New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic employees cite toxic workplace in mass resignations

‘Plantation politics’ cited by staff members of color

By: - August 20, 2023 3:00 pm

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On a cool, spring morning in March 2022, Arséne DeLay propped open a window to let in the breeze and moved a guitar off of her couch. After inviting her guest to do the same, she took a seat in the living room of her home in Tremé, an historic community founded by free people of color in the 18th century that lies just north of the French Quarter in New Orleans. It’s the oldest Black neighborhood in America. DeLay’s family—which includes legendary jazz musicians John and Lillian Boutté—has lived here for generations.

Sweeping her rainbow-colored locs over her shoulders, DeLay spoke in a deep, measured tone, careful to keep her voice devoid of emotion as she described the events that led to her quitting a job she loved a month prior. Despite resigning in protest from her role as program manager at the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, she was still upset. 

DeLay said she believed in the organization’s mission. She knows the impact the Musicians’ Clinic, as the nonprofit is known to locals, had on her own family and community—how it was a place she and other local performers had turned to for health care and social services when they had no other options. 

To the public, the clinic was a beloved and vital resource. But after two years of running a program that provided fresh food to the community, DeLay witnessed an internal culture she felt didn’t align with the organization’s perception or its mission. She said she parted ways with the clinic because of a number of organizational problems, including “intentional targeting of employees of color” and “plantation politics,” a term used to describe an environment in traditionally white institutions — like nonprofits — where Black employees are seen as invisible while their labor is exploited.

So when DeLay was pushed to her breaking point after dealing with what she called a “toxic” workplace environment, she didn’t just feel angry, she felt betrayed. Even though she could see the direction the organization might go if she and others quit—and the potentially awful impact on the people who rely on the services every day, who cannot get those services anywhere else in the city—she still couldn’t bring herself to stay.

“I was one of the mothers of it. I was the caretaker of it. I held it in my hands,” DeLay said of the community program she managed. “And because I knew the good that was coming out of this program, it was a very, very painful decision for me. But I saw the writing on the wall.”

Since its founding in 1998, the clinic has provided vital access to medical resources and social services for the city’s vulnerable and often neglected community of performing artists. Doing so, the Musicians’ Clinic became one of the most beloved charitable organizations in New Orleans. It’s also the only clinic in the country that provides free or low-cost healthcare services, mental health resources, and social services to performing artists, regardless of their ability to pay. It has saved and touched thousands of lives.

Part of the clinic’s mission is to help support patients in any way possible, not just with access to health care. That includes initiatives like “Get Your Brass Out and Vote” which provides voting resources, or “Play It Safe,” which gave out free PPE to musicians when COVID-19 was rampant. Another program, called “Makin’ Groceries,” was launched at the beginning of the pandemic to home-deliver food and health education materials to elder and at-risk culture workers when it was unsafe and ill-advised for many to do their shopping—or “make groceries,” as New Orleanians say. 

For nearly two years, DeLay was the program manager of Makin’ Groceries. Every week, she met her team at a “pack,” where they would organize more than 100 individual grocery bags, each with fresh ingredients, a newsletter with updates about the community, recipes using the ingredients, as well as a “lagniappe” item—another local expression for “an extra something,” like a bonus or a gift. For instance, the week before Easter, egg decorating kits were the lagniappe.

DeLay wasn’t just your average employee at the clinic. Born into a family of New Orleans musical royalty, she’s the youngest member of the Boutté clan of jazz musicians. She’s a dynamic, multi-talented performer who writes her own songs, sings and plays guitar at the same time, and effortlessly directs an ensemble — all while charming and engaging with the audience. 

On top of being a musician, DeLay and other members of the Boutté family, are also what’s known in New Orleans as “culture bearers.” They’re the very people who keep the city’s cultural traditions going just through the act of living their lives, passing the torch to the next generation. Think Mardi Gras Indians with their elaborate beadwork, feathered costumes, and complex traditions. Culture bearers are living, breathing history and memory—they’re crucial components of the cultural identity of New Orleans.

