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Conscious Capitalism, It’s On Us

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Conscious Capitalism, It’s On Us

By Nancy Levine

First published in Feminine Collective

Courage is turning toward hard truth, not turning away.”

This quote appeared last week on the Facebook page of Brené Brown, popular author and speaker on vulnerability, courage, and shame. Brown is a scheduled speaker at the tenth annual Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit, October 18–20 in Austin, Texas.

I commented on Brown’s Facebook post, inviting her response:

“Would you be willing to turn toward this hard truth? You’re a scheduled speaker at Conscious Capitalism event — the organization founded and led by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey who has declared his loyalty to accused sex abuser Marc Gafni — preventing healing for survivors. Please don’t turn away from this hard truth.”

Last December, The New York Times reported on former rabbi, spiritual leader Marc Gafni’s “troubled past,” and his relationship with John Mackey:

“A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, a proponent of conscious capitalism, calls Mr. Gafni ‘a bold visionary.’ He is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center, and he hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch.”

The Times reported Gafni describing one of his accusers, “‘She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.’”

I also emailed Brown’s office but have not received a response. I did, however, receive an email response from Julie van Amerongen, Conscious Capitalism’s director of programs and events, and producer of the CEO Summit. Van Amerongen had previously emailed me in June, in response to my first inquiry to Brown, as chronicled on my LinkedIn blog.

Last week, van Amerongen emailed, “Once again, my staff and I are the victims of your attack against Marc [Gafni] — someone whom we never have and never will support.”

But one person at Conscious Capitalism does support Marc Gafni: John Mackey is a founding board member of nonprofit Conscious Capitalism, Inc., leader of the movement, and author of the book Conscious Capitalism.

The Washington Post reported on coordinated protests at Whole Foods stores in Los Angeles and New York City in May:

“CEO Mackey, meanwhile, has served on the board of Gafni’s Center for Integral Wisdom, and has publicized his links to Gafni and the center in the past. He quotes Gafni liberally in his 2013 book ‘Conscious Capitalism,’ and appeared with Gafni in videos discussing the book that, until recently, appeared on Whole Foods’ website.”

New York Rabbi David Ingber authored a petition to Whole Foods, co-sponsored by more than 100 rabbis and Jewish leaders, urging Mackey to disavow Gafni. Ingber, who led the protests at Whole Foods said, “‘Talk about conscious capitalism — this is the most unconscious expression of capitalism that you could possibly imagine,’” as reported by The Post.

Matthew Sandusky, the adopted and abused son of convicted pedophile, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, joined Ingber and protesters at Whole Foods in New York. Leaders from business, academic, and advocacy circles also criticized Mackey for maintaining silence about his relationship with Gafni.

“Talk about conscious capitalism — this is the most unconscious expression of capitalism that you could possibly imagine.”

Gafni has denied any wrongdoing. He said, “‘Charges have never been brought against me, nor have I ever been found guilty in the court of law regarding these false claims,’” as reported by The Washington Post.

His argument, however, appears to hinge on the premise that his sexual relations with two teenage girls in the 1980s were consensual:

  • The Times reported, of his then-14 year-old accuser, “Mr. Gafni was quoted saying they had been in love.”
  • The New York Daily News reported Gafni denying allegations, saying his then-underage accusers “were willing partners.”
  • A source close to Mackey who asked not to be identified emailed me: “Gafni seems to be saying that this sexual relationship with this 14 year-old was when he was 19, she was his girlfriend, and it was completely consensual.”

How does this argument hold up?

Myka Held, Staff Attorney at SurvJustice and Georgetown Law Center fellow, emailed this comment in March:

“Given the dismal rates of prosecution of rapists, and the fact that even rapists who are prosecuted are not always convicted or appropriately punished, we cannot use the widespread failure of the criminal justice system as an excuse to let offenders off the hook. Marc Gafni has publicly admitted to having sex with a 13 year-old girl while he was an adult. Regardless of his arguments about consent, it is a crime in this country to have sex with a minor, and his defenders cannot hide behind the argument that sex was consensual.”

What’s more, Gafni’s accusers say his sexual advances were anything but consensual.

Sara Kabakov, the then-14 year-old girl Gafni described as “going on 35,” wrote an opinion piece in the Forward in January, coming forward publicly for the first time: “I was 13 when Marc Gafni’s abuse began.” Gafni’s other underage accuser, then-16 year old Judy Mitzner, has also come forward publicly.

Adult women have also come forward, accusing Gafni of sexual abuse.

Donna Zerner, a former editorial associate for Gafni, chronicled the abuse she suffered in a storytelling performance in May (she used a pseudonym for Gafni, but has confirmed that her piece was about him). Zerner told of others who endured similar ordeals, saying she “talked to 15 women, and I know of well over a dozen more,” likening Gafni to Bill Cosby.

