstated (though with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, instead of the original declaration) and staff met privately with the board. The museum also posted a public apology on June 5. “Posts were made in haste,” it read. “The content was not fully formed when posted and, as a result, a decision was made to remove the statement Black Lives Matter.” There is no mention of Keith’s concern about potentially alienated donors.
“The apology lacks transparency and doesn’t address why the ‘Black Lives Matter’ text was removed from the post to begin with,” Noceda said. “It feels hollow.”
In the past few weeks, during the SCM strike, “Black Lives Matter” has begun appearing regularly in official museum posts.
“It’s infuriating,” Santos said. “To see them do that now feels wrong. It seems 100 percent performative to me. They gave us all these excuses as to why they couldn’t post that, and now all of a sudden they’re doing it. I hate to say it, but they’re doing it because they see it’s trending.”
Then, on July 20, SCM staffers got their layoff notices.
Noceda said that unless the museum enacts some significant changes, he couldn’t go back — but he’s glad to have had the experience.
“The silver lining is that I was able to see people’s intelligence, creativity, wit and passion in ways I wouldn’t have if we were just operating the museum,” he said. “Other than that, I guess I’m just like another American unemployed in the COVID epidemic.”