DeLay and her family’s connection with the Musicians’ Clinic runs deeper than most. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005, the Bouttés went on a worldwide fundraising tour, playing concerts and speaking at benefits, raising money — somewhere between $30 and $50 thousand, by DeLay’s estimates — to help support the clinic. 

She also knows firsthand the support the clinic provides. “I was a patient before,” she said. “That’s how I ended up getting involved with them.” 

When the pandemic shut down live music, DeLay, like many other musicians in New Orleans, took to playing music over livestreams to help make ends meet. For a while, it worked. But the pressure of grinding and performing for an audience she couldn’t engage with, dealing with tech issues and unpredictable income, and grieving the loss of so many people close to her started to take a toll on her mental health.

“It just got to the point where it really took the song out of my heart,” DeLay said. “I didn’t want to sing anymore. I did not want to associate these things that are sacred to me with trauma. And I just wanted to walk away from it.” 

DeLay started having panic attacks and her loved ones became concerned about her. So, she did what she and her family always did when they needed healthcare — she turned to the Musicians’ Clinic. She credits the clinic with helping her manage her mental health.

After canceling a string of international tour dates due to the pandemic, Delay first joined Makin’ Groceries as a volunteer in 2020. Thanks to her unique insight into the community’s needs, she was soon offered the position of program manager as a full-time independent contractor. For a while, it seemed like a perfect fit. These were her people. 

DeLay was happy — she felt like her work was making a difference — until February 2022, when she issued a public statement of resignation through an email blast to local press outlets (though she was never interviewed about it) and on her social media profiles. In it, she made no bones about why she was leaving.

 

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“My immediate exit is the direct consequence of concerning actions taken by current president Bethany Bultman,” she wrote, referring to the co-founder and president of the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation, the nonprofit that operates the clinic. 

DeLay’s sudden resignation came as a shock to the community of musicians, artists, and culture bearers the clinic serves. But she said it had been building for a long time. One of the first red flags for her was when she noticed the president of the board was the only point of contact between the staff and the board. DeLay said she’d seen Bultman control the flow of information between the board, organization, and staff, filtering any statements to the press as well. “So I knew [Bultman] would try to control the narrative if I didn’t put my own statement out when I left,” DeLay said.

In her public statement and a private letter DeLay submitted directly to the Foundation board and shared with Scalawag for this story, she listed specific reasons and instances that motivated her resignation, including “gaslighting” and disparaging comments from Bultman, as well as additional labor assigned by Bultman without additional compensation, among other things. DeLay also described Bultman as having a “hyper-fixation on eliminating and/or controlling employees of color.”

She went on to describe an organization-wide problem, in which the board did not step in or mitigate the president’s actions, which seemed to be a clear message to staff that her actions were supported. This resulted in a “mass exodus” of employees of color, including more than half a dozen resignations over a six-month period. 

The problem, as DeLay described, was that the beloved Musicians’ Clinic was turning into “another majority-white organization whose leadership fails to reflect the diverse community it serves.”

I am a white woman, I'm from Mississippi, and the office is in an old antebellum home. So yes, that's pretty plantation-y. And I'm sorry, but it's just that's what it is.

– Bethany Bultman, New Orleans Musicians' Clinic president

More than 19 million visitors flock to New Orleans each year, bringing with them billions of dollars of revenue. It’s the musicians and culture bearers, the people who make up the heart of the city, who visitors are often coming to see. And because the city has failed to take care of its vulnerable members of the culture bearer community, the clinic isn’t just a nonprofit serving one population, but a vital resource to New Orleans.

There are no basic income programs, subsidized healthcare plans, or affordable housing options specifically for musicians and culture bearers in the city, many of whom live below or at the edge of the poverty line

To give an example of how valuable the clinic’s work is, DeLay pointed to the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. When the storm hit on August 29, 2021 — 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina — many of the clinic’s patients didn’t evacuate. “Some of them are battling major illnesses that make it very difficult for them to leave,” DeLay said. “And some people only had two options. It was either ‘I can evacuate, or I can pay rent on the first.’ And they couldn’t do both.”

