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The Wing tried to act inclusive and exclusive all at once — that won’t fly

The Wing in Boston
The Wing in BostonTory Williams

I should have known better: You can’t buy safety.

I was foolish to think The Wing, a posh co-working space for women and nonbinary folks, could be both exclusive and inclusive at the same time.

When the boutique chain opened a Boston location last summer, to me, it sounded too much like a utopia for one of the least welcoming cities for Black folk and people of color in America.

But they had Black women and women of color in leadership, and I talked to them. They believed in the mission to empower women through community. The dozen Black women and women of color members I interviewed loved what The Wing had to offer.

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Eventually, so did I. Last September, I became a Wing woman. Women said “hi” to one another in that space. Conversations on white feminism and grief and intersectionality were cultivated there. My friends and I would meet there and work together over turmeric lattes and trips to the beauty room, where edge gel sat right next to the Chanel.

The membership seemed more white than multicultural, yet it looked like a place for allyship. It felt like safety.

But the illusion of safety is pervasive in America, especially for women folk, queer folk, and genderfluid folk. Moreso if you are Black or a person of color.

The Wing is no exception. The start-up darling, once valued as high as $365 million, has been exposed for its toxicity by employees and members alike. The company closed its offices and suspended membership fees in March amid the pandemic, and laid off or furloughed much of its staff in the ensuing economic turmoil.

Last month, cofounder Audrey Gelman stepped down as chief executive amidst growing accounts of racism, sexism, and classism. But she remains on the company’s board. Employees of the corporate headquarters in New York staged a digital walkout, wanting more than her resignation.

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In addition to the corporate protest, there is a member revolt and a collective resistance led by former staff. Only a rotten organization can spur three uprisings.

Over the last couple of weeks, nearly 800 members of The Wing came together to demand, among many things, the company remove Gelman from the board, enforce a new conduct code, and meet the demands of corporate staff and each location’s employees. And if demands aren’t met by the end of September, none of them will rejoin The Wing when and if it reopens. Now members and staff — some former, some furloughed — have launched an Instagram account @flewthecoup detailing the inequities and abuses they suffered.

None of the women in corporate leadership I talked to last summer are with The Wing anymore. Sometimes trying to change a system from within can gobble you whole if you don’t save yourself.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity due to The Wing’s nondisclosure agreements, former Boston staffers told me the company did not treat them with the same love many of the members felt.

“Ninety percent of members did not treat me bad,” one told me. “Ten percent included the occasional socialite type who would try to sneak her dog in and berate the staff. Certain people felt entitled in that atmosphere.”

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Another employee echoed the elitism and said it took time and distance to see some things.

“I was kind of naive to the culture and so excited to be part of The Wing,” she says. “There were some members who asked what I was mixed with or tried to touch my hair, but that happens in my everyday life, too.

“Overall, I loved the members and I feel like Boston made our own little bubble and tried to embody the mission, but a lot of problems came from HQ and trickled down.”

This company, like this country, built itself on a model of freedom by exploiting Black folk and people of color.

One Boston staffer was made to do on-camera media briefings, among other things, because she’s not white.

“I would not say I was ever treated badly,” she said. “I would say once in a while I was treated unequally. There reached a point where I felt a lot more was asked of me because I was upper management and a person of color. I know they didn’t ask the same of my white colleagues who made the same as me.”

Another felt she was asked to do tasks because she is multilingual. In addition to that, she said The Wing changed practices of promoting from within, making it harder to succeed at the company.

The staff I spoke to received severance and reimbursement for health insurance. But there are stories of lack of compensation, unequal pay, harassment, and abuse.

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One of the members I interviewed when the Boston workspace first opened last summer, Bianca Harris, is now one of the leaders of the member movement. She moved to Los Angeles.

Whereas the Boston location felt warm, she didn’t get that vibe elsewhere — especially in how staff and some members were treated.

“It would have been hard for me to believe the stories had I not been in the spaces in LA, San Francisco, and New York and not seen the energy,” she now says of her experience. “There was a stark difference between my experience in Boston versus when I went to other locations.”

The truth is, even having access to a place like The Wing makes us privileged women. And even as Black women, being lighter-skinned also brings a sick kind of privilege. Just because we were welcomed doesn’t mean everyone felt that comfort and kindness. We should have known better. I should have known better.

“We believed the mission, empowering women through community, but to see the stories of women and folx and how they are treated? They say there is a special place in hell for women who hurt women, maybe The Wing’s hell is this reckoning. I believe The Wing can be what it is supposed to be without being toxic,” Harris said.

Julia Carrasquel, a founding member in Boston, joined because she was looking for a genuine network.

“I felt safe in the sense that I never experienced blatant racism,” she says of The Wing on Boylston. “But there was a visceral difference between how I felt in Boston versus how I felt at the Williamsburg (Brooklyn) location. It was not a place where I could relax.”

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Carrasquel is part of the member collective demanding change because she refuses to be complicit.

Harris and the hundreds of members demanding change devised action steps for The Wing. The company responded by saying many of the demands are already complete or in progress, and that members could request refunds.

For Harris and others, it is not enough. They expect a plan of action by mid-July and sweeping change by September’s end.

“I see myself in these young women and it’s not right what they were put through,” she says. “Wouldn’t you want someone to stand up for you?”

I asked one of the staffers in Boston if she would return if The Wing became its best self.

“I don’t think I would,” she said. “It’s just now that I look back on it, was it worth it to sort of let these microaggressions escape me?”

I am not sure I can return, either.

I inspired a lot of women and folks who look like me to join The Wing. For that, I apologize. I was so starved for a physical space of safety and comfort in a city with very little of it, I paid for it. But at what cost? And at whose expense?

Privilege for some is not freedom for all.

Aren’t I my sister’s keeper? If her wings are broken, I will not fly without her unless I’m soaring toward her liberation.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee