AARP accused of racism in Oregon director's departure
The national AARP organization has been accused of racism in the abrupt departure of its Oregon state director, Ruby Haughton-Pitts, a well-respected Black woman and community leader.
The Portland chapter of the NAACP and other supporters are accusing AARP — formerly known as the America Association of Retired People — of not telling Haughton-Pitts why she was put on paid administrative leave in late 2020 and terminated in mid-February. They are suggesting that racism played a role in the decision.
"It's an open secret that both the Oregon AARP and the national AARP have not been immune to racial preference, white backlash, and denial of equal opportunities for higher leadership," NAACP Portland President Sharon Gary-Smith said in a Feb. 24 letter to AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins.
Contacted by the Portland Tribune, AARP spokesman Jason Young said, "AARP policy doesn't allow us to comment on personnel matters, but AARP is an inclusive, mission-driven workplace, is deliberative about all employment decisions, and does not consider any inappropriate factors when making those decisions."
AARP is the nation's largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering Americans age 50 and older. It has 38 million members, with more than 500,000 in Oregon.
After being notified of the controversy, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden's office said it will be "following up with AARP based on the serious concerns about transparency, racial equity and more."
The Portland Tribune has been unable to reach Haughton-Pitts.
Judy Snyder, her Portland labor lawyer, said that neither of them know why she was terminated. Snyder said Haughton-Pitts was only told that she was being placed on leave while a "staff complaint" was investigated.
Snyder said Haughton-Pitts is "devastated" by the termination, especially because she was not offered an explanation. Snyder said that she has repeatedly requested Haughton-Pitts' personnel file from AARP.
"When she finds out why she was terminated, she will decide what to do," Snyder said.
Others contacting Jenkins to demand an investigation include members of an advisory committee she appointed to help her implement AARP's vision for members to be more diverse and multi-generational. They include former State Treasurer Randall Edwards, Care Oregon Founding CEO Mary Lou Hennrich, and even AARP Oregon Interim State President Edward Brewington.
"We cannot think of a worse thing for AARP and for Oregon than to lose her. And the timing couldn't be poorer, especially as the state continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and related racial inequities affecting so many older adults in Oregon," they wrote.
Edwards told the Portland Tribune that Haughton-Pitts had raised the number of people of color and younger Oregonians as chapter director.
"She was doing what the AARP wants done. It doesn't make any sense," said Edwards, who has known Haughton-Pitts for more than 20 years.
An online Change.org petition titled "Justice for Ruby" had collected nearly 1,700 signatures by Wednesday, March 3.
"The call is loud and clear: the AARP and its state chapters must actively examine and remove racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism from their practices and decisions and stop maintaining white supremacy," the petition reads.
Gary-Smith and the others say they are especially upset that Haughton-Pitts' departure was announced as part of an email sent by AARP West Region Vice President Kim Adler on Friday, Feb. 15, shortly before MLK Day.
"Anyone who is familiar with news cycles knows that organizations hide difficult news and controversies in the slow Friday afternoon cycle, often missed over the weekend," wrote Gary-Smith.
Haughton-Pitts was raised in Oregon and graduated from the University of Oregon. She held several leadership positions in the state, including director of legislative and public affairs at CareOregon, vice president of external affairs for OCHIN (a nationwide nonprofit health care innovation center), and vice president of government relations for U.S. Bancorp.
After marrying and moving to Chicago, she served as AARP Illinois director of outreach and advocacy. AARP announced her hiring as Oregon director in October 2018.
"I am delighted to join this amazing staff in addressing the needs of Oregon's 50+ individuals and their families. This is a very special homecoming for me, and I am looking forward meeting new folks, reconnecting with old friends and delving into the work at hand," Haughton-Pitts was quoted as saying in the 2018 announcement.
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