There’s conflict within the Seeds of Peace.

Former Seeds of Peace Camp Director Sarah Brajtbord, shown in 2018, started with Seeds of Peace Camp as a camper herself in 2006. Sun Journal file photo

The internationally known nonprofit’s camp director in Maine, Sarah Brajtbord, announced over the weekend that she has been removed from her position in a move she denounced as an “abuse of power” tied to the nonprofit’s funding.

She accused those who oversee the Seeds of Peace Camp in Otisfield with catering to the wealthy, blocking efforts to “disrupt the status quo of oppression,” and failing to put together a board of directors that includes people from lands other than the United States and the United Kingdom.

Her ouster comes at a time when the organization’s longtime executive director is in the process of stepping down.

Brajtbord’s declaration immediately drew scores of comments from flabbergasted former campers, known as “Seeds” within the organization, which has received acclaim for its efforts to build connections between teens from clashing communities by bringing them to the Maine woods and letting them have fun with each other while promoting earnest dialogue.

A Seeds of Peace Camp spokesman, Eric Kapenga, said Monday that “conflict is common in any organization, particularly so in one that works across lines of difference and encourages difficult conversations. Sarah’s message touches on issues that have been part of ongoing discussions at Seeds of Peace and beyond, many of which are being addressed by a team of staff, board members and alumni.”

“As a policy, we do not comment on personnel matters, but are grateful for all that Sarah has contributed to Seeds of Peace,” he added.

The nonprofit, which has an annual budget of more than $7.4 million, aims to “cultivate a new generation of global leaders in communities divided by conflict.” Over the years, more than 7,300 young people from 27 countries have participated in its acclaimed program.

Brajtbord, an American who attended the camp in 2006, wound up six years later with the job of Seeds of Peace’s manager of programs based in the United States. A 2011 Swarthmore College graduate, she served as the camp director in Otisfield until her recent departure.

In a public Facebook post on Sunday, she wrote, “with a shocked and heavy heart,” that she had been removed from her job.

Seeds of Peace campers from Pakistan, Jordan, Palestine and Israel cheered and sang at opening ceremonies last summer. Sun Journal file photo

She said the 27-year-old nonprofit’s board of directors voted to strip her from her role as camp director “after receiving an ultimatum to either remove me from my job or lose a significant amount of funding.”

Brajtbord said she turned down another position within the organization.

Seeds was already dealing with major changes.

On Dec. 5, its 10-year executive director, Leslie Lewin, notified staff members that she had decided to leave her job in New York City, where the nonprofit is based.

“Over the past few months, I have come to believe that new leadership is what is best to both confront our current challenges and to create new opportunities stemming from the core strengths of our work,” Lewin wrote.

“It is a gift to be part of an organization that is stable and strong enough to focus on questions of organizational identity, values-based work, and modeling what we teach to our Seed,” she said in the email obtained by the Sun Journal.

Lewin said she was staying on as part of “an interim leadership structure” to help with the search for a replacement and the transition to a new director.

‘This is obviously among the hardest decisions I have faced,” Lewin said. “I love this organization,” she said, and after working for Seeds for two decades, remains “blown away by the people who work here, by the people we work with, and by the impact we have on the lives of young people.”

It is unclear if there is any connection with the issues raised by Brajtbord.

“I believe that my removal is part of a broader structural abuse of power from our board,” Brajtbord wrote Sunday, “connected to their attempts to stifle the long overdue change that we as a staff have been calling for.”

She said board members abused their power by ignoring calls from staff and youngsters who have come through the program.

Brajtbord said the reason is simple: The board “is not representative of the communities we serve or the culture we create as an organization,” because it has no young people and only one “Seed.”

Moreover, she said, board members “are predominantly wealthy and white, a disproportionate number would identify as Zionists, none of them live outside of the U.S. and U.K., and whoever has the most money in the room has the most power.”

She charged that the board is heavily influenced by “money and power in their relationships and decision-making processes instead of our organizational values, approach, or mission.”

“In short, the majority of the board, and the donors that they are most loyal to, are privileged, powerful people who have shown no incentive to realize or believe in Seeds of Peace as the organization that we, as participants and program staff, are calling for: namely, one that seeks to disrupt the status quo of oppression in all its forms,” Brajtbord said.

Seeds of Peace describes its 37-member board as “diverse and talented” on its website.

To try to address the problems she perceived, Brajtbord said, she asked at the end of the summer to “pause the camp” and bring only returning participants in 2020 “so that we could have the time, space and resources to define our organizational vision, bring more equal funding and investment to our work in South Asia, the United States, and Egypt and Jordan, and shift our unhealthy and unsustainable funding practices connected to recruiting new donors through bringing their kids to camp.”

The board, Brajtbord said, denied the requests and insisted on operating as usual.

She said it has “looked to hide these big questions into a multi-year, multi-purpose process without clarity of timeline, decision-making power, or structure.”

“We were told that bringing new Israeli, Palestinian and American/UK campers to camp this summer is critical to safeguarding our organizational reputation,” she said.

What they meant, Brajtbord said, was to safeguard the board’s own reputation, putting “self over community” in a way that is “unacceptable and against our core values.”

Brajtbord said she loved her 14 years as a camper and staff member for Seeds of Peace. She learned there, she said, “how to live out my values.”

“Seeds also taught me how to stand up and challenge injustice and abuses of power,” Brajtbord said, which is why she chose to speak out.

“We have an urgent need as an organization to define our understanding and stance toward power and oppression,” she said.

Brajtbord said Seeds of Peace needs “to move from an organization defining our work as conflict transformation and one that is content with coexistence into one that inspires co-resistance and collective action, building coalitions of leaders across lines of difference who are working together against oppression and toward building a better future for everyone.

She said she hoped public pressure would convince the board to talk with its staff and “begin to meaningfully address the abuses of power happening within Seeds of Peace and beyond it.”

Timothy Wilson, director of the Maine Seeds Programs, said Monday the issues the board has to deal with won’t impact the program for Maine students.

“We’re like a chicken wing. We’re off to the side,” Wilson said. “What happens in New York, happens in New York.”

But, he pointed to a recent TED talk he gave in Portland that mentioned Brajtbord and other former Seeds were moving up the ladder within the organization’s hierarchy.

“They are the future of Seeds of Peace,” Wilson said. “This is how it’s going to evolve.”

He ended his TED talk, though, with a hint of hidden problems.

The question, Wilson asked, is, “Are we willing to allow them to lead at this time?”


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