The CEO of a millennial-focused Christian magazine stepped down on Monday amid allegations that he was racially insensitive and created a hostile work environment for his staff.
Cameron Strang, founder and CEO of Relevant Media Group, acknowledged in a post on the popular website that former employees had described his leadership style as “toxic.” He said he would be taking a “sabbatical” to “engage a process of healing, growth and learning.”
“I will be seeking counseling, as well as reaching out to Christian leaders about ways I can grow and better understand important issues, especially about race and equality,” Strang wrote.
“I’m deeply sorry to the people I’ve hurt,” he added. “I’m sorry for my toxicity and insensitivity in leadership. I don’t want to be that person anymore.”
Strang, who started the media company when he was 24, is the son of another giant in the Christian media world, Steve Strang. The elder Strang is the founder and CEO of Charisma magazine, which is aimed at Pentecostal Christians.
Relevant launched its website in 2002, catering to a younger generation of evangelicals. The site covers a wide array of topics ― from social justice issues to pop culture ― and can be critical of President Donald Trump. Relevant claims to reach over 2 million young Christians through its website, print magazine and podcasts.
Over the past week, several former Relevant staffers have come forward with blogs and social media posts about Cameron Strang. The former employees, whose stories were first reported on by Religion News Service, claim that behind the scenes, Strang was unwilling to support and honor marginalized voices. The CEO publicly fetishized racial justice efforts but privately catered to the company’s “white, male, conservative-leaning base,” one ex-editor said.
Many former staffers also accused Strang of having an “egotistical” leadership style, painting him as someone with fluctuating moods who was resistant to criticism.
Cameron Strang describes his vision for Relevant media group in the video below.
The first person to go public about his experiences at Relevant was Andre Henry, an African American writer who was the company’s managing editor between 2017 and 2018. In a blog post, Henry alleged that Strang complained during a staff meeting about Henry’s plan to publish an article every day for Black History Month. Strang allegedly warned Henry not to “waste editorial energy.”
“What about people who aren’t interested in that?” Strang asked during the meeting, according to Henry.
Henry claims that soon after this meeting, he was stripped of all decision-making power and only remained managing editor in title.
Henry wrote about at least two other incidents in which stories he produced about race and justice were sidelined. He said Relevant generally avoided taking stances on potentially “polarizing” issues, choosing instead to stay “above the fray” ― an option Henry said simply isn’t available to historically persecuted groups.
Henry wrote that he “eventually came to feel like a token.”
“The boss made it clear that the company is content to settle for ‘a good mix of faces’ in their content rather than to play a significant role in addressing the white nationalism with which 81% of evangelicals has aligned itself,” Henry wrote, referring to the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016.
Studies have shown that white evangelicals and evangelicals of color tend to have differing views about social and political issues. Nonwhite evangelicals tend to be more progressive than their co-religionists on issues like immigration and racial justice. This divide is destined to become even more prominent as racial diversity within American evangelicalism continues to increase.
“Day to day, you never knew what it was going to look like. Some days, Cameron was insightful, gregarious and wonderful to work with. ... Other days, Cameron was vengeful, petty and brutal.”
Henry told HuffPost on Tuesday that his stint at Relevant exemplifies how white evangelicals set and protect racial boundaries. Referring to research conducted by sociologist Glenn Bracey, Henry said he believes that people of color are only welcomed into white evangelical spaces when they abide by white evangelicals’ interests. As a result, white evangelicals’ calls for “unity” on racial justice issues are really calls for “compliance,” Henry said, driven by the need to “maintain their holy huddle as white institutional space.”
“The Cameron [Strangs] of the Evangelical world build authoritarian organizations around their charisma and use their power to censor whatever content they feel will hurt their brand,” Henry wrote in an email.
“Those who refuse to comply are met with some form of hostility, as I was,” he added.
Rebecca Flores, a former managing editor who uses the pen name Rebecca Marie Jo, co-signed Henry’s concerns in her own blog post. Flores wrote about a meeting in which Strang suggested publishing an image of a black Christian rapper with a noose around his neck to demonstrate how the artist was being criticized for speaking up about the Black Lives Matter movement.
When Flores tried to explain to Strang that this would be a deeply disturbing image for people of color to find in the magazine, Strang apparently grew “exasperated” and “annoyed,” she said.
Ryan Hamm, who was an editor at Relevant between 2009 and 2012, recalled a meeting where staff discussed a magazine issue that featured the band The Roots on the cover. Hamm remembers Strang saying that “maybe our audience doesn’t want to see scary black men on the cover of Relevant.”
Hamm told HuffPost in an email that this conversation was the “final straw” for him, although there were many other daily grievances that troubled him. He said he personally witnessed how being a man on the editorial team gave him advantages over his female colleagues. He also said that Strang’s leadership style was “decidedly toxic.”
“Day to day, you never knew what it was going to look like. Some days, Cameron was insightful, gregarious and wonderful to work with. In those moments, I could see the vision of Relevant that I believe God gave Cameron―and I wanted to be a part of it,” Hamm said. “Other days, Cameron was vengeful, petty and brutal. I and others were made to feel small in meetings, that our ideas were bad in perpetuity and that we weren’t actually equipped to make decisions or do our jobs well.”
Kathy Pierre was a copy and production editor at Relevant between 2016 and 2018. She told HuffPost that much of the publication’s content was “for and about white people.”
“The company rightfully did/does touch on issues that affect people of color, but that’s the trap society falls into,” she wrote in an email. “It’s not enough to just talk about Black or Latinx or Asian or Indigenous issues, there has to be a real buy-in and a commitment, which I hope what’s happening now can produce.”
In Strang’s statement on Monday, the founder said that he’s “learned how my insensitivity has hurt people, and when it came to women and people of color on our staff, I was blind as to how some of my statements were especially insensitive and hurtful.”
“It’s not enough to just talk about Black or Latinx or Asian or Indigenous issues, there has to be a real buy-in and a commitment.”
Relevant also apologized as a media organization for failing to live up to Christian standards and asked for forgiveness from its audience.
“Whether through active marginalization of their voices or passive silence in the face of marginalization, many members of our staff were in the wrong,” the company wrote in a statement on Monday. “We are sorry.”
Relevant said it will be putting together an “accountability board” and promised to be “transparent and honest” about the changes it makes at the organization.
Both Pierre and Hamm told HuffPost that this isn’t the first time staffers have pointed out their grievances to Strang ― it’s just the first time these concerns have been made public. Both former employees said they were hopeful that Strang’s apology is genuine and that Relevant will make real changes to its workplace culture.
Henry said Relevant’s apologies are just words until they are connected to actions. He said he supports the current team at Relevant and believes they are making sincere efforts to respond to the former staffers’ concerns.
“But let’s be clear, the CEO is the one who has been in the way of those changes, so the proof of whether or not [Relevant] can pivot relies on their ability to decentralize power in the organization, and possibly choose a new CEO,” he said.
This piece has been updated to clarify Andre Henry’s response to Relevant’s apologies.