Ellen Johnson – an open letter reveals more

Arthur Brenner, a staff member of American Atheists, has written an open letter setting out what he feels is the reason for Ellen’s dismissal.

Background to the story can be read here.

I’m a staff member of American Atheists. I’ve worked closely with Ellen Johnson for the past two years. I’ve also had interaction with a few of the most prominent board members regarding various projects that they and I were both working on. (I also worked for the O’Hairs, back in the early 1980’s.)

Ellen is not perfect, of course. Just like the board members, I’ve argued with her about how various things should be done. Ellen’s representation of atheists in the media is not perfect. Ellen’s editing of the magazine is not perfect. Ellen’s decisions about what endeavors to engage American Atheists in are not perfect. Ellen’s ability to manage her board of directors has always been weak.

On the other hand, Ellen is a “get-things-done” kind of person. She is forward-thinking and courageous when it comes to taking a stand for atheists. She is an excellent person to work for. She empowers her staff to be fully responsible for our own work and she empowers us to try new things to improve office efficiency and customer service. She is the most fair and compassionate employer I have ever had.

Ellen’s experience and her role as the primary spokesperson for atheists in America are irreplaceable. There is no one who will put in as much effort as she does, with as much enthusiasm and passion, asking for so little in return.

Don’t get me wrong, Ellen sometimes drives me crazy! Sometimes, I have had to put in a great deal of effort and show her that something could work. Only then would she agree to support it. In this way, I have gradually gained more and more of Ellen’s trust. Winning her support for a new idea is much easier than it used to be.

In my experience, the board of directors have not done the work necessary to gain Ellen’s trust. In my opinion, they have lost sight of their role as advisors to the president. For a long time, Ellen has been in the driver’s seat, and they have been happy to have her there. Their desire to remove her is a fairly recent development.

I have felt that Ellen, myself, and Rachel Carroll have developed into an excellent office team. Together, we have accomplished a sustained increase in membership numbers over the past couple of years. However, accomplishing the organization’s many goals and making ends meet financially has been a continual struggle.

The board has been of very little help. The board has always been given the appropriate financial reports. In fact, I have made it my goal to improve the level of detail in those reports. Rachel and I have been working hard to make that happen and have made a lot of progress.

I have also made it my goal to try to improve communications with the board of directors. With Ellen’s approval, I sent an invitation to each of them to join a private online discussion group where we could post data and project summaries and get their input. Only two board members responded to my invitation, and one of them was Ellen. One of the projects that Ellen and I were hoping to get the board involved in was a complete redesign of the American Atheists website.

Partly, I think they were just too busy to bother signing up, but also, I think they resented my involvement for some reason. Like Dave [Silverman, AA’s blogger], I’m not on the board, so I have to rely on hearsay to have any clue to what they’re thinking.

After the firing of Ellen, Frank [Zindler, acting AA president] told me that my job was secure. (I am currently living in upstate New York and continuing to work half-time for American Atheists as a second, work-from-home job.) However, I hear that I have been characterized at one board meeting as “not able to work well with others” because of conflicts with Ed Gauci (our webmaster) and with Bart Meltzer (who was involved in developing our new database). Also, I have been accused by Frank of impeding the work of American Atheist Press by PURPOSELY not replying to his emails, accused by Dick Hogan (board treasurer) of withholding online passwords to financial accounts, and accused by Bart Meltzer of not planning to stick around for the long haul.

They’ve been been bending over backwards to be nice to me, since they fired Ellen. However, given their history of false accusations, I don’t have much confidence in their assurances about my job security.

In case the picture isn’t crystal clear at this point, I see these board members as a bunch of whining old men who are threatened by a strong, female president and threatened by me, Ellen’s trusted advisor (a role that they SHOULD be playing). They respect Ellen’s abilities, but at the same time, are threatened by them.

Fear and self-importance seem to be the principles driving them. They have repeatedly made a show of working with us in a professional manner, and then slipped back into making accusations and demands. I think they have a great deal to contribute if they can find it within themselves to become better team players.

