Trial by Social Media

How the ouster of WonderRoot's founder exposed the power and pitfalls of justice in the digital age

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When the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee needed a partner to curate a series of 30 murals highlighting the city’s “civil-rights and social-justice journey”—a project that would capture Atlanta’s historic relevance and its current cultural cachet—the choice was obvious. WonderRoot, the nonprofit grassroots organization founded to promote social justice through art, was uniquely poised to pull it off.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called the resulting murals, which stretched from Vine City to Old Fourth Ward, the game’s “lasting legacy.” Charmaine Minniefield, a former Spelman professor and producer for the National Black Arts Festival, painted two murals of female visionaries—one on MLK Drive of Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and another on Auburn Avenue of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Ella Baker—both framed by chromatic patterns inspired by West African Ankara fabrics. Near Woodruff Park, Muhammad Yungai painted New Kids on the Block, flipping the script on Norman Rockwell with suburban white children moving into an urban black neighborhood. National media, including CNN and the Chicago Tribune, heralded the series as a permanent tribute to Atlanta’s Beloved Community. Vendors organized walking and bike tours of the artworks.

“Certainly, the Super Bowl and the NFL have an important role to play in addressing social justice issues in our country,” WonderRoot founder and executive director Chris Appleton told CBS This Morning days before the February 3 game, standing proudly in front of Ernest Shaw’s Atlanta Strong mural, which depicts two images of a girl wearing the American flag, near an entrance to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “But also, these kinds of big events can be galvanizing moments. . . . It takes eyeballs [on murals like these] to make change.”

In 2004, when he was in his early 20s, Appleton had launched WonderRoot with two friends. Built on a romantic idea—that artists could “change the world”—the nonprofit transformed a run-down house on Memorial Drive into a space that housed studios and hosted experimental bands playing late-night basement sets. WonderRoot’s grants and resources were credited with helping Atlanta retain local artists, who in years past had left for other cities.

Appleton’s charisma and fluency in social-justice speak resonated with other grassroots arts organizations on whose boards he served, such as Eyedrum and Burnaway, as well as with national and corporate funders; in 2017 alone, WonderRoot received $100,000 from Enterprise Community Partners and $150,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2014, Appleton won the Emerging Leader Award from national nonprofit Americans for the Arts and announced ambitious plans to raise $2.8 million and eventually move into a 54,000-square-foot former school across the street from WonderRoot’s Reynoldstown space, hoping to turn it into one of the city’s largest arts centers. “The reality is, I’m trying to build an institution that has staying power and is going to last 50 years, 100 years,” he told Creative Loafing in 2015.

Atlanta Strong mural in front of Mercedes Benz Stadium
Atlanta Strong, a mural that WonderRoot helped bring into the city

Photograph by Audra Melton

But just four days after the Super Bowl brought the organization so much good will, WonderRoot’s triumph came to an abrupt halt. Fifteen former colleagues and staffers, seven of them anonymous, posted an open letter to the nonprofit’s board of directors on social media: “We stand together, as the named and unnamed, to condemn the egregious and systemic harm that we have endured at the behest of Executive Director Chris Appleton’s leadership.”

The February 7 letter accused Appleton of mismanagement and creating a workplace of “intimidation” with “the same dynamics of racism, classism, and heteropatriarchy that the organization purports to dismantle”—and blamed the board for passively allowing it. “Past harm can never be erased, but future harm can be minimized. We demand that you finally respond in actionable terms,” the letter stated.

Dozens of artists, former associates, and organizations shared the letter on Facebook and Instagram. Within days, the board of directors put Appleton on temporary leave, hired a crisis-management team, and recruited a law firm to look into the accusations. A week and a half after the letter was posted, and before the law firm’s investigation even had been completed, Appleton voluntarily resigned from the nonprofit. (Appleton didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment via email, phone call, text, and certified mail. WonderRoot’s board declined to comment for this story through Brian Tolleson, the interim executive director of WonderRoot after Appleton’s resignation.)

