“It feels quiet today,” my friend Ryan texted me. It was the first time in a week that our cohort of former Relevant Media Group employees hadn’t been contacted with an interview request.
I agreed. It did feel quiet — especially since the company has released no updates since our efforts pressured the CEO into an impromptu sabbatical.
When I wrote Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group, I didn’t expect a groundswell. But, within days, a deluge of stories from other former employees about the toxic work environment there arose.
Customers are unsubscribing from the platform. Collaborators are distancing themselves. Influencers are denying their media requests. Writers are refusing to submit new material. It’s a digital uprising.
Initially, that wave of true confessions forced RELEVANT CEO-Founder Cameron Strang to retreat from Twitter for the weekend. He resurfaced the following Monday to announce a temporary leave of absence to address his “toxic” leadership style, promising changes at the company.
As the public awaits news from the company, many are asking “where is all of this headed?”
The truth is that I can’t answer that question by myself. It’s not up to me.
Some have taken Mr. Strang’s statement at face value. For them, his apology is tantamount to restitution, apparently. To others, it was a “courageous” move. To some, the logical end of the upheaval about his leadership.
Other former employees have their suspicions because we know, from experience, that organizations and powerful people can be sly when under external pressure to change.
Oftentimes, the powers that be are much more concerned with pacifying protests than with addressing the root causes that compelled people to revolt in the first place.
I’m sure that the RELEVANT team wants to do the latter. But, again, the team doesn’t have the ultimate say in whether our protests will result in structural or cosmetic changes at their company.
I think that is why this situation makes me think of the Exodus story.
To be fair, the pattern of organizational behavior that makes me think of the Exodus is not unique to RELEVANT.
I’ve thought about it in several situations where people of color contend with white institutions: from the fight to integrate America’s schools and buses to efforts to decolonize theological curriculum in historically white seminaries, from begging white megachurch pastors to diversify their preaching roster to this very debacle I’m responding to now.
There are just some common dynamics that arise when one confronts Pharaoh.
“For the oppressor has you in domination because he plans to keep you there, and he never voluntarily gives it up.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Birth of a New Nation”
Sometimes, I see the Pharoah in the Exodus story as a sly organizational decision-maker under pressure. He sits atop an institutional hierarchy from which he benefits — one that harms Hebrew bodies every day that it exists — and has no interest in changing that arrangement. He will not let it go without a struggle.
Pharoah Thinks Protest Is A Suggestion
When he’s first confronted with YHWH’s protest (Let my people go!), he dismisses it. He basically says “I don’t have to do anything!” (Exodus 5:1, New International Andre Henry Translation).
This was one of my first big lessons in protest ever: that during times when the status quo seems secure, the powers that be will ignore your protest.
Basically, there are broad, shifting external factors that make a structure more or less vulnerable to resistance. If Pharoah thinks the status quo is secure, he will treat your demands as suggestions. Sociologist Doug McAdam explains, in his book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency:
Any event…that serves to undermine the calculations and assumptions on which the political establishment is structured occasions a shift in political opportunities. Among the events…likely to prove disruptive of the political status quo are wars, industrialization, international political realignments, prolonged unemployment, and widespread demographic changes (40).
McAdam later explains how the decline of the cotton market, the effect of World War II on international politics, The Great Migration, and a few progressive Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s all created the conditions that made the later Civil Rights movement possible. All of these changes shifted the conditions that anchored America’s Jim Crow system.
Because of the role of these broad external factors, I’m sometimes tempted to say the Boll Weevil started the Civil Rights Movement. But no one would know what I’m talking about, because these broad, subtle structural changes are so easy to miss.
McAdam’s use of the words “calculations” and “assumptions” stick out to me. The powers that be stake their tents on certain expectations about daily life. They assume tomorrow will be like yesterday.
When Moses entered Pharaoh’s court to demand liberation for his people, Pharoah had no reason to think it would be consequential for him to refuse. He didn’t know that the structure of political opportunities had shifted under his feet — that the God of the Hebrews had recently declared war on the gods of Egypt in the Sinai desert. So, overestimating the security of the status quo, assuming that day was like any other, he told Moses to bug off.
When the first wave of people began to come forward about their experiences at RELEVANT, it seemed Mr. Strang thought that day would be like any other — that it would “blow over” in a couple of days. It seems he underestimated that recent movements like #MeToo have shaped the expectations of our generation to demand greater accountability from our leaders.
