CEO Out, Nonprofits Protest Racist Political Ad

A political campaign ad in a local City Council race has sparked an uprising among nonprofit members of a Silicon Valley business organization and the resignation of its chief executive.

Matt Mahood, president and CEO of The Silicon Valley Organization, formerly the San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, stepped down last week after initially being placed on administrative leave. At least three SVO board members have stepped down since the ad was posted, according to the San Jose Spotlight.

During a news conference on Thursday, The SVO leadership announced an investigation into how the ad was posted. Results of the investigation, expected to be completed in one week, will be posted on the organization’s website.

“An image was recently posted on The SVO website that was blatantly racist, completely inappropriate and unacceptable. We are horrified by this image as it does not represent the values of the organization, the leadership, the Board of Directors or our members. For that, we apologize. There is no excuse,” Executive Vice President Madison Nyugen said in a statement on Wednesday. “The Board of Directors is moving quickly and effectively to understand how this could have occurred, and to ensure it never happens again. We understand that swift, effective action is required so that other positive work and community support of the SVO is not impacted.”

The ad depicts Black protestors on a street amid clouds of tear gas, with the question “Do you really want to sign on to this?” over an image that apparently originated in South Africa of Black rioters. The SVO supported incumbent Dev Davis and the ad targeted challenger Jake Tonkel in the District 6 race.

All activities of the SVO political action committee (PAC) are suspended, effective immediately, and a “qualified third-party investigator has been engaged to conduct a top down investigation to determine how and why such an image was posted.” The investigation will explore all levels of the organization, starting with leadership and will include inherent cultural issues in the organization that might have contributed.

Staff and board members will undertake sensitivity training which will begin at the annual retreat, which begins Friday.

The new diversity and inclusion review board will be established to oversee and provide guidance on all events and activities The SVO is involved in going forward, and review all PAC messages. The board, which will be comprised of at least three people outside the organization, will be announced in the coming weeks.

“There have been a string of events over the past year-plus that have led The SVO up to this point. We have to acknowledge that this isn’t a one-event thing. It’s many things that have happened,” Executive Committee board member Kevin Surace said during a press conference. “Maybe they were small, but they add up and add up and add up, and they hurt our community. It was morally, ethically and politically wrong,” said Surace, who joined the board earlier this year after a merger with Silicon Valley Forum.

Dozens of nonprofits signed on to a 540-word letter blasting the campaign ad as “blatant racist fear-mongering tactics” and calling for a house cleaning at the organizations behind it. “While as nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations we do not take stances related to any particular candidate or political party, we can and do take a strong stance against racist actions and speak out when we see them. The mailer is false, misleading, and a racist action. The webpage goes deeper and reveals a disturbing pattern of racist tropes, e.g., darkening of an opposition candidate’s face in a previous race,” according to the letter. The signatories included representatives of the local NAACP, United Way, City Year, Habitat for Humanity, and Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

“The inclusion of a blatantly racist webpage on the SVO website is shameful, inflammatory, and completely disrespectful to human dignity and to our diverse community. This is not the first or even the second offense from these organizations. This is not simply the fault of an unsupervised contractor. This can’t be fixed by diversity training. This is a failure of executive leadership. A simple apology is insufficient. The executive staff and board leadership of SVO, SVO PAC, CAR, and CAA must resign immediately, and each of these organizations publicly cease encouraging or enabling this pattern of racist actions.”

The Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits withdrew its Nonprofit Ally Award given to The SVO recently for Mahood’s help in securing PPE for nonprofit essential workers. “The webpage image seeks to stoke the flames of racial fears and resentments by implying that a candidate’s stance on policing reform will result in young Black men swarming the streets of Willow Glen or the Rose Garden,” SVCN said in a statement.