The city didn’t have power for more than 10 days in some neighborhoods, and in the New Orleans summer, the heat index consistently stayed above 100 degrees and reached as high as 105. The clinic’s patients who stayed behind, many of whom were elderly and chronically ill, needed help.

So, DeLay took her list of Makin’ Groceries patients and turned it into a de facto mutual aid organization. In the community-strong city of New Orleans, mutual aid is well-established and an understood necessity for survival following crises. DeLay and other volunteers brought patients their medications, food, water, and ice to keep their medications cold. This love for her city and her community undergirds everything DeLay does — including, at the time, her work with the clinic.

Many people across the city and the world recognize the important role the clinic plays, and they donate money to help further its mission. According to the most recent tax filings, the Foundation brought in between 2 and 3 million in recent years in total revenue. DeLay and the other former clinic employees Scalawag spoke to for this story said they believe the money went where it was needed most: supporting the clinic’s patients. 

For DeLay, the problem isn’t the clinic itself. It’s the leadership.

DeLay was part of a wave of resignations that started with the firing of Gregory Joseph — the first Black man to sit on the Foundation’s board — over a Zoom call at the direction of Bultman less than a month after his start date that January. Joseph was hired by managing director Erica Dudas to be the foundation’s strategic partnership director, and he brought with him two decades’ worth of experience working in nonprofit management. Former staff say he was more than qualified. Joseph now works as the director of communications for the city’s mayor, Latoya Cantrell. 

As managing director, Dudas had a lot on her plate: managing the staff, communicating with patients, coordinating with providers, forming new partnerships, and running the day-to-day operations — basically doing whatever needed to be done.

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In an interview with Scalawag, Dudas said she’d been given the greenlight by Bultman to hire Joseph and was shocked when he was suddenly terminated. She said she approached Bultman in a private meeting, where she asked to “bring on new board members who could best speak to the needs of the community.” Dudas said Bultman replied that “the only board members she wanted were those she could control.” Bultman later denied ever saying this.

Throughout our conversation, Dudas continually emphasized the distinction between the clinic staff and the Foundation’s board. Having seen, as DeLay also noted, Bultman serve as the only point of contact between staff and the board and wield ultimate control over their every decision, Dudas said that she felt the board was fully controlled by Bultman. 

For most people, she said, “what they think of as the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, they’re thinking of the actual staff that’s actively engaged in the community. They’re focused on their mission. They come to work every single day and leave it on the table, to try and advance the mission for a healthier community of performing artists in New Orleans.” 

Dudas said that while she had run interference for Bultman for years, after Joseph’s firing, it became too much. In January 2022, she quietly resigned.

When DeLay’s very public resignation weeks later swirled around town, Bultman remained silent to the public. Internally, however, former employees tell Scalawag that she made the foundation an even more difficult place to work following their exits and that of Antoine Diel, a musician and program coordinator of Makin’ Groceries who worked directly under DeLay and tendered his immediate resignation hours after hers.

Michael Girl, the nonprofit’s social media manager for more than three years, said that when DeLay resigned, she and other employees were kept in the dark. “No one wanted to talk about it,” Girl said. “We wanted to validate Arséne’s exit to make sure we addressed those issues. The team that stayed, we felt her concerns.”

Girl said that she and the communications team repeatedly reached out to Bultman and the board for guidance and suggested a public statement after facing serious backlash from the community, following DeLay’s public resignation. As the social media manager, Girl needed to know how to respond to questions and accusations the foundation was receiving across various platforms. 

“I basically am begging them for help, you know,” Girl said in an interview last June. But instead, Girl said that Bultman told him to scrub Dudas, DeLay, and Diel from the website, removing their names along with photos and press releases that included them. But that didn’t stop people from asking. On the clinic’s social media posts about upcoming events, for instance, community members commented asking about the resignations. People tagged Bethany Bultman personally asking for her to address what was happening. But neither the organization nor Bultman ever put out a statement regarding the more than a dozen resignations from the organization. 

