April Cisneros says the first time she was sexually assaulted at her private Christian college was in 2015, while she was playing piano in the school’s conservatory. A music tutor came into the small practice room and began to touch her. The second time, one year later, she remembers waking up in a hotel room near campus after drinks with classmates. One man was forcing his hand into her pants while another ejaculated on top of her.
The incidents were devastating, and further compounded by a conservative religious community that lacked empathy for her pain or a framework to understand it. “Maybe it’s demons attached to you that attracted this fate,” she recalls one pastor telling her. Others placed the blame on her, wondering if she set the right boundaries with men.
While studying abroad at Oxford University in 2016, in an effort to get far away from what she suffered back home, Cisneros attempted to take her own life.
Soon after, she Googled for help, and the website for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, or RAINN, flashed across her computer screen. RAINN, which was founded in 1994 as a nonprofit, bills itself as the nation’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization, operating a 24-hour hotline for victims and pushing for state and federal policies to punish sex offenders and support survivors. It has deep ties to corporate America and Hollywood, partnering with Google and TikTok and media like “I May Destroy You” and “Promising Young Woman,” both of which center on sexual assault. (Insider itself utilizes RAINN’s hotline; our publishing system automatically appends a referral link to RAINN at the bottom of every story about sexual assault.) In 2019, it reported nearly $16 million in revenue. It says its programs have helped 3.8 million people, and 301,455 people called its hotlines last year.
The organization was a beacon in a difficult time, and Cisneros soon threw herself into supporting it. She cycled 3,200 miles across the country for a fundraising drive; later, after the Trump administration rolled back Title IX protections for campus-sexual-assault victims, she decided to get involved more directly.
“I was so angry,” Cisneros told Insider. “I just remember thinking, ‘Well, why don’t I just, like, go try to be a part of the solution?’” She began working for RAINN in 2018 as a communications associate.
But she soon discovered that it looked very different from the inside. Instead of the supportive, inclusive victims’ advocacy organization that offered her hope in the depths of her
, Cisneros found herself in a demoralizing workplace overrun by what she described as racism and sexism. She recalled that during a media training for sexual assault survivors, her boss asked a participant to smile while recounting a sexual assault. “If you don’t,” Cisneros remembered her boss saying, “it’ll look like you have a bitch face.”
Cisneros is among 22 current and former RAINN staffers who spoke to Insider and described a roiling crisis over race and gender in the over-200-person-strong nonprofit. These people described a culture in which a routine training was beset by racist caricaturing, executives ignored employees’ requests for change, and people who were deemed political risks — including sexual-assault survivors — were silenced. According to these accounts, in one instance, a supervisor badgered an employee during the time she took off to recover from an abortion. In another, an Asian staffer was replaced on a project with a white man after their boss deemed him a better fit because of his race and gender. One staffer sent a resignation letter, obtained by Insider, in which she bemoaned “toxic managerial behavioral patterns” and worried that “young employees like myself, many of them survivors themselves, are currently being treated like their rights at work do not matter, like their comfort and security and health at work doesn’t matter, like the skills they bring to work are worthless.”
RAINN declined to make its founder and president, Scott Berkowitz, available for an interview. In a statement, the group said it had made great strides in diversifying its workplace and addressing the concerns of its employees of color. It accused the current and former staffers who came forward to Insider of providing “incomplete, misleading, and defamatory” information about “a handful of long-outdated and disproven allegations.”
“RAINN is proud of the work our committed staff do, day in and day out, to support survivors of sexual violence,” the statement read. “As an organization, we owe it to our committed staff to provide a work environment where they feel safe, appreciated, and heard … Over the last several years, like most organizations, RAINN has worked to expand and implement comprehensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies and goals. We regularly update staff on our progress toward achieving those goals, and solicit feedback on potential areas of improvement. While there is always room to build on our efforts, we are continually working to foster an open dialogue between employees and leadership to ensure ideas and concerns can be heard and addressed.”
RAINN hired Clare Locke LLP, a boutique libel law firm that has gained a reputation for representing clients facing #MeToo allegations, including Matt Lauer and the former CBS News executive Jeffrey Fager, to respond to Insider’s inquiries. During Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, the firm’s cofounder Libby Locke came to his defense, writing: “No wonder Judge Kavanaugh is angry. Any man falsely accused of sexual assault would be.”