In another time, he might have been able to ignore the criticisms populating Twitter, maybe even to pushback some, but the sands in which he’d staked his calculations and assumptions about the status quo had shifted years ago. This uprising was a matter of time.
Pharoah Thinks This Is A Negotiation
The plagues of the Exodus show Pharoah that he can’t simply dismiss the demand to free the Hebrews.
The plagues cause Pharoah to crack. He promises to let the Hebrews go. Pharoah makes promises for change when the pressure is on. He even issues an apology:
“This time I have sinned,” [Pharoah] confessed. “The LORD is the righteous one, and my people and I are wrong. Please beg the LORD to end this terrifying [plague of] thunder and hail. We’ve had enough. I will let you go; you don’t need to stay any longer” (Exodus 9:27–28).
But as soon as the plague recedes, when the pressure is off for a moment, he thinks it’s time to haggle:
“I’ll let you go to offer sacrifices to the Lord your God in the desert, provided you don’t go too far away and you pray for me.” (Exodus 8:28).
In my experience, many leaders respond to protest — especially antiracist protest — in this way. If they can’t dismiss the protest altogether, they try to find bare minimum symbolic reforms that will give protesters a sense of satisfaction while ultimately maintaining the same power arrangement.
We see this in the Civil Rights Movement, where the calls for structural changes — economic justice and political empowerment — were not taken as seriously as more symbolic integrationist reforms, as though Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were just fighting for the right to sit next to white people.
We see this today in the university that thinks a “diversity hire” is the same as being structurally antiracist, the media company that thinks one Black History post on February 1 is sufficient, and the church that counts black and brown faces in the pews but seldom in the pulpit as a paragon of “racial reconciliation.”
But there’s a difference between a nation, an organization, or person thoroughly committing to black freedom, versus just trying to alleviate the pressure of black protest.
What you must know about confronting Pharoah is that if he can’t ignore you, he will try to bargain with you. He will see if you’ll settle for a statement, a sincere sounding apology, a city council seat, a shoe deal, part ownership of a football team, a sabbatical, a sponsorship, but he will try to stop short of anything that threatens the power structure from which he benefits.
You must understand that pharaohs want two things: to protect their interests, and for you to comply.
When someone shows you who they are, believe them…
— Dr. Maya Angelou
Usually, I only get as far with this analogy as “Pharoah has no intention of liberating anyone without being pressured to do so.” But talking about RELEVANT has made me think about Pharoah’s inner life.
Something is going on inside of him that the compilers of Exodus don’t seem to agree on. At times it’s said that God makes Pharoah stubborn (7:3), other times Pharoah is just stubborn (7:14; 8:15), and other times Pharoah makes himself stubborn (9:34).
I don’t bring this up to solve it. I can’t. But I have to acknowledge it. It’s the elephant in the room. You can’t talk about Pharoah without talking about his hardened heart, and to consider what is realistic to expect from him when confronted.
He probably won’t ever have deep convictions about freedom. And, as far as an Israelite is concerned, Pharoah’s convictions are his business. This isn’t about him. It’s about all those Hebrews experiencing daily violence under his rule.
The white elephant in the RELEVANT situation is that we have to be realistic about what we can expect from the key decision-maker in this situation, considering what we know about their character.
A recent statement from former RELEVANT employees shows that from 2001–2019, the work environment has been unhealthy, and all have attributed the cause of that environment to one source. That isn’t going to change because of some time off.
We don’t have to perfectly psychoanalyze the pharoahs of our time, any more than ancient Hebrews needed to do so in the Exodus story. But we must accept when we’re shown that change in an organization won’t be backed by deep personal conviction from the top leadership.
What you must know about confronting Pharaoh is that he will only act in your interests if his back is against the wall.
“Every time a man or woman stands up for justice, the heavens sing and the world rejoices.”
— Cesar Chavez
A dear friend, a priest, recently asked me “what do you believe about God right now?”
I told her that, right now, I believe God is at least the revolutionary impulse in our species — the spirit that always, inevitably moves us to fight oppression together.
If the Exodus story introduces a God who wages struggle to liberate marginalized people from slavery, and we are created in that God’s image, then revolutionary activity must be a manifestation of the divine.
If humans are invited into the dance that is the life of God, revolution is one of the steps.
That was my answer because I became a person of faith again through studying the history and practice of nonviolent struggle. So, because of what I’ve observed on my path back to faith, I must disagree when some suggest that only God brings about social progress.
God always invites people to participate in God’s mission. Pharoah never meets the Hebrew God face to face, as Moses did through a burning bush. Pharoah only meets the Hebrew God through encounters with Moses and Aaron.
