The O'Neill Sea Odyssey catamaran sits docked on April 29, 2021.
(O’Neill Sea Odyssey website)
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O’Neill Sea Odyssey responds to executive’s resignation after she alleges ‘racism, misogyny and privilege’

O’Neill Sea Odyssey on Thursday evening responded to the resignation letter that its executive director, Rachel Kippen, had posted publicly the day before. Wrote Kippen: “Our Board of Directors is predominantly male (seven of eight), entirely white, representative of one age group [and] not from the communities that the organization primarily serves ...”

The executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey abruptly left her job this week, saying in her resignation letter that the organization’s board is not willing to confront “institutional racism, misogyny and privilege.”

Rachel Kippen posted the letter on Facebook Wednesday, saying her departure is taking effect “immediately.”

Late Thursday afternoon, O’Neill Sea Odyssey sent out a written statement responding to Kippen’s resignation, saying it was “deeply saddened that our former executive director chose to attack and malign” the nonprofit organization.

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Kippen wrote that while she has enjoyed “working with our dedicated staff, collaborative partners, and generous donors” since getting the top job at the environmental education organization in January 2019, “[w]hat I have not appreciated is the institutional racism, misogyny, and privilege that the board is unwilling to confront and address. I am unable to continue my position at this organization in good conscience ...”

Her letter acknowledged the non-profit’s track record of serving primarily minority schoolchildren through programs including its living-classroom catamaran on the Monterey Bay. But Kippen said other attempts to diversify the organization were thwarted and that her “leadership evaluations were hastily and retroactively revised in attempts to silence me.”

Founded in 1996, O’Neill Sea Odyssey is known for carrying on the legacy of one of Santa Cruz’s best-known citizens and businesspeople: late Santa Cruz wetsuit innovator and sailor Jack O’Neill, who created the organization.

Rachel Kippen in January 2019, when she was named executive director of O'Neill Sea Odyssey.
(O’Neill Sea Odyssey )

Attempts to reach Kippen; O’Neill Sea Odyssey Board President Tim O’Neill, a son of Jack O’Neill; and other OSO board members and staff for comment were unsuccessful.

In its statement, OSO said it disagreed with Kippen’s comments about the organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“Fortunately, OSO’s mission and its track record speak for itself,” the statement read. “Our board has been, is, and will continue to be committed to the goals of diversity, inclusion and equity. This is not new. It has been a policy from the inception of OSO.”

Kippen wrote that even though 80% of student participants in O’Neill Sea Odyssey programs are non-white and 68% come from low-income households, “it has been my experience that the organization leverages the demographics of the students it serves as a means to raise funds.”

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“Programs benefiting specific communities should be made in partnership with those communities,” Kippen wrote. “Our Board of Directors is predominantly male (seven of eight), entirely white, representative of one age group, not from the communities that the organization primarily serves, and not representative of our students’ racial or economic experience.”

Kippen said she obtained grants for the organization that would have helped address equity issues, but that those funds were returned “on the pretext that the organization could not use the funds to address race equity issues due to the COVID pandemic.”

While not directly addressing the accusation in its statement, O’Neill Sea Odyssey did say, “while we are proud of our record regarding diversity and inclusion, we still strive to improve further. Our former executive director believes that we could have made more progress toward that goal in the past year.

“Like many organizations, however, we have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, and our board has focused on preserving the viability of OSO so it can continue to serve children for many more years. At the same time, OSO will continue to seek employees and leaders to take the program into the future stronger and with a wider audience.”

In the last paragraph of her letter, Kippen addressed the board directly, writing, “I am a mixed-race woman under the age of 40. In my experience as a nonprofit leader and seasoned science educator, and as a proud Native Hawaiian, I understand that equity is central to education. Working with the communities served to create programming is fundamental to effective nonprofit management.

“Nonprofit leadership must do everything within its power to question privilege and share power. Not just your inaction, but your overt resistance to taking action, speaks louder than any of your words, and, quite frankly, is not even close to enough.”

Here is O’Neill Sea Odyssey’s full statement, followed by the embed of Kippen’s resignation letter, which she posted on Facebook:

Yesterday the Executive Director of OSO surprised us by resigning her employment and criticizing the organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. We are deeply saddened that our former Executive Director chose to attack and malign the 25 year O’Neill Sea Odyssey program that has successfully served over 100,000 4th, 5th and 6th grade children. Faithful to the vision of our founder, Jack O’Neill, the OSO program has given these children the opportunity to experience the ocean, while educating and encouraging the protection and preservation of our living sea and communities – at no cost to these children and their schools. OSO looks forward to continuing this vital mission of supporting a healthy ocean into the future.

Under the leadership of our Board and our former Executive Director Dan Haifley, OSO has, over its 25- year history, fulfilled the highest ideals of teaching our children about the vital connection we all have with the ocean. From its beginning, OSO has demonstrated its commitment to children from diverse and underserved communities. Indeed, approximately 80% of the children we serve are non-white, almost 70% are from low-income families, and many have physical challenges. For many years, we have had bilingual crew members in order to ensure effective instruction of our Spanish speaking students at sea. Since the beginning of the organization, women have served in key leadership positions, from the Chair of the Board to senior deck hands/instructors on our classroom at sea. The Board of Directors’ decision to hire our former Executive Director, a mixed race woman, is itself indicative of its commitment to diversity and inclusion. We are humbled and proud of the demonstrated positive impact the OSO program has had for the children and communities we serve.

Although we are grateful for the service of our former Executive Director, we disagree with her comments about our commitment to diversity and inclusion. Fortunately, OSO’s mission and its track record speak for itself. Our Board has been, is, and will continue to be committed to the goals of diversity, inclusion and equity. This is not new. It has been a policy from the inception of OSO. Our Staff, supporters, donors and partners understand our commitment to being a good citizen.

While we are proud of our record regarding diversity and inclusion, we still strive to improve further. Our former Executive Director believes that we could have made more progress toward that goal in the past year. Like many organizations, however, we have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, and our Board has focused on preserving the viability of OSO so it can continue to serve children for many more years. At the same time, OSO will continue to seek employees and leaders to take the program into the future stronger and with a wider audience. Jack O’Neill said: “The ocean is alive and we need to take care of it – we are inextricably connected.” The legacy he left was his love for the ocean, and that vision inspires our mission to teach our children when they are young about how to become its caretakers. That same love propels us to this day.

Read Kippen’s full Facebook post below:

Updates:

6:22 PM, Apr. 29, 2021: This story was updated to include a statement from O’Neill Sea Odyssey.

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