When Insider asked RAINN whether Clare Locke’s work was consistent with the organization’s mission and values, the firm’s partner Thomas Clare emailed a statement attributed to RAINN: “Given your questions contained outright lies about RAINN and our staff, and publication of those claims is potentially defamatory, we hired defamation counsel. We recognize we have a right to legal representation, and our attorneys have helped us disprove your ridiculous and libelous allegations.”
Some RAINN employees fear that the corporate dysfunction has poisoned the work of the largest sexual-violence organization in the country, which they continue to view as crucial, despite their own experiences.
“How can RAINN be helping survivors externally when they’re traumatizing survivors and their own employees internally?” Cisneros said.
How RAINN became Hollywood and corporate America’s go-to partner
Through savvy marketing and hard work, RAINN has become to sexual assault what Planned Parenthood is to reproductive health: the premier, full-service resource for people struggling with a crisis and the ultimate destination for donations to help people who have been victimized.
The global embrace of the #MeToo movement, and the contemporary focus on the depth and pervasiveness of sexual assault, has further aided RAINN’s ascension. Companies in crisis often turn to the organization to telegraph their commitment to social responsibility. After dozens of women sued Lyft, claiming they were assaulted by its drivers, the company worked with RAINN to roll out extensive safety initiatives and contributed $1.5 million to its coffers.
Hollywood has also embraced the organization. RAINN was cofounded by the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Tori Amos, who promoted the organization’s hotline at her concerts and sat on its advisory board. In 2018, Timotheé Chalamet pledged his earnings from Woody Allen’s “A Rainy Day in New York” to groups including RAINN, as did Ben Affleck from productions affiliated with Harvey Weinstein. Christina Ricci, a star of Showtime’s breakout hit “Yellowjackets,” has served as an official spokesperson since 2007, and the platinum-selling pop artist Taylor Swift has donated to the organization, something it publicized from its social-media accounts.
—RAINN (@RAINN) April 8, 2021
But Berkowitz has largely stayed out of the public eye. He began his career as a political wunderkind, advising Sen. Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign at just 14 years old. A profile in his grandparents’ hometown newspaper in Pennsylvania said he was personally responsible for collecting $100,000 in donations for Hart — a feat achieved in between classes at American University, where he was already a sophomore.
After graduation, Berkowitz continued to work in and around politics. His experience in the field, he said in a 2019 interview with RAINN, taught him about the “extent of the problem” of sexual violence in the United States and the opportunity to fill this “service gap.”
“I knew next to nothing about the issue,” Berkowitz said. “It just seemed like a good idea.”
Early on, Berkowitz ran the day-to-day operations, and his early fundraising prowess served him well. After a series of sexual assaults at the infamous Woodstock ’99 festival, promoters and record labels did damage control by giving RAINN 1% of the proceeds from the festival’s CD and video releases.
“In raw self-interest, the money and attention that would come from it would allow RAINN to promote the hotline better, provide more counseling, print more brochures,” Berkowitz told the Village Voice.
RAINN’s budget swelled in tandem with its brand. Total revenue rocketed from more than $1.2 million in 2009 to nearly $16 million in 2019. Berkowitz’s compensation grew from $168,000 to over $481,000 over the same period.
Even though RAINN’s tax returns list Berkowitz as its president and indicate that he was paid nearly a half a million dollars in the year ending in May 2020, RAINN says that he is not in fact an employee and does not receive a salary. Instead, for reasons that RAINN did not explain, he is paid through A&I Publishing, a company solely owned by Berkowitz that contracts with RAINN. “Scott Berkowitz is paid solely as an independent contractor through A&I Publishing and does not receive any salary or benefits,” it said. “He has never received any employee compensation from RAINN.”
RAINN’s tax records tell a slightly different story. The group has reported paying a total of $561,500 in consulting fees for “strategic and financial oversight” to A&I Publishing from 2001 to 2006, during which time Berkowitz drew no salary from RAINN. Since 2007, though, RAINN has reported directly paying Berkowitz a total of $3,529,000. (RAINN says he “is recused from all board consideration of his compensation.”)
Over the same period, RAINN also began reporting payments to A&I to service $288,000 in debt that it owed the consultancy at 5% interest. RAINN’s tax records don’t reflect that the organization ever received any cash from A&I; instead, the loan is described in its 2006 tax return as “issuance of debt for prior year services.” RAINN says the loan, which has been repaid, stems from “deferred payment for fees” that RAINN owed A&I “for a number of years.”
‘How does an organization like RAINN make such an egregious mistake?’
With the Woodstock ’99 deal, Berkowitz struck on a highly successful strategy — corporate penance — and he would often return to it. But he also looked to the public sector for funding opportunities.