By late April, the investigators would conclude that Appleton “repeatedly behaved in an unprofessional manner with staff”—though their report did not find that he targeted employees based on race or gender or that he ever used “racial insults,” as the letter alleged. Nor did the investigation find that Appleton did anything unlawful. But without its leader, the organization had foundered financially. On August 1, the board announced it had unanimously voted to shut down operations.

Online outrage is a blunt instrument. It can flatten complicated human behavior into a binary of “victims” and “abusers”—good and evil—regardless of whether the alleged misdeed is criminal or simply offensive (or even occurred). Airing accusations on social media bypasses traditionally held notions of due process, making the highest court in the land that of public opinion.

Yet, when valid complaints or fears about prominent leaders are met with indifference or fail to generate an official response, social media levels the playing field. The platforms give voice to groups that face systemic societal discrimination—allowing their words to reverberate further and longer, and pressuring the accused and their supporters to respond quickly.

This tension is especially profound in creative communities. Many arts organizations are by nature unconventional, unstructured, and underfunded, often lacking sufficient infrastructure to resolve internal conflicts. Artists are often employed as independent contractors or work for small nonprofits that don’t offer traditional human resource channels for filing formal complaints. Jessyca Holland, the director of arts training nonprofit C4 Atlanta, says that smaller organizations “can’t put in all of these corporate-type HR constraints or else we would never operate,” though she points out that nonprofit boards can function as support systems. Start-ups running out of informal spaces help keep Atlanta’s art scene innovative, but a lack of resources can lead to less-than-ideal working conditions.

“Past harm can never be erased, but future harm can be minimized.”

Without other remedies, artists—and particularly women—have often relied on whisper networks to protect each other. But these days, whispers sometimes migrate to social networks, which can serve as megaphones.

On Dream Warriors, a collection of private Facebook groups where mostly Atlanta-based femme, women, and nonbinary members share everything from roommate listings to tattoo-artist recommendations, call-outs are common. On a 2018 post asking about local businesses engaged in “shady or unethical practices,” which elicited more than 350 comments, one member cautioned, “I’m 100% behind this post, but can we all make sure to link credible sources to back up claims? This can turn into a shit-slinging fest really quickly if we’re not careful.”

Group gatekeepers—the administrators—struggle with navigating allegations as membership grows. Dream Warriors founder Allie Bashuk says the group’s Opportunity Page, which has close to 16,000 members, has six paid administrators, but they generally rely on informal self-policing. Photographer Julie Hunter, who founded the private Facebook group RISE for local creatives in 2016, attempts to vet accusations before they are published to the group’s more than 1,000 members, asking accusers for screenshots and searching for potential police reports. “I feel like it’s partly my reputation on the line if I put something out there,” she says.

University of Georgia media-law professor Jonathan Peters says moderators and social media companies have no legal obligation to investigate claims, as long as they’re not posting the content themselves. Politicians, however, are debating how to modify the law—Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act—that protects them, arguing that the immunity is too broad. And there remains the question of moral responsibility: “I think what [social media] companies have to do ethically is think about what kind of community they want to be,” Peters says.

Of course, accusers themselves can be sued for calling out someone online. Ohio-based attorney Aaron Minc says his law firm, which specializes in internet defamation, has seen an “uptick” in people inquiring about their legal options after being accused on social media, since it can be difficult to “restore their reputation and their good name.” Minc says he supports victims of abuse and the climate #MeToo has created for sharing their stories but notes “there’s this delicate nuance where a certain percentage of people are malicious, and there’s no validity to their claims at all.”

Airing accusations on social media bypasses traditionally held notions of due process, making the highest court in the land that of public opinion.