For Girl, the pressure began to take a toll. “I told them about the stress after being thrown into damage control,” Girl said. She said it was exhausting having partners and community members—people she knew well and worked with often—calling, emailing, and messaging her, asking what was going on. “I can’t tell them anything. It puts stress on my relationships,” Girl said. 

Girl resigned four months after DeLay, along with more than half of the Foundation staff. 

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In November 2022, sitting in a small cottage in the courtyard of her French Quarter home nestled in the shade of St. Louis Cathedral, Bethany Bultman sipped coffee poured from a French press and dismissed the claims made against her and the Foundation board in an interview with Scalawag. WWOZ, a local radio station dedicated to the music and cultural traditions of New Orleans and Louisiana, played softly in the background as a cold winter wind gently rattled the old house’s window panes.   

Bultman is charming and tall with short-cropped hair dyed bright red. She said she “hardly knew” DeLay, despite having worked with her and her family for years, and described DeLay’s public resignation as “horrible.” 

“She was, like, really nasty,” Bultman said. She said she didn’t push the organization to publicly respond or challenge DeLay’s claims because “that’s what [DeLay] truly believes.”

Throughout her interview with Scalawag, Bultman described multiple social justice programs and initiatives she’s a part of or has sponsored through the clinic. Some of them were panels DeLay mentioned Bultman had asked her to participate on before her departure. During our meeting, when presented with a laundry list of claims and complaints from former staff members, she listened and offered her own explanations.

Bultman addressed the charge of “plantation politics” that DeLay included in both her public and private statements, saying that she saw it as a matter of external appearances that she couldn’t control, not the result of a toxic working environment. “I am a white woman, I’m from Mississippi, and the office is in an old antebellum home,” she said, “So yes, that’s pretty plantation-y. And I’m sorry, but it’s just that’s what it is.”

When asked about the departure of Dudas, the managing director who worked for the Foundation for eight years, Bultman brushed it off and said that she’d left for personal reasons and moved away. But while Dudas had resigned quietly without a public comment, in a private letter she submitted directly to Bultman and the board (and shared with Scalawag), she explicitly stated that she was resigning in protest. Dudas even left a list of “recommendations” for the organization.

A trumpet player with smoky back lighting
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In her letter, she also listed personal expenses charged to the Foundation on behalf of board members—like furniture, travel, utilities, computers, groceries, and monthly cell phone bills, writing that the Foundation’s sponsorship of these charges “contribute to an intimidating and toxic culture.” She described the workplace as one in which employees are afraid to speak up about wrongdoing—or are ignored if they do — and recommended that the Foundation should “no longer provide financial support to its own board members,” referring to the Bultmans, who also chair the foundation’s board.

Responding to this, Bultman said any expenses she charged to the foundation were work-related, and that all employees and volunteers have access to cell phones paid “through the office.” Former employees familiar with the clinic’s accounting refuted this claim, saying many of Bultman’s expenses were not related to fundraising efforts or foundation business, and that no employees or volunteers had their phone bills paid by the organization or were ever offered the option.

Dudas also wrote in her letter that the board of directors should contribute to the Foundation’s fundraising efforts, “just as the majority of its staff does.” She said it’s the staff who does all of the fundraising for the organization—even if they don’t serve in strictly fundraising roles — and they do it without receiving benefits. Even Dudas, in upper management, was not provided health insurance through the foundation. In fact, no employees were, marking a painful hypocrisy for a healthcare organization. Dudas and DeLay and the rest of the foundation staff used the clinic when they needed a doctor, some used Medicaid. 

When asked why she doesn’t donate or help raise funds for the organization herself, Bultman said she contributes to the cause through “sweat equity.” 

“I work for free and I work probably 16 hours a day at least six days a week, so that is my donation,” Bultman said. And as far as employee benefits go, she confirmed all employees have access to health care through the clinic.