One of RAINN’s largest sources of revenue — $2 million a year — is its contract to run the Department of Defense’s Safe Helpline, which offers confidential, anonymous counseling to members of the military who have been affected by sexual violence.
Multiple staffers who spoke with Insider said Berkowitz was exceedingly sensitive about maintaining the contract. They said that he had gone to great lengths to stay in the Department of Defense’s good graces and that they believe RAINN has at times been overly deferential to its interests.
Michael Wiedenhoeft-Wilder, a former flight attendant and roller-rink operator who previously served in the Navy as a medic, said that in 1982, just months after he enlisted, a Navy physician raped him. The doctor, who outranked Wiedenhoeft-Wilder, threatened him with prison time if he came forward. Wiedenhoeft-Wilder said it was the first of multiple sexual assaults he suffered, all of which resulted in a diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
Wiedenhoeft-Wilder stayed silent about the assault for nearly 30 years. He became depressed and experienced paranoid suspicions that the government was spying on him, ready to silence him if he ever told the truth about his assault.
But decades of therapy empowered Wiedenhoeft-Wilder to eventually come forward. He discovered the Safe Helpline, which then led him to RAINN’s Speakers Bureau, a roster of more than 4,000 volunteer survivors who share their stories with the media, student groups, and other organizations. When Wiedenhoeft-Wilder signed up with the bureau, his story was selected for publication on RAINN’s website. In October 2019, he worked with April Cisneros, who helped manage the Speakers Bureau, to prepare the story.
But the story was abruptly killed. Cisneros said Berkowitz decided to pull Wiedenhoeft-Wilder’s account once he realized that it involved an officer assaulting an enlisted man.
“Once we actually wrote up his story, Scott was like, ‘No, we’re not even getting into this,'” Cisneros told Insider, adding that Berkowitz refused to send the story to the Department of Defense for review, as it routinely did with accounts of military sexual assault. Cisneros said Berkowitz told members of the communications team that promoting the testimony of a man who had been assaulted by one of his superiors could harm the military’s reputation and upset the Department of Defense. Cisneros told Insider she believed that Berkowitz did not want to risk losing the government’s funding.
Wiedenhoeft-Wilder was shocked. He had spent time with Cisneros revisiting the details of an assault that haunted him for 30 years, all for nothing.
“I’ve spent the last several days trying to deal with the devastating news that the article about my military sexual trauma being canceled for someone else,” he told Cisneros in an email on October 31 that Insider reviewed. “How does an organization like RAINN make such an egregious mistake? Do you have any idea how this mistake has affected me? It’s absolutely devastating. Just one more failure for me.”
“I feel victimized all over again,” he wrote. “What did I ever do to you people to deserve this!”
Cisneros, worried about Wiedenhoeft-Wilder’s mental health, forwarded the exchange to Berkowitz and Keeli Sorensen, then the vice president of victim services, she said. “Maybe you just tell him you made a mistake,” Cisneros recalled Sorensen telling her. She felt Sorensen’s suggestion was, in effect, to “[fall] on my sword for RAINN.”
Cisneros told Insider that she told Wiedenhoeft-Wilder a lie about a scheduling conflict and blamed the mix-up entirely on herself. Wiedenhoeft-Wilder didn’t believe her. “I know she wasn’t telling me the truth,” he told Insider. “I knew it wasn’t her fault. It was a really weird, very strange thing to do to someone.”
Cisneros was heartbroken. She felt that she’d betrayed Wiedenhoeft-Wilder’s trust and was distressed because she felt an anti-sexual-violence organization had asked her to deceive a rape victim. “What’s so sad is people treat him like he’s so paranoid about being silenced by the military, but that paranoia is at least … legitimate,” Cisneros said. “And it happened again at RAINN.”
Sorensen denied having any involvement in the incident and said she was “not authorized in any way to instruct Ms. Cisneros in this matter,” adding that Berkowitz had “total authority” with respect to the publication of Wiedenhoeft-Wilder’s story. She said she did not know why Berkowitz pulled the testimony.
“I had no part in the matter,” Sorensen said, “but it’s my recollection, based on my conversation with Ms. Cisneros, that she had promised Mr. Wiedenhoeft-Wilder that she would publish their story before having secured final approval from Mr. Berkowitz.”
RAINN also said that if Cisneros had promised Wiedenhoeft-Wilder a spot on its website, it had “no knowledge of that and she was not authorized to make that commitment.”