Mackey is no longer board chair of Gafni’s Center. In an email to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in April, a spokesperson for Gafni’s nonprofit “denied that Mackey had resigned, saying he merely completed his term as board chair.”The Forward reported a spokesman for Gafni saying, “‘There was no break between Mackey and Gafni.’”

Mackey released a public statement in June, emailed to me by van Amerongen, and subsequently reported by the Forward:

“I want to make it crystal clear that I do not condone sexual assault, harassment, or abuse in any form. I have known Marc Gafni for several years, and he has continued to tell me that he is innocent of the allegations being made about him. Loyalty and the presumption of innocence are important values to me, so I will not join those who are condemning him. At the same time, I understand the devastating effects of abuse, and my heart goes out to any and all victims of sexual abuse everywhere. I am, at once, presuming Marc’s innocence and firmly standing against what he’s accused of.”

In her June email, van Amerongen wrote:

“Since John has stepped off Marc’s board and has released a statement against sexual abuse — cutting whatever imagined ties there were between Conscious Capitalism and Marc, I’d respectfully request that you look for an alternative avenue for your crusade against Marc so that our team can continue our focus on elevating humanity through business.”

I’m all for elevating humanity through business — Conscious Capitalism’s mission is admirable. But becoming conscious requires us to ask hard questions.

Last week, van Amerongen reiterated Conscious Capitalism’s statement, first issued by co-CEO Doug Rauch in March, appearing in my article on Epic Times:

“Conscious Capitalism has no professional association with Marc Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom and does not promote either in any way. Conscious Capitalism does not condone, support or in any way remain silent on issues of sexual assault, harassment or abuse. We are unequivocal that any type of abuse or assault is unacceptable, and we support a culture of open transparency, care and integrity in all personal interactions.”

But if Conscious Capitalism has no professional association with Gafni or his Center, why is the Conscious Capitalism brand woven into the fabric of Gafni’s Center for Integral Wisdom?

Mackey’s photo appears on the front page of the website of Gafni’s Center, with: “Listen to John Mackey outlining his compelling new vision for success and Conscious Capitalism.” Is there a confluence between the two organizations, as suggested by Gafni’s “Welcome to Conscious Capitalism and “Workshop on Conscious Capitalism” sections on the Center for Integral Wisdom site? Why is Conscious Capitalism allowing Gafni and his Center to leverage its brand?

And how do these items reconcile?:

  • Gafni’s public admission of having had sexual relations with underage girls
  • The “weight of the wrongdoing and its continuation,” as former Gafni colleague, author Joan Borysenko cited in her post on the rabbis’ petition
  • Mackey’s declaration of loyalty to Gafni, and presumption of his innocence

Does nonprofit Conscious Capitalism, Inc., which, according to their slogan, “exists to elevate humanity,” bear any ethical accountability for its founding board member John Mackey’s support of Marc Gafni?

A 2009 article Ethics and Nonprofits by Deborah L. Rhode and Amanda K. Packel was published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Rhode is the director of the Program in Law and Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford University, and the former founding director of Stanford’s Center on Ethics. Packel is Deputy Director, Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, and Co-Director, Stanford Directors’ College. Rhode and Packel wrote:

“Nonprofit executives and board members also should be willing to ask uncomfortable questions: Not just ‘Is it legal?’ but also ‘Is it fair?’ ‘Is it honest?’ ‘Does it advance societal interests or pose unreasonable risks?’ and ‘How would it feel to defend the decision on the evening news?’

“Not only do leaders need to ask those questions of themselves, they also need to invite unwelcome answers from others. To counter self-serving biases and organizational pressures, people in positions of power should actively solicit diverse perspectives and dissenting views. Every leader’s internal moral compass needs to be checked against external reference points.”

In what direction are other moral compasses pointing?

Doug White, former director of the Graduate Program in Fundraising Management at Columbia University, where he taught board governance and ethics, and author of the book The Nonprofit Challenge: Integrating Ethics into the Purpose and Promise of Our Nation’s Charities, said:

“There are three basic categories to consider: 1. those actions governed by law, 2. decisions that have no impact — like where you’ll eat dinner tonight, and 3. what we’re talking about in this case — things people care about, but where the law doesn’t go. Gafni’s uncontested, public admission of having sex with a 14-year old girl is relevant. By definition, as a minor, she could not grant consent. By ignoring this relevant information, Mackey and Conscious Capitalism are violating one of the basic mores of ethical decision-making. And elevating humanity? Well, that sounds insincere.”

David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, featured in the movie Spotlight, winner of the 2016 Oscar® for Best Picture) said:

“Mackey’s declaration of loyalty to a credibly accused child molester amounts to dangerous disloyalty to kids and survivors. We all like to stand by our friends. But at a certain point, when kids’ safety is at stake, responsible adults put the vulnerability of youngsters ahead of personal preferences.

