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Does Teach For America advocate for equity and access? Whistleblower says no, files lawsuit

Is Teach For America really about equity and access? A new federal lawsuit filed yesterday by a whistleblower says no. I do want to say that there is often inside info rolling around inside my head and this is one of the stories that I couldn’t talk about until today. Here is yesterday’s press release:

Forty-one year old Lisanne Wirth was seeking a job with more meaning and purpose for the second half of her career. After building a large enterprise user support website from scratch, her goal was to apply her user experience and content strategy expertise to work for the greater good.

Inspired by a job posting from education nonprofit Teach For America (TFA) and its mission to end educational inequity for all children, Wirth joined TFA’s national staff in November 2014.

In her role as Director of Content Strategy, her responsibilities included search engine optimization (SEO), content development, optimization, and governance.

While developing a SEO plan, Wirth noted multiple issues with website accessibility. She reported the issues to her manager and second-level manager starting in August 2015. People with vision impairments who rely on screen readers would not be able to use the TFA website.

Core TFA topics like diversity, inclusiveness and diverse learning initiatives were published on web pages that were inaccessible – effectively excluding people with certain disabilities. “Not only is the lack of web accessibility out of alignment with a civil rights organization like TFA, it’s also likely a violation of public policy and federal and state law,” Wirth said. “I communicated this information to multiple levels of the leadership team in a formal presentation in November 2015, along with companies that have been sued. I assumed they would understand the gravity of the risk.”

“TFA insisted that they could say they’re ‘working on it’ indefinitely and that was good enough. I explained that the Department of Justice didn’t accept excuses, and that fixing the accessibility issues on TeachForAmerica.org would improve SEO too, but it didn’t matter,” Wirth said. “My role was reduced and marginalized as a result.”

Once it became clear that her managers did not want to fix the structural problems with the website, and she was being subjected increased and hostile scrutiny in an attempt to force her to quit, Wirth sent a formal written notice by email to her manager and the Vice President of Marketing in January 2016. The email included details about the numerous attempts to communicate the accessibility issues and potential impacts, and stated her belief the work environment was turning hostile because of her efforts around accessibility, diversity, and inclusiveness.

One week later, Wirth was terminated for “insubordination,” despite an extremely favorable annual review from a previous manager and no record of performance counseling. Over 18 months later, the TFA website still is not fully accessible.

Wirth filed a federal lawsuit alleging wrongful termination in violation of public policy on October 31, 2017. Attorney Julia Campins of the civil rights employment firm Campins Benham-Baker, PC is representing Wirth. “Part of guaranteeing that people with disabilities have access to educational and job opportunities is protecting employees who advocate for such access.” Ms. Campins said. “Ms. Wirth is such an advocate and she is now out of a job.”

Stay tuned. We will have Lisanne Wirth, the Teach For America whistleblower on Truth For America about Teach For America podcast soon!

See all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts about Teach For America here.

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Twitter: @ProfessorJVH

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About Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig (697 Articles)
Julian Vasquez Heilig is an award-winning researcher and teacher. He is currently a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State Sacramento.

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