Cisneros disputed that. She said that she provided Berkowitz with details of Wiedenhoeft-Wilder’s story before reaching out and that he approved. “Scott gave me the greenlight to move ahead with the process if [Wiedenhoeft-Wilder] expressed interest,” Cisneros said.
“We have no recollection as to why this survivor’s story did not run in the fall of 2019,” RAINN said, adding that some isolated quotes from Wiedenhoeft-Wilder’s interview — stripped of their military context — were shared on RAINN’s social-media accounts. The statement pointed to other stories from survivors of sexual assault in the military that RAINN had published; none of those featured scenarios in which an attacker outranked their victim.
“We are not aware of the Department of Defense expressing concern over RAINN’s coverage of military survivors,” RAINN said, “nor is it standard practice for RAINN to consult with [the department] regarding the material and resources it publishes unless they directly mention Safe Helpline. RAINN frequently publishes the stories of military survivors and will continue to do so as it works to carry out the organization’s mission to eradicate sexual violence from every corner of society.”
Anxiety around RAINN’s relationship with the Department of Defense came up again in 2019. Six former staffers said one RAINN employee felt compelled to frantically retract public comments she had made in support of Black trans victims of violence amid the Trump administration’s efforts to expel trans people from the military. The woman suddenly and mysteriously departed the organization on the day her remarks were published.
(The woman’s identity is known to Insider, which is not naming her because doing so may expose her to professional harm. The woman declined to comment for the record.)
On March 7, 2019, to mark International Women’s Day, the employee was one of “8 everyday women” featured by The Lily, a women-focused website published by The Washington Post.
The Lily post listed the woman’s age, background, position at RAINN, and responses to a questionnaire about her favorite fast-food chains and movies. But she came to fear that her seemingly uncontroversial answer to one question could become a professional liability.
The answer came a few months after the Trump-era transgender military ban went into effect, reanimating debates over trans rights. Two sources told Insider that the woman told them that RAINN’s leadership expressed alarm over her contribution to the article and was frustrated that the woman had spoken to the media without getting consent from leadership.
One source told Insider that Jodi Omear, then RAINN’s vice president of communications, said minutes after reading the article that it was “too controversial” and that she worried it “could jeopardize our contract with the Department of Defense.” The source said Omear escalated the article to Berkowitz and the human-resources director, Claudia Kolmer, because she was confident they would feel the same.
Omear told Insider that because the former staffer had been under her supervision, it would be “inappropriate” to comment on her exit from the organization.
On the day the questionnaire was published, the woman called the reporter at The Lily who’d conducted the interview and asked her to remove the reference to RAINN, as well as her comments about trans people, according to four sources familiar with the situation. The writer agreed. Insider viewed an original version of the interview that contained the employee’s affiliation and comments about trans rights; the version currently published online does not.
Two former employees said the woman was escorted out of the office by human resources the day the story was published. RAINN said that “it is standard practice that an employee separating from the organization is accompanied by a RAINN human resources representative when leaving the premises in order to collect their office keys, security fob and other credentials,” adding that it “reached a separation agreement” with the woman a week after the story was published.
One staffer who sat near her described the woman as a “fabulous” employee who was heavily invested in the projects they were set to work on together.
“It was one of the reasons why it was so shocking,” the staffer said. “Like, where’d she go?”
In its statement, RAINN claimed that the woman’s remarks were an unauthorized attempt to speak on behalf of the Pentagon. “[The RAINN staffer] spoke with a Washington Post reporter on-the-record, on behalf of RAINN and the Department of Defense Safe Helpline, which she was not authorized to do,” the statement said. “Contractually RAINN is barred from speaking on behalf of the Department of Defense or Safe Helpline.”
The Lily billed the interview as an opportunity to “step inside the lives of 8 everyday women.” Aside from identifying her employer and job description — a format applied to other women featured in the post — the woman’s interview did not touch on RAINN or the Department of Defense. Instead, she answered questions about her favorite body part and what she would change about her upbringing if she could.
Still, RAINN said, the woman broke the rules: “The issue at hand centered around a clear violation of RAINN policy. RAINN supports all transgender survivors and has worked to remove the barriers to reporting sexual violence in LGBTQ communities, and to elevate the stories of transgender survivors, particularly for transgender persons of color for whom sexual violence is all too prevalent.”