Former staff members said that while they do have access to some care through the clinic, it doesn’t include emergency care or the ability to choose providers that company-provided health insurance would. Some also expressed concerns about colleagues having access to their medical records and potentially using donor funds intended for the clinic’s mission to pay for staff medical services. “Also, navigating a health issue through the clinic, and having the conversation turn to work matters between two colleagues during an appointment was not, and is not ideal,” DeLay said.

According to the latest available version of the Foundation’s now-archived staff page, of the eight people who sit on the board, two are founders Bethany and Johann Bultman, and three are medical doctors. All of them are white, with the exception of one Black man, who was hired just before Joseph’s firing. (During our interview, Bultman pointed to the one Black person on the board as proof of diversity multiple times.) Bultman acknowledged that none of the board members have prior experience working in nonprofits. Additionally, as several staff members noted, there are no professional musicians or members of the cultural community on the board. 

For Dudas, the problem is that the organization’s board has no oversight and lacks structure, which makes it difficult for employees to follow organizational policies—wherever there are any. “After 20-something years in the community, the vision of the founders, while it’s unique and it’s important to initiate the organization, without fresh blood, without fresh work ethics of people who are coming in, that’s really hard to sustain,” Dudas said.

Dudas said she believes that the board of directors should become more diverse and representative of the community it serves, and that the foundation should transition founders Bethany and Johann Bultman to “Emeritus Board” status, invite others who share the passion for the mission to a working board with active committees, and consider term limits. 

“It’s a tragic part of the story,” Dudas said. One that she hopes the responsible parties will correct. “Here you have a group of people who love this mission so much that they founded this wonderful, visionary service. But they cannot see the value of empowering the people underneath them, or bringing in a new generation of board members who are community members who really want to work for the healthy future of New Orleans performing artists.”

When Scalawag asked Bultman what she thought about calls asking she and her husband to step aside and transition to emeritus status, she said, “You know, when people say, ‘Hey, we want to take it over.’ Fine, you go keep it running for 25 years,” adding that she had planned to move to an emeritus status two years ago, but the “leadership did not step up.” 

“If somebody has our institutional knowledge, please call us up,” Bultman said. “We would love to give it to you. But a lot of the problems that we deal with on a daily basis are things that it takes somebody who’s got deep knowledge, deep memories, and I wish it wasn’t that way. I really, really do. I’m 73 years old, and I stepped away two years ago, I never thought I would be back.”

But former staff wonder: If a nearly 25-year-old organization has been run so effectively by its longstanding leadership, why is a 73-year-old white woman the sole person who has this institutional knowledge?

a jazz pianist's hands on the keyboard
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There are other potential legal problems as well.

The foundation offices are located in the iconic “House of Bultman,” a former funeral home at the intersection of St. Charles and Louisiana avenues in the city’s wealthier Uptown neighborhood. Founded in 1883, the funeral home was first located on Camp Street and is where the remains of Confederate president and enslaver Jefferson Davis were prepared for burial. 

In 1920, the business was moved to St. Charles Avenue, where it operated until Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The funeral business made the Bultmans their fortune, and they still own the property.

Every month, the Foundation pays Bultman and her husband Johann $4,094 in rent for its use of the building as their headquarters. Tax filings dating back to 2014 show that Foundation has paid between $40,000-$50,000 per year directly to the Bultmans to use their mansion as office space. 

Records from the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office show the Bultmans claim a “homestead exemption” on the property, which allows them to skirt a portion of the property taxes: $7,500 a year to be exact. But, in order to be eligible for the Homestead Exemption, the owners must declare the property as their “domicile” or their “permanent, personally owned residence.” Since the Bultman mansion is used as an office for the foundation, neither Bethany nor Johann Bultman live there.