Stephen Elliott, author of The Adderall Diaries and other books, filed a lawsuit a year ago against Moira Donegan, a former editor at the New Republic, who posted an editable, non–password protected Google spreadsheet called the Shitty Media Men List. According to Donegan, the list was live for only 12 hours, but it went viral, with versions making their way onto Reddit and YouTube. Allegations against the men whose names were added to the list ranged from sending offensive messages to sexual assault. Elliott, who was accused of rape by an anonymous source, denies the charges and claims that he lost book publicity and agent representation as a result of the list. Though Elliott’s lawyer agreed to drop the lawsuit’s claims of emotional damage, defamation claims are still working their way through the legal system.

In 2017, after a woman named Chelsea Tadros tweeted that L.A. hip-hop producer and DJ William Bensussen (who goes by the Gaslamp Killer) drugged and raped her and another woman four years prior, he denied the allegations and filed defamation lawsuits against them. (One was dismissed within months.) In a 2018 statement, Bensussen wrote: “In suing Tadros, I am not trying to silence her. In fact, I am hoping to open a dialogue in which to examine this event in front of a judge and jury, rather than trial by social media.”

In July, Bensussen dropped the other lawsuit and released a joint statement with Tadros that said in part: “After engaging in heartfelt discussions with each other about the events of July 5, 2013, William Bensussen and Chelsea Tadros have decided that it is their mutual desire to move on with their lives and put this lawsuit behind them.”

Two months before the Super Bowl, Appleton stood onstage at downtown’s Loudermilk Conference Center as part of a sold-out TEDxCentennialParkWomen event. He was spreading the WonderRoot gospel of art creating social change, inviting the crowd “to engage, to get involved, and to be purposeful and intentional about how you engage with the cultural community.”

Former WonderRoot employee Stephanie Kong had noticed the event being promoted and was bothered by it. In 2015, Kong had joined WonderRoot as a program director, feeling “privileged” to be there “because there aren’t many organizations in Atlanta that [were] doing this type of work, especially in the arts,” she says.

But by 2017, she says, she had become disillusioned with its leader. Kong claims Appleton routinely berated her and other employees in an unprofessional manner. Her frustration came to a head when, she says, he lost his temper because a funder complained about a gap in communication. According to Kong, Appleton stormed into her office, yelling profanities so loudly that other employees could hear through a closed door. A few days later, Kong says, the funder apologized to Appleton, admitting they’d accidentally overlooked her messages.

Kong called the resulting workplace culture “toxic” and “disempowering.” She says she met with WonderRoot board member Odetta MacLeish-White about Appleton’s behavior, and that MacLeish-White told her that change wouldn’t happen overnight. (In an email, MacLeish-White declined to comment for this story.) Kong says that two weeks after the alleged incident over the funder, Appleton met with her and apologized. She says that she asked him to promise that he wouldn’t lose his temper like that again, and his reply was that he couldn’t. Kong says she resigned on the spot.

Chris Appleton
Chris Appleton, executive director of WonderRoot, helped bring a series of high-profile murals to the city shortly before allegations against him led to his resignation.

Photograph by Kent D. Johnson/AP images

The report WonderRoot commissioned from the law firm states that the board met in April 2017—just after Kong and another employee left—to address staff complaints. At the time, the board required Appleton to go through “executive coaching” and formed an HR committee. However, those precautions had not been communicated to employees, the report would later find, and current and former staff told investigators they had observed “no sustained change” in Appleton’s leadership style or management.

Nearly two years later, in January 2019—weeks after Appleton’s TEDxCentennialParkWomen talk—Kong got an email from Jenne Lobsenz, another former WonderRoot program director. Lobsenz told her that a small group of former employees and others who worked with WonderRoot in various capacities—mostly women—had started an email chain exchanging stories about their experiences working for Appleton. Would Kong be interested in joining?

Kong said yes and was looped in. Like Kong, Lobsenz says she had met with a board member, Tina Arbes, the CFO of Public Broadcasting Atlanta, to discuss Appleton in 2014—without observing results. (Arbes declined to comment for this story.)