The board’s statement that they don’t want to embarrass or disgrace Ellen by disclosing their accusations against her is a self-serving way to cover up the pettiness of their accusations. If they are serious, then they are seriously deluded.

Their justifications for firing Ellen keep changing. Also, they have changed their minds, multiple times. At first, Frank thought the freedom walk was a brilliant idea. Then, Bart started to stir up panic about the imagined dangers Ellen might face. Because of all the negativity and because Ellen wanted to have a surprise reunion of the surviving freedom walkers at the convention, she didn’t trust the board members enough to confide in them about her plans. They are trying to spin this as a purposeful deception of the board, which isn’t quite the case. At one point, the board approved the freedom walk, as long as Ellen agreed not to use American Atheists funds or say that it was an official American Atheists event. At other times, their story is that the walk was NOT approved because of liability risks to participants.

The board is afraid to take risks, in general, and they resent Ellen’s confidence and decisiveness. Edwin Kagin (legal director) voted to fire her because he thought some of the legal battles she wanted to pursue were too risky. Frankly, Ellen has some good legal advisors and Edwin is just one of them.

Frank, Edwin and others have been critical of Ellen’s editing of the magazine, stating that as one of the reasons for firing her. As I said earlier, Ellen isn’t the perfect editor. However, since she took over from Frank as editor in April 2006, the magazine has been livelier and more relevant to the average person. She has also managed to get the magazine to the printer EVERY MONTH, before they were ready for it. Frank had trouble keeping up as editor, and his version of the magazine was quarterly.

Dick Hogan offered (as board treasurer) to participate in the efforts to increase the level of detail in our financial reports to the board. He wasn’t able to help as much as he had originally anticipated. Then, he accused Ellen of withholding financial details from the board and gave that as a reason for firing her.

So, the board’s long list of petty grievances can be summed up in three categories: 1) their own indecisiveness (the freedom walk), 2) their fear of taking risks (freedom walk, choice of legal battles), and 3) criticisms about things that they have no interest in taking responsibility for (magazine editing, improved detail in financial reports).

Instead of taking responsibility for the criticism that their ill-advised actions have generated, the board is trying to blame it all on Ellen. Each time one of you speaks out against what they have done, they assume that Ellen has fed information to that person and told them what to say against the board. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ellen has way too much integrity and self-respect to stoop to that.

So yes, board members, I have talked to Ellen, and yes, she has shared numerous details about your accusations. However, I am confident that she will be initially appalled when she sees what I have written. This is the last thing that she would ever have wanted me to do. Hopefully, she will understand my reasons for speaking out.

I care about the future of American Atheists. Over the last couple of years, I have invested a lot of effort in improving the way things run at the office. I would hate to see my efforts wasted and I would hate to see everyone’s donations and membership dues wasted.

The board members really didn’t want to fire Ellen. It was just another example of being afraid of risk. This time, the risk was that they might never get another chance. They had a chance now because they had convinced each other of such a long list of grievances. So, they jumped at the chance. They jumped without thinking. They had no transition plan whatsoever. It was extremely irresponsible and puts American Atheists in a very weak position.

Once the decision was made to fire Ellen, they started pointing at each other. Nobody wanted to be in charge. Frank wanted Conrad Goeringer to be president. Conrad (despite the fact that he has been collecting a full salary from American Atheists for years) managed to weasel of it. Frank got nominated, but agreed to be president only if Conrad would agree to be Office Administrator and work full time at the Atheist Center.

The board members have no “new direction” planned for American Atheists. They don’t even have a plan for how to continue what Ellen and the rest of us were already doing. They are getting off to a very slow start. Most of their focus so far has been on erasing Ellen’s name from all official documents and rearranging the office. Conrad’s first few days at the office were spent dismantling the overflow stock room (boxes of paperback books) that I organized so carefully last Summer. He’s making it into a tiny bedroom so he can live at the office.