“The ‘presumption of innocence’ that Mackey cites is of course crucial in our justice system. But it’s the standard we use before we imprison someone. Compassion, prudence, decency, and common sense all dictate that, when it comes to child molesters, our standard should prioritize the wellbeing of children and survivors. And that means Mackey and Conscious Capitalism leaders having the courage to publicly disavow an admitted and credibly accused predator, even if there hasn’t yet been a criminal conviction.”

Attorney Myka Held said:

“[Gafni’s] attempts to shift blame to his young victim, stating that she was ‘14 going on 35’ are despicable and show both his lack of remorse for his crime and his inability to recognize the seriousness of his crime. For these reasons alone, it is important for us as a society to hold him accountable, and part of the mechanisms for doing so require us to demand that his powerful friends end their support.”

Rabbi Ingber said:

“Shame on you, John Mackey. Shame on you for your ‘loyalty’ and for your abhorrent callousness towards real victims, real women, real abuse, real stories that are not only from some mythic past but are still happening, right here and right now. Shame on you, Mackey, for trusting a sociopath instead of reaching out to those whom Gafni has abused. Shame on you and Conscious Capitalism for calling your complicity with sexual exploitation anything other than what it is — being an accomplice and enabler to a very disturbed and sick man.”

Bill Murray, founder and CEO, NAASCA (National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse), wrote in an article Justifying Institutional Enabling:

“We recognize a phenomenon we call ‘Institutional Enabling’ as a common yet powerfully destructive force whereby an organization, group or leader of a group tacitly or implicitly takes a stand that’s against the well-being of child sexual abuse victims and still-suffering survivors.”

“John Mackey’s public position is that Gafni enjoys ‘the presumption of innocence,’ and Conscious Capitalism, Inc., the global nonprofit that Mackey co-founded, says that should be the end of it. But Marc Gafni has admitted his guilt. There is no ‘presumption of innocence’ here. There is an escape from justice. And it’s an escape that is available and all too well known by clever predators in New York State.”

How has Gafni escaped facing any formal charges?

A legislative battle has been raging in New York State over the Child Victims Act — a bill proposing statute of limitations reform for claims of child sexual abuse. The Catholic Church paid lobby firms $2 million to block the legislation, as reported by the NY Daily News in May. A Political Action Committee, Protect NY Kids, is backing candidates who support the bill. Gafni accuser Sara Kabakov joined lawmakers in Albany in May, lobbying for the bill’s enactment.

Nikki DuBose, board member of Matthew Sandusky’s Peaceful Hearts Foundation wrote on Huffington Post: “Regardless of whether or not Gafni was ever charged with a crime, or in spite of the statutes of limitations, we are obligated as a society to support victims of child sexual abuse and give them a voice.”

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the film Spotlight) said in a phone call,“The laws [in New York] are woefully inadequate. They are revictimizing the victims. In order to prevent child sexual abuse, there needs to be a change. There is no reason why due process concerns would be any different from what they are for murder.”

And what is Gafni up to these days? The Forward reported in August that he is teaching at a tantric sex school in New York: ‘‘The sexual is the ultimate Spiritual Master,’ Gafni wrote.”

“The laws are woefully inadequate. They are revictimizing the victims.”

What do other scheduled speakers at the Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit think about this matter?

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez is a scheduled speaker at the CEO Summit. I have emailed Secretary Perez’s office, asking if he would like to comment on his speaking engagement, in light of this:

Vice President Joe Biden admonished business leaders in his speech at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January, on sexual violence against women: “We have to change the culture.” In a 2015 press release from The White House, Biden enumerated the commitments of the It’s On Us pledge:

  1. “To intervene instead of being a bystander.
  2. To recognize that any time consent is not — or cannot — be given, it is sexual assault and it is a crime.
  3. To do everything you can to create an environment where sexual assault is unacceptable, and all survivors are supported.”

Are John Mackey and Conscious Capitalism doing everything they can to create an environment where all survivors of sexual assault are supported?

Courage is turning toward the hard truth. Are Mackey and Conscious Capitalism leaders willing to ask themselves uncomfortable questions and invite unwelcome answers from others? Or will they turn away?

Protect Kids Not Predators

End the SOL for Child Sexual Abuse

Nancy Levine is the author of the bestselling four-book series starting with THE TAO OF PUG (Viking Studio/Penguin Group); more than 100,000 books in print. Her background includes more than 30 years of experience in corporate recruiting and executive search.

Nancy is an advocate, activist, investigative blogger, and freelance publicist, supporting nonprofits including SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, featured in the film Spotlight), and Peaceful Hearts Foundation, founded by Matthew Sandusky, adopted son of former Penn State football coach and convicted sex offender Jerry Sandusky.

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