It is through Moses’ prayers, his staff, his lifted hands, and his prophecies that the pressure of God’s zeal for freedom is applied to Pharoah. It is through the sacred disobedience of the midwives who refuse to kill Hebrew babies that the foundations of the status quo are shaken. It is the hands of Hebrew slaves that carry Egyptian gold through the Red Sea, raw materials for their own community elsewhere. God always uses people to confront oppression.
We see this same dynamic in the Black freedom movement that forced the United States to end its racial apartheid. God’s divine zeal for freedom, communicated to them through this same Exodus story, may have backed my ancestors’ efforts to fight Jim Crow. But it was their bodies that filled the streets, their voices singing freedom songs. Our relentless insurgency forced pharaohs to comply.
What you must know about confronting Pharaoh is that the pressure doesn’t just mysteriously descend from the heavens. It is applied by people.
People provide [many] services to the ruler through a variety of organizations and institutions. If people would stop providing these skills, the ruler could not rule.
— Gene Sharp
Are there consequences to putting the squeeze on Pharaoh? Of course there are. Collateral damage is one of them.
Every plague destroys property, land, and inconveniences everyday Egyptians in that story — all because of Pharaoh’s whatever-is-going-on-in-his-heart. A leader’s decisions always affect others.
At the same time, we must be careful not to erase the agency of those who continue to support Pharaoh’s hierarchy.
I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, but I think it’s worth saying briefly that the innocence of regular citizens is questionable in the Exodus story. Sure, the idea and blueprint for the domination system in that story comes from the throne, but everyone else in the privileged class is using and/or benefitting from it. So then, what does it mean to be “innocent” in such a society?
What you must know about confronting Pharaoh is that putting pressure on him will likely affect everyone who works for or benefits from his establishment.
But that isn’t a reason to forego resistance. Pharaoh’s decisions will put many in danger, but people must choose for themselves what they’ll do to secure their safety. We can’t refuse to shut down a harm factory because it creates so many jobs. There are other jobs.
Those whose livelihood is tied to Pharaoh’s system have the option to defect. Join the Exodus, as some Egyptians seem to have done in the biblical story (12:38). This is a hard decision to make, but it is one of the most powerful decisions that can be made.
We see this in the Naval mutiny during Gandhi’s campaigns that hastened the end of British rule in India, in the defection of the military in the People Power movement in the Philippines, the list goes on. When Pharaoh’s collaborators defect, Pharaoh can no longer conduct business as usual.
“Papa always said to me,
Keep a close eye on your authority.”
— Allen Stone
In the Exodus story, the final plague on Egypt comes from Pharaoh’s own mouth. “…Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die” (10:28). Pharaoh decreed death, and death came to all the houses of Egypt.
All firstborn Egyptians in the story die, even his own son. It’s only at this seeming rock bottom (“seeming” because he would change his mind one more time) that Pharoah allows the Hebrews to march out of Egypt.
In one of my early conversations with Mr. Strang, he referred to RELEVANT as his “baby.” He spoke of how personal it can feel when people choose to leave, as so many have.
Time will tell what kind of low point this is for the RELEVANT CEO. Is his statement sincere, or is he bargaining to get the pressure off? We’ll see. What is for certain is that the fate of this company will come from his own mouth.
For twenty years, RELEVANT has operated on an algorithm of harm. But the sands on which that arrangement depends have shifted. People are coming forward. And Mr. Strang must decide how to respond, quickly.
If he responds well to the pressure — doing whatever it takes to make amends with people he’s harmed and to create a safe and healthy work environment at RELEVANT, even if that means leaving the company altogether — then the company could have a better future than anyone imagined. He could set an example for many other white institutional leaders to follow, rebuild trust with marginalized communities, and ultimately expand the brand’s influence and credibility. It could be miraculous.
If he doesn’t, that which he holds most dear, his “baby,” could collapse under the pressure.
This doesn’t mean the public has no power in this situation. You can certainly collaborate in authoring this story. You can keep the pressure on the company until they make the necessary changes, and if the boss refuses to honor your wishes you can withdraw your support entirely in an organized manner. History has often been made that way.
But Mr. Strang’s decisions will even determine the public’s response. At every turn, the decision comes back to him.
It does feel very quiet this week, as we wait for an update. For sure, the RELEVANT team is working as hard as they can to respond to our little uprising in a meaningful and honest way. But again, the fate of their work is not in their own hands.