They’ve changed the locks on the doors and opened a new PO Box in Cranford. It’s a new direction for American Atheists! They have yet to institute a single change that they couldn’t have done without firing Ellen. Their plan to find a more permanent replacement for Ellen is turning out to be a complete fantasy. They envisioned getting some big-name person, but it’s becoming clear “president” was a thankless job with low pay.

Why am I making such a big deal about all of this? Because it was so unnecessary and so destructive. I’ve tried everything else. I’ve talked to Frank, Dick, Conrad, and Neal Cary. I’ve told each of them that I thought this was a huge mistake. Each one of them has told me the same thing: “I have tremendous respect for Ellen, but what’s done is done. We have to move on now.”

So, what do I expect to happen now? That’s easy. I expect to be fired and then blamed when the organization finally fails.

…unless they can find a way to put aside their pride and arrogance and reinstate the person who has earned the title of president. After all the horrible things that they have said (or implied) about Ellen and after the disgraceful way that she was just dumped, they owe her a huge apology.

It’s not that Ellen is the only person who could ever run this organization. It’s just that she was fired for all of the wrong reasons and fired in a very wrong way. None of us want to be the kind of person who would treat someone like that.

Did the board do anything illegal? Absolutely not. They had every legal right to make this stupid move. And we have every legal right to speak out against it.

What can you do to help? You can keep posting comments on the No God Blog and other blogs. Hold their feet to the fire! Don’t let them get away with this. Remember, WE’RE not destroying American Atheists. They are!

Arthur Brenner
Manager of Office Improvement Projects
American Atheists


Filed under atheism

7 responses to “Ellen Johnson – an open letter reveals more

  1. There was a second letter out from Bart Meltzer, it’s slightly different side of story.


  2. James F

    I am a new American Atheists member; I was made a member on September 12, 2008. I really liked Ellen Johnson and came across American Atheists online when she was still the president; I had considered joining at the time. I was unaware of the circumstances surrounding the end of her tenure: I should have paid closer attention.

    I will be paying closer attention to the activities — especially legal battles and successes — of American atheists in this new year, 2009, and this will play a part in determining whether it is worth renewing my membership. I find this extremely disappointing and sad.


  3. I clicked on that site for that “slightly different side of story” only to find that website down.

    I have never been presented w anything remotly aproaching good reasons for Ellen’s dismisal. This artical seems to back that position up. And as I am unable to get even a “slightly different side of story” I remain thinking that it was an unreasonable action.

  4. metal

    The Bible is a most dangerous Book of the World!
    Num. 31:15,17,18.
    Psalm 14:1-7.
    Psalm 119:127.

    Atheist 100%

  5. The Wikipedia article says only: “On May 7, 2008, it was made public that Ellen Johnson was removed involuntarily by a vote of the board of directors. The reason was not revealed.” So, I assumed it was for financial irregularities. I served on boards before and serve on a 501(c)3 now and that is what I inferred from the statement. I am happy to learn that it was not true.

    Ellen Johnson’s deliveries (YouTube has several; I watched them on the AA website at first), could have benefited from one more take. But there is no doubt that they were strong, eloquent, reasonable, and uncompromising. I was always impressed.

    On the hand, just last night, I watched an “O’Reilly Factor” with David Silverman — and then the Stephen Cobert’s parody of it. I agree that with a moustache and goatee, David Silverman now looks like Satan. And not like this:

    Attempting to out-talk Bill O’Reilly on his own show was pointless. That gambit never works, no matter who the host. (Cobert did a great job of replying to O’Reilly who claimed that because he does not know what drives the tides, God must exist. Cobert brought out museum astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and had fun with that, praising the Moon Goddess, then praising Tyson, for causing the tides.

    Anyway, American Atheists lost a valuable asset.

  6. Wow. Sounds like trouble. Maybe you should all get together, hold hands and pray over it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s