Kong says she still believed in WonderRoot’s mission and wanted to make it a better place, but, based on previous attempts, she didn’t think a private message to the board of directors would yield results. She says she, Lobsenz, and others on the email chain felt that a public letter would pressure the board to respond—immediately.

The email participants collaboratively wrote the letter and tried to vet one another’s stories, asking about witnesses and documentation, Lobsenz says. Seven group members signed the letter anonymously, but Kong says she knew some needed to attach their names to give the letter weight.

Kong says she worried about possible legal retribution and ruining relationships in Atlanta’s small arts world. She says she also didn’t relish the thought of starting a witch hunt of Appleton. But she says going public also seemed to be the only way to draw attention to what she calls “the systems in place that support harmful behavior.”

On the morning of February 7, the letter-writers began posting it on their social media pages, along with the hashtag #RemoveChrisAppleton.

For curators, gallery owners, event organizers, and others in the arts community, the risk of online accusations raises the stakes for determining which creatives they should support. Atlanta Contemporary executive director Veronica Kessenich says, “We don’t vet [artists and partners], per se, but we’ve worked with them for such a time [that] they know who we are and we know who they are. We’re confident not only in what they’re going to bring artistically and programmatically but who they are as people.”

Kessenich says the institution adheres to professional standards of nonprofit best practices—contracts, bylaws, conflict-of-interest policies—to guide staff and contractors and to protect the organization. However, those methods can be out of reach for smaller, grassroots groups that have trouble affording legal review or that work with less-established artists.

In the absence of an official public record, like a lawsuit or police report, and in circumstances where alleged offenses occur behind closed doors, supporters and associates of the accused must make their own judgments about how to handle accusations.

Monica Campana, founder and executive director of public arts nonprofit Living Walls, says a woman came to her, accusing an artist Campana was working with of sexual misconduct. She started to fact-check the woman’s claims but then realized, “[by coming to me,] she was putting at risk her image, her name and reputation,” she says. Since that moment, Campana says, she believes women first. “There’s no fact-checking involved. And if I have to go and do that, then [the accused] is probably already someone that I don’t want to work with.”

In January, Philippe Pellerin of Pellerin Real Estate revoked plans to host muralist Ray Geier’s Squishieland gallery at his Beacon Atlanta development in Grant Park two days after artists accused Geier on Facebook and Instagram of sexual harassment. Geier, whose nom d’artiste is Squishiepuss, was one of the city’s most in-demand muralists; his paintings—many of which featured a pink, tentacled French bulldog—had become ubiquitous on the sides of buildings around town.

Under the headline “Social media firestorm erupts over Atlanta artist,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted one of his accusers, Aliya Smith: “In the first 24 hours, I got 30 to 40 stories about women being harassed (by Geier).

. . . I feel like when one person was comfortable saying what happened, more people felt comfortable saying, ‘I thought I was alone.’”

A tagged-over mural originally by Ray Geier, aka Squishiepuss
A tagged-over mural originally by Ray Geier, aka Squishiepuss

Photograph courtesy of Julia Burke

At East Atlanta’s Hodgepodge Coffeehouse, owner Krystle Rodriguez arranged to paint over an expansive, outdoor Squishiepuss mural as soon as she saw the allegations online and released a statement on Facebook. (“We #believewomen,” it read in part.) Drogo Coffee and Tea owner Barrie Sanders blacked out a Squishiepuss-made logo on her retail bags of loose-leaf tea with a Sharpie “without a second thought,” she says. More than a dozen businesses eventually covered up or took down Geier’s work, and vigilante street artists tagged over his murals.

Geier, a prolific podcaster, went silent for three months. Then, two new episodes popped up on his channel. He appeared to address his accusers, stating: “I’ve never done anything against someone’s will. Everything was always—What’s the fucking word?—everything was always consensual. . . . If you consider sexual harassment, like, making a move on them and then someone rejecting that move, I have done that. But guess what? All of us have. . . . Women do it, too. But to sit there and fucking make me out to be this thing that all the rest of the people aren’t? This is fucking bananas.”