Asked why, if that were the case, the woman would ask The Lily specifically to remove her comments about trans victims, RAINN said it was “unaware of any evidence indicating [the woman] was pressured to retract or remove” the comments. “RAINN is always mindful of honoring its contractual obligations not to speak on behalf of the DoD and the Safe Helpline,” it said. “The fact someone commented on other subject matter or issues was irrelevant.”
A white male staffer was deemed a better fit
Jackii Wang joined RAINN’s public-policy team in 2019, hopeful that she could use her experience working in national congressional offices to advance legislation that would help sexual-assault survivors.
But she said her boss, RAINN’s vice president of public policy, Camille Cooper, instead saddled her with administrative responsibilities like writing greeting cards. Wang said Cooper regularly discounted her ideas and “berated” her when they disagreed on issues the younger staffer considered minor. It became “psychologically terrifying,” Wang said.
Wang didn’t immediately view that as discriminatory — multiple staffers said many of Cooper’s employees complained of similar treatment. But during a performance review in December 2019, Wang said, Cooper attempted to explain her perception of Wang as defiant by rattling off stereotypes that Wang felt were “very targeted towards my Asian identity.”
“Camille asked me questions like, you know, ‘Is your family very strict?’ ‘Do they expect perfectionism from you?’ … ‘What was your childhood like?’ Do I have problems with authority because of my family background?” Wang told Insider.
What started as an implication became explicit, Wang said, when Cooper announced she would pull Wang off a lobbying assignment.
At the time, RAINN was working on a Florida bill that would close a loophole in the state’s statute of limitations for teen survivors. Cooper called Wang and another staffer into her office and told the two women she had decided to send a white male colleague in Wang’s place, Wang said. Wang asked why.
“And she was like, ‘Well, you know, because he’s a white male,'” Wang recalled.
Wang was mortified. While she had experience working with Florida legislators, her male colleague wasn’t even registered to lobby in the state. Wang and the other staffer said Cooper argued that he would connect better with white conservatives in the state.
“He can talk about baseball. He can really, like, connect with these men,” Cooper said, according to Wang and the other staffer present. “And these men really hate women.”
“Her reasoning for picking a white man over me for the project is that he’ll be received better,” Wang said. “But if that’s the logic that she’s following, then, like, I guess I shouldn’t work anywhere because white men are received better everywhere.”
Neither Cooper nor the man responded to requests for comment.
Wang said she reported the incident to Kolmer, the human-resources director, and Berkowitz in March 2020, along with a detailed recounting of other complaints about Cooper’s leadership. But Wang said Kolmer never took serious action.
When Wang quit that June, she sent Berkowitz a blistering resignation letter. “As you know, she has harassed and bullied every single person on our team, including an intern, and has blatantly discriminated against me,” Wang wrote.
Berkowitz thanked Wang for her time and for informing him, and asked Kolmer to discuss the issues Wang raised. Cooper continues to serve as a vice president, the face of RAINN’s policy arm.
RAINN said that Wang was too junior a staffer to lead a statewide lobbying effort and called her claims of discrimination “false and defamatory.”
“RAINN took Wang’s allegations seriously and investigated the matter thoroughly,” the statement said. “Ultimately it was determined that the basis of Wang’s claims of discrimination were unfounded.”
RAINN did not deny Wang’s claim that Cooper told her a white man would connect better with conservative legislators.
Cooper wasn’t the only executive to receive complaints. One current staffer and one former staffer described a meeting in which Jessica Leslie, the vice president of victim services, defended Berkowitz’s unwillingness to address the concerns of staffers of color.
“You have to understand where he’s coming from,” they remember Leslie saying. “I mean, he’s a white man, and you’re all people of color — like, he’s really nervous around you.”
One of the staffers was furious. “We just wanted to have a conversation. We’re not about to berate the man,” she told Insider.
“This is not true,” RAINN said. Its statement said that at a Safe Helpline shift managers meeting, a group of managers asked Leslie if Berkowitz would meet with them. When Leslie asked them to craft an agenda first, RAINN said, the shift managers asked Leslie if Berkowitz wanted an agenda because he was “uncomfortable talking to women of color.”
“The shift managers created this narrative,” RAINN said, “not Leslie.”
Through an attorney, Leslie said she agreed with RAINN’s responses and called the allegations against her “demonstrably baseless.”
A racist training, a pay disparity, and an email uprising
Staffers of color told Insider that they were often underpaid compared with their white counterparts; one, a nonwhite Latina woman who asked to remain anonymous, said she made $35,000 a year and lived in public housing to keep her head above water. After she quit for a higher-paying opportunity, RAINN filled her job with a white staffer who earned roughly $20,000 more, Cisneros said, adding that the white staffer disclosed her salary. (Three additional sources with knowledge of her salary corroborated Cisneros’ account.)