While it’s not entirely uncommon for nonprofit founders like the Bultmans to expense meals and utilities or charge their own foundation rent money to use one of the several properties they own in the city, it certainly frustrates staff members. Some said they felt it wasn’t right that an organization dedicated to supporting a community of performing artists and culture bearers, many of whom are low-income and people of color, was also providing direct financial support to its wealthy, white founders. 

“We are supposed to be about helping the musicians, not the founders,” DeLay said. “I find it really odd that people who have generational wealth are charging rent to their foundation.

When asked about the homestead exemption currently being claimed at the Bultman Mansion, Bultman responded, “I live there during the week, when I’m working. So I do live there.” She added, “I just live here when I’m not at work,” in reference to her French Quarter home.

Former staff members who were physically in the foundation offices during their times of employment pushed back against this claim, saying Bultman was not present in the office most of the time, often opting to work remotely from her French Quarter home. They also disputed her claims of working 16 hours a day, six days a week.

A close-up of a trombone player on a French Quarter street in New Orleans
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Throughout her interview with Scalawag, Bultman consistently acknowledged the “importance of equity” and the need to think of musicians as “thought leaders” in the community and remove the barriers of health access. 

“As white people, we do have privilege,” she said. “I would hope that we’re using our privilege for good, but we do have privilege.”

In our conversation, Bultman also continually pointed to the good works done by clinic, including the programs and people they support—a fact that no one is disputing. 

Dudas, DeLay, and other former staff members who spoke to Scalawag described being “torn” and “struggling” to make the decision to leave the organization because of that very real impact their work was having. They felt an obligation to the community they served. 

Many of the people we spoke to for this story were worried that talking about their concerns could negatively impact the clinic’s work. Both DeLay and Dudas wanted to make it clear that people who believe in the clinic and make donations should continue to do so. They said that because New Orleans doesn’t take care of its artists and culture bearers, the clinic is their only option. “Keep supporting them, just hold Bethany accountable,” DeLay said. 

For the former employees Scalawag spoke to for this story, that’s all anyone wanted. They were unanimous in a call for the Bultmans to step aside and allow a new and qualified foundation board to help the clinic continue do the critically important work it does for the people who are the lifeblood of New Orleans: the musicians and culture bearers—people like Arséne DeLay, who love and depend on the clinic.

Back in her living room in Tremé, deep in our conversation, DeLay dropped her measured speech, her musical voice rising and passionate. She said that based on her experience, she didn’t have faith that Bultman would listen to the concerns of her staff and members of the musician and culture bearer community that have asked for her to “make space for new ideas, for new people.”

She described a history of neglect and racism that is still alive and well in the city. “Music and culture is the cotton down here,” she said. “People want to talk about a cultural economy and we’re not even a line item on the budget. How much of that money is getting funneled back into buying feathers and beads for Indians? How much of that money is coming back even to just get basic health care services to musicians, to burlesque dancers, to performers, to actors, to all of the people who are the creators of the magic that is the identity of the city?”

And while this may be a story about a single, local nonprofit, it’s part of a problem that many nonprofits face—the wealthy, often white, people who start the organization maintain a disproportionate power and influence over the way things are run. In fact, it’s so common, it has a name: founder’s syndrome. Moreover, DeLay said the vital role the clinic plays for musicians in New Orleans makes the Foundation’s toxic workplace culture and the ways in which Black labor is exploited and erased especially troubling given the majority-Black community it serves. 

DeLay punctuated her words by echoing what Dudas, Diel, Girl and every other former staff member who spoke with Scalawag, both on and off the record, said when asked what they wanted to see happen here. “Bethany Bultman needs to step aside and let the clinic do its work.”

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This article was first published by Scalawag, a nonprofit news organization that works in solidarity with oppressed communities in the South to disrupt and shift the narratives that keep power and wealth in the hands of the few. 

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Drew Hawkins
Drew Hawkins

Drew Hawkins is a writer and journalist in New Orleans. He’s the producer and host of Micro, a literary podcast on LitHub. You can find his work in The Guardian, Scalawag Magazine, Southerly, Antigravity Magazine and elsewhere.

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