Earlier this year, Geier responded to Atlanta magazine’s requests for comment: “Ray Geier/Squishiepuss LLC is retaining legal counsel and will be purs[u]ing any and all civil and criminal claims to the fullest extent possible against parties that make applicable public statements.” Since then, he has not responded to repeated requests for comment via email.

After the Beacon removed Geier’s artwork from the development and terminated its agreement with the muralist, Pellerin donated the gallery space for an art show about sexual harassment and violence called If I Told You . . . Curated by 15 female-identifying artists and featuring work exploring themes of sexual harassment and violence, the event also included programming like therapeutic yoga classes and conversations about sexual health, domestic violence, and self-healing.

Pellerin is unsure what additional measures he could have taken in sizing up Geier. He says his company performs background and credit checks—once deemed a sufficient evaluation—on potential tenants, and he meets with them before signing. But how much should organizations excavate an artist’s past? And what’s the method for searching beyond what comes up in public records? “How do I do that?” Pellerin asks. “I don’t have an answer.”

Nearly three months after the #RemoveChrisAppleton hashtag spread across the social media accounts of the local creative community, McFadden Davis, the law firm WonderRoot hired to examine the letter’s claims, released its report. After interviewing 35 people, including Kong and the other named letter-signers, as well as WonderRoot’s board members, McFadden Davis found Appleton had acted unprofessionally, including “becoming irate with staff, yelling, outbursts, and using profanity when upset.” (The report did not state whether Appleton was interviewed, and the firm declined a request for comment.) But in reference to the letter’s allegations of “dynamics of racism, classism, and heteropatriarchy,” the report concluded that Appleton’s behavior wasn’t targeted toward women or minorities.

The letter had also accused Appleton of “inappropriate attempts at intimacy inside and outside of the workplace,” “solely taking credit for” the work of his nonwhite, female, or queer staff members, and “financial dishonesty.” But the report found no evidence of Appleton engaging in “inappropriate sexual behavior” or harassment and stated that he did not “inappropriately or intentionally take credit for the work of others.” And while the report concluded that Appleton “repeatedly engaged in poor financial management practices,” it cleared him of “financial theft or misappropriation.”

The next day, the AJC wrote, “After a three-month investigation by a firm specializing in employment law, the ousted director of the community arts organization WonderRoot appears to be responsible not for racial insults or financial impropriety, but for having a bad temper.”

The story also cited a text from Appleton to the newspaper: “For the past 15 years I have been focused on WonderRoot’s external growth and development and apologize for not doing more to ensure there was a stronger culture of respect toward WonderRoot’s team members and the impact this caused.”

“It made me feel that, did I put a lot of energy into something that’s not going to make a difference?”

In June, WonderRoot laid off most of its staff, acknowledging the “challenging” last few months. In August, the organization officially announced its closing: “Regrettably, since the departure of WonderRoot’s founder, Chris Appleton, the organization has not been able to reestablish the financial support needed in order to continue,” the statement read in part. “We are collaborating with the community to find permanent homes for the projects and programs of WonderRoot.”

Occasionally, Kong drives by the former WonderRoot space on Memorial Drive and sees its bright yellow and blue facade, now empty inside. She says she was heartened by some of the conversations the letter started in the arts community but says she and other letter-signers remain disappointed; Lobsenz says she felt the primary purpose of the law firm’s report was to salvage WonderRoot’s reputation rather than to “prioritize healing the pain” of the people who signed it.

Kong says, “It made me feel that, did I put a lot of energy into something that’s not going to make a difference?”

Disclosure: In 2018, Vashi was paid $350 by WonderRoot for coteaching an eight-session journalism program for teenagers.

Additional reporting by Jewel Wicker.

This article appears in our November 2019 issue.

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