RAINN said the salary discrepancy was a result of both the role being “restructured” to include “significantly more responsibility” and the fact that the white staffer had an advanced degree.
Four current and former RAINN staffers recalled that after RAINN’s white office manager left for a new job, her replacement, a Black woman named Valinshia Walker, was asked to perform janitorial tasks that were not in her predecessor’s job description — including scrubbing floors on her hands and knees, washing dishes, and disinfecting conference rooms.
“Let me be very clear: [Walker’s predecessor] never washed dishes from the sink. Ever,” one former staffer said. “Val? You would come in, and Ms. Walker was cleaning the conference room. Like, wiping down all the tables. Spraying down the chairs. Doing the kitchen, she’s washing dishes from the sink … You would see her walking around with the mask on and gloves because she literally cleaned. Like a cleaning lady.”
Walker declined to comment for the record.
“The beliefs of your sources are simply not true,” RAINN said, adding that Walker was hired as the “office coordinator,” which had a different set of responsibilities than the “office manager” she replaced. “Maintaining a clean office has always fallen under the responsibilities of the HR and admin staff as a whole, this includes the office manager and office coordinator,” the statement said. “We are not aware of any instances where Walker was asked to handle cleaning responsibilities beyond those that were part of the office coordinator’s regular duties.”
Staffers also recalled what became a notorious and hamfisted mandatory sexual-harassment training in early 2020 led by an outside employment attorney hired by RAINN.
According to more than a dozen employees, the attorney used a series of racist stereotypes to illustrate examples during the training.
“So let’s just say, you know, there’s Nicki [Minaj] and Cardi B are employees, and they’re at their desks, and they start twerking,” Cisneros recalled the lawyer saying. “Is that inappropriate workplace behavior?”
At one point, Cisneros said, the lawyer proposed a hypothetical scenario in which a Latino-coded man — participants recalled his name was “Jorgé” or “José”— kissed a coworker. The lawyer asked if the behavior could be appropriate “because this is Latino culture.”
“Your information regarding this training is inaccurate,” RAINN said. “The examples in this legal training were all past legal cases using fictitious names.” It added that staff concerns “were immediately addressed and the training was subsequently modified based on their feedback.”
Sarcia Adkins, a shift manager for the Department of Defense Safe Helpline who attended the training, was furious. She wrote an email to multiple executives, including Sorensen, Kolmer, and Berkowitz, on March 5 demanding action from the organization.
“I wanted to get up and walk out at various points and it was one of the more traumatic experiences I’ve had at RAINN as a woman of color,” she wrote. Kolmer acknowledged her complaints and promised to meet with Adkins alongside Berkowitz and Sorensen to discuss changes to the training and her issues with the nonprofit’s culture.
Adkins said that Kolmer didn’t follow up that March but that Sorensen did reach out to schedule a one-on-one meeting. RAINN said Adkins agreed to meet Sorensen but “did not show up, without notification or explanation,” and “did not follow up after she skipped the meeting.” Several months later, after a former colleague intervened, Adkins did meet with Berkowitz and Sorensen. Adkins told Insider she was underwhelmed. “They pick what they want you to talk about,” she said.
The dysfunction came to a head during the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd sparked a series of bitter internal conversations about RAINN’s track record on race.
In June 2020, Berkowitz sent an email with the subject line “A Note to the RAINN Family” to the entire staff. In it, he acknowledged the unrest and pledged to support the company’s Black staffers.
Sarcia Adkins replied to the email with a list of demands and copied the entire organization. She asked for mandatory cultural-competency training and a commitment to hiring Black employees for leadership positions. (RAINN says that 43% of its top seven staffers are people of color.) Adkins — who has been with RAINN since 2014 — asked Berkowitz why he hadn’t reached out following the deaths of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and dozens of other victims of police violence.
“RAINN has never been a place [that] acknowledges or uplifts their black staff, not just people of color, and the injustices we face in the world and within the structure of RAINN,” Adkins wrote.
In 2021, in response to the outrage over the George Floyd email, the organization began internally releasing draft proposals on diversity, equity, and inclusion with goals the organization planned to achieve or had already accomplished. The laundry list of objectives, which Insider reviewed, included a plan to “develop new relationships to ensure a diverse pool of internal and external candidates for all open positions” and “collect more data to identify the causes of turnover.”
