In a major shake up to local charity O’Neill Sea Odyssey (OSO), Executive Director Rachel Kippen publicly resigned Wednesday, stating that she could no longer “in good conscience” continue as its leader because the board was unwilling to address “institutional racism, misogyny and privilege.”
Kippen took to Facebook to announce her resignation and post her letter to the nonprofit’s board of directors. In it, she says she is proud of the work they do, but she cites a lack of racial and gender representation and equity among the board and staff.
She had been in the position since 2019, when she took over from the initial Executive Director Dan Haifley.
While email requests by Good Times to Kippen remain unanswered as of publication time, OSO, in a statement, says it is “deeply saddened” that Kippen “chose to attack and malign” the program.
“Although we are grateful for the service of our former Executive Director, we disagree with her comments about our commitment to diversity and inclusion,” it says. “Fortunately, OSO’s mission and its track record speak for itself.”
Founded in 1996 by the legendary Jack O’Neill, OSO was created to teach school children about marine biology, ocean ecology and navigation. To do this, OSO takes students in grades throughout Santa Cruz Harbor on the Team O’Neill catamaran for a three-hour tour. Since 2002 it has also included in-class curriculums to its program.
The organization has won several awards for its work, most recently the 2013 Silicon Valley Business Journal’s Community Impact Award. Over 100,000 kids have passed through the program, most coming from mixed and underprivileged backgrounds.
However, the differences between the board and students they claim to help did not go unnoticed by Kippen during her tenure. She notes that 80% of the students come from non-white backgrounds and 68% from low-income households. While she admits the organization “leverages” these students as a way to fundraise, she commends the choice of students.
“However, I believe our organization is tasked with an obligation much greater than giving students a free boat ride on a beautiful yacht,” she writes.
She says she believes it is the duty of OSO to make the students feel welcome and accepted in the material and languages taught, and to have their leadership represent the people they serve. She says the OSO board is predominantly male, all white and lacks term limits. She says that while the most recent members joined in 2006, most directors hail from the initial 1997 group.
When she attempted to address these issues within the organization she says she was rebuked by the board.
“My leadership evaluations were hastily and retroactively revised in attempts to silence me,” the resignation letter reads. She also says when she garnered an equity-oriented grant for the organization, it was returned to the funder on the basis of OSO not being able to address racial issues during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Kippen, this was the first time in the group’s quarter of a century history that a grant was returned and she doesn’t believe the grant’s focus on racial equity was coincidental.
Kippen, who in the post says she is a “mixed race woman under 40,” says she understands how essential equity is to education.
“In order to mitigate undue burden or harm,” she writes. “That the organization has internal work it must do prior to welcoming any person representing a minority as future Executive Director or board member.”
OSO says it has previously had bilingual crew members to better serve non-English speaking students and “women have served in key leadership positions from the chair of the board to senior deckhands/instructors on our classroom at sea.” It also claims the board’s decision to hire Kippen “is itself indicative of its commitment to diversity.”
Former Santa Cruz mayor and current City Council member Justin Cummings reposted Kippen’s Facebook post on Thursday morning. The former director and founder of The UCSC Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, he says he appreciates Kippen’s leadership and is proud to be a part of a new generation of young professionals and leaders.
In an interview with Good Times, Cummings says studies like 2014’s Green 2.0 report show many nonprofits and charities claim diversity and equity inclusion are important factors to their organizations. However, their actions to address these issues often fall short of their values. He says he respects Kippen’s decision to follow her morals and step down.
“The O’Neill Sea Odyssey has done a lot of great work,” he adds. “But like many others they need room to grow and changes need to be made particularly around diversity and equity inclusion in the field of conservation studies.”