But people working in the organization say little has been achieved, or even attempted.
“Hiring practices are not getting better,” said a current RAINN staffer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “There’s been no management training. Turnover is horrendous.”
In its statement, RAINN recounted the diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts it began implementing in 2021, including “expanded recruiting,” “revised exit interviews,” and “researched training on DEI-related issues.”
“The summer of 2020 sparked important cultural conversations in companies and organizations across the United States, RAINN among them,” the statement said. “As we’ve seen nationwide, there is more work to be done. Over the past two years, RAINN worked with experts and garnered input from staff to develop and implement Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies and goals … Changes implemented to date include increasing diversity within senior management to better reflect our staff diversity and the people we serve, implementing an anonymous third-party ethics hotline where employees can voice concerns without fear of reprisal, offering expanded professional development and internal promotion opportunities, and increasing health and mental health benefits for employees, the four top priorities identified by staff.”
As evidence of its success in addressing the concerns of its employees of color, RAINN provided Insider an email that Aniyah Carter, a staffer on the Department of Defense Safe Helpline, wrote to the vice president of communications, Heather Drevna, in June 2020. Carter, who is Black, had been one of the most outspoken staffers demanding change at RAINN after Berkowitz’s George Floyd email fiasco. When Drevna sent a follow-up email to staff announcing an employee survey and more personal and sick days, Carter replied with a note of thanks.
“I just want to personally thank you and the senior team for this,” she wrote. “It’s one thing to listen to and hear us. It’s another thing to take action. I am proud of the responses of my colleagues and I am grateful for the swift action from leadership. It is my sincere hope that we continue to make a necessary shift in the right direction. Please let me know if there is any way I can be of assistance.”
When Insider asked Carter about the email, she said any movement in the right direction quickly stalled.
“They sent an email and that was it,” Carter told Insider. “So my ‘sincere hope’ was crushed. It’s so insulting for me. When this first happened and you were optimistic and gave us the benefit of the doubt, you say it here,” she said, mocking RAINN’s use of her email. “And it’s like, OK, but two years later here we still are. And I’ve mentioned how I’m frustrated, but you’re going to take words from two years ago feeling optimistic about the future and spin it as if that applies to today? Seriously? That was very upsetting because it makes me feel like this is more about optics than, like, how your staff really feels.”
‘OK, well, who’s gonna do the press clips?’
When April Cisneros arrived at RAINN, she began working for Jodi Omear. Cisneros said she quickly ran up against Omear’s domineering management style, which often seemed dismissive of and belittling to other women.
Besides the “bitch face” comment, Cisneros said, Omear joked about how office dress codes could reduce the risk of sexual assault by preventing people from wearing provacative outfits. “I understand we’re not supposed to blame the victim,” Cisneros recalled Omear saying, “but, like, what do you expect to happen if you’re in a dimly lit room and people of the opposite sex [are] wearing pants with holes in them?”
Omear denied making both comments, but said that when training people who lacked experience with on-camera work, she directed them to “over-exaggerate facial expressions.” She also said she “advocated for casual professional attire across the organization.”
Cisneros’ low point at RAINN occurred in January 2019, when she unexpectedly became pregnant. She decided to take a sick day to visit a doctor. She told Insider she informed Omear the day before and outlined when her unfinished work would be completed.
Omear became angry, Cisneros said, demanding to know why she didn’t give more notice and insisting on further details. Omear called Cisneros at 9 p.m. demanding answers. Cisneros broke down and told her boss about the surprise pregnancy.
According to Cisneros, Omear replied, “OK, well, who’s gonna do the press clips?”
The next day, as Cisneros met with her doctor, her phone buzzed with calls and texts from Omear. Between the stress of an unplanned pregnancy and Omear’s incessant check-ins, Cisneros said, she “started bawling” under the stress.
A day later, Cisneros received a prescription for a two-day medical abortion. She requested an extra day off to recover, but Omear continued to pester her, texting and calling Cisneros for updates on an annual marketing report. Cisneros said she finished the report from home while waiting for the bleeding to die down. (A RAINN staffer who was familiar with the incident corroborated Cisneros’ version of events.)
Omear told Insider that it would be “inappropriate” to comment on Cisneros specifically and did not directly answer a series of questions about Cisneros’ allegations.
“In general, when working with communications staff, especially in a fast-paced environment on such an important issue, it is/was important to ensure that other team members were able to cover assignments to meet any potential deadlines and organizational needs,” she said in an emailed statement.
RAINN said that it “was not aware of this incident happening in real time” and that it “supports employees taking time off and does not support managers encroaching on sick time.”
Omear’s conduct was the final straw for Cisneros, and she wrote to human resources to complain. Cisneros said Claudia Kolmer told her in a meeting that the conflict “was a big misunderstanding” and that she should have come clean about her pregnancy sooner. (RAINN said that Kolmer told Cisneros that different managers have different preferences about how they should be notified of sick time and that “Cisneros was never asked to share sensitive personal or medical information.”)
Dissatisfied, Cisneros unloaded on Omear to Kolmer, accusing her boss of making inappropriate complaints about the loud breathing of a colleague who used a wheelchair and the habit of another colleague, who was blind, of walking into Omear’s office by mistake, Cisneros said. (Another former RAINN employee corroborated the complaints to Insider.) Cisneros also said she told Kolmer that Omear made lewd remarks about the attractiveness of a sexual-assault victim set to make a public-service announcement.
Omear denied making the lewd comments. She also denied complaining about disabled colleagues but said that she did recall “thanking one of my staff for helping” a blind colleague “when she couldn’t find her way around the office.”
Cisneros rallied the entire RAINN communications department to put together a detailed list of other allegations of inappropriate behavior by Omear, which she collected in a memo for Kolmer and Berkowitz.
Omear left RAINN that July, ostensibly to launch her own communications consulting firm. But Cisneros said Berkowitz told her that he had pushed Omear out in response to Cisneros’ efforts. “We want you to know we’re letting her spin her own story,” Cisneros said Berkowitz told her. “But this is a direct result of the conversation you all have with us.”
The experience nonetheless angered staffers. Cisneros left RAINN the next year.
Another colleague, Martha Durkee-Neuman, wrote a scathing resignation letter shortly after Omear announced her exit, addressing it to Omear, Berkowitz, and Kolmer.
“Jodi leaving of her own accord with no accountability is not justice,” Durkee-Neuman wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Insider. “It is not justice for the countless people that she has fired or driven from RAINN. It is not justice to pretend that nothing has happened, that staff were not forced to go to HR over and over and over until something was finally done.”
“I do not believe any of this work of justice or restoration will happen at RAINN, so unfortunately, this is no longer the right organization for me,” she added.
“After the communications team raised concerns [about Omear] with Claudia Kolmer,” RAINN said, “RAINN worked swiftly and diligently to investigate the staff’s complaints. RAINN took appropriate action to address the findings of that investigation and Omear separated with RAINN shortly thereafter.”
‘What is left?’
On November 19, 2021, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of charges related to the shooting deaths of two people at a civil-rights rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Some time later, Leslie, then the interim vice president of RAINN’s victim-services department, addressed the organization’s Black staffers.
“I am deeply saddened by the pain and violence that has continued to plague our Black neighbors and communities,” she wrote. “I want to recognize how this may be affecting you, as you navigate your day and the work you do at RAINN.” She then touted the racial diversity of the victim-services department.
Nearly 18 months had passed since the organization sent around its email about the death of George Floyd. Despite various promises and initiatives, in the eyes of many staffers, little had changed. But here it was again, another email promising to listen to staffers of color. Employees were enraged.
Aniyah Carter, the Safe Helpline worker whose email RAINN provided to Insider, reminded her boss that nearly two weeks had passed since the verdict.
“By now, we have already had to check in with ourselves so that we can continue our day-to-day lives,” she wrote. “And while the opportunity to check in with managers is still absolutely available (and encouraged), the reminder to do so would have been more beneficial if it occurred when this took place.” Carter also highlighted the gap she saw between leadership’s stated commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and its on-the-ground support of its employees of color, a sentiment echoed by other staffers who spoke to Insider.
For Cisneros, the repeated failure of the organization to address the concerns of its staff speaks to something darker, and she is worried about how the culture at RAINN is affecting its ability to help abuse survivors.
“If church can’t help, if school can’t help, if the police can’t help, if the hospital can’t help, if my family can’t help, my friends can’t help — and now this nonprofit that is specifically saying that it’s here to help people like me can’t help?” she said.
“Like, what is left?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of miles April Cisneros cycled across the country as part of a fundraising drive for RAINN. The total was 3,200 miles. The story also misstated the context in which Jodi Omear was said to have made comments to a survivor of sexual assault. It was during a media training, not the filming of a video. The story also incorrectly described the frequency of a marketing report; it was annual, not monthly.