The flyers that appeared around Durham over the last few days depict the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz on the front—an allusion to the yellow brick road that leads to The Scrap Exchange. On the back are three demands from a group of Scrap Exchange employees: “Creative and respectful leaders on track with the Scrap mission, a living wage, and keep Scrap scrappy.”
This sign of discontent might come as a surprise unless you caught the “pay your workers a living wage” comments that flooded a recent Instagram post from the creative re-use center. After all, The Scrap Exchange is one of Durham’s most beloved businesses. But in conversations with the INDY over the last month, over half of its staff, as well as one supervisor, and 13 former employees said they think that, under new management, the Scrap has privately failed to live up to its public values.
Born in Northgate Mall in 1991, The Scrap Exchange was originally helmed by a group of artists and educators who envisioned a reused art-supplies store and community center. After eight years floating through different mall suites, the Scrap landed downtown in Liberty Warehouse, where it stayed for more than a decade until the roof collapsed in 2011 and the city condemned the building.
After a few years in the Cordoba Center for the Arts, it moved to its current location in a historic Lakewood shopping center in 2014. At first, it focused on selling tools to make art, but the vision quickly grew into a “Reuse Arts Center.” As the mission grew, so did the footprint: In 2016, the organization bought 10 acres in the northern part of the shopping center. The next year, it opened Scrap Thrift, a more conventional secondhand store. The Scrap made headlines recently when it announced the construction of a 33-unit affordable-housing complex there, and INDY readers have voted it the Best Salvage/Re-Use Store in the Triangle almost every year since 2010.
“Reuse, create, educate, art, and community” are the watchwords of The Scrap Exchange’s marketing—on its website, in every pamphlet, hanging on banners in the store. But employees claim that, especially since April 2019, when Laura Nicholson took over from Ann Woodward as executive director, the organization they love has lost its way. They describe an environment of insensitivity to physical and mental illness, abrupt firings, arbitrary disciplinary practices, and dulled-down stores.
A number of employees, especially those with illnesses and disabilities, have found the Scrap to be an inhospitable work environment under Nicholson and Retail Stores Director Terri Murray.
Paola Kipp, who worked there for more than five years, showed the INDY a disciplinary form from Nicholson and another manager filed about “controlling behavior” related to her Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD. She says she never received a verbal warning, even though the employee handbook said there had to be two, and that Nicholson told her she had just forgotten prior incidents because of her ADHD. (Her managers, she says, couldn’t find any record of prior complaints about her.)
Kipp also claims that Murray once told her that her mental illness was getting in the way of her job because she couldn’t follow directions; other employees have similar stories of insensitivity.
Current employee Katy Maehl, who has epilepsy, had a nonconvulsive seizure at work before the pandemic. Murray, despite not witnessing the event, disclosed Maehl’s illness in an “incident report” emailed to the entire staff.
Three employees described moments when Murray wouldn’t let them or other coworkers sit despite chronic pain or illnesses, and when diabetic employees weren’t allowed to keep sugary snacks at the register.
Employees also say Murray has a temper, which occasionally leads to screaming. Rashod Anderson, the processing manager at the art store, recalls a time when he placed fabric rolls in the wrong spot. He says Murray, who was in charge of fabrics at the time, asked why he was “disrespecting her” by putting the fabric rolls there, saying she was too old to move them. He told her he would move them after completing another task. When he turned to leave, he heard a slam. He looked back and saw Murray had shoved a fabric roll to the ground.
Kipp says she tried to file a complaint to Nicholson, who was acting as HR at the time, about Murray making comments about her mental illness. Kipp says Nicholson told her she had to deal with the issue with Murray directly, who then accused Kipp of “backstabbing” and “crucifying” her.
Murray was contacted twice for comment but did not respond. Nicholson says only she and the Board of Directors are allowed to speak with the press and declined to comment on any matters regarding current or former employees.
The employees say there is also a tendency for people to be fired abruptly when they question Nicholson’s decisions or have a “bad attitude.”
Anderson, who was recently promoted, was put on a 90-day probation for being “ill-prepared” for an increase in the cap for donations, which surged after COVID-19, despite that added responsibility not being disclosed to him in advance. His notice says that he could also be fired earlier for showing a “bad attitude.”
At least 13 employees were not taken back when the COVID-19 furlough ended, including Woodward, who had been overseeing the Reuse Arts District since stepping down as director. Current staff say their workload has doubled with the rise in donations, while less than half the staff has come back. Many say they’re doing the work they used to have two people for.
In July, the Scrap stopped paying hazard pay, saying it couldn’t afford it. Despite this, employees say that the stores have been consistently busy. Their salaries remain just under $12 an hour, including those that had worked there for half a decade. While they receive medical benefits, this is at least $4 under the living-wage minimum for Durham. Some say they have to go to the food bank next door regularly.
While Nicholson would only give a pay range, she says 70 percent of the organization’s budget goes to paying employees, and that she asked for more money in the budget for employee appreciation. When asked how that budget was used, she said there were quarterly luncheons, and that employees returning from furlough were given a bonus. Employees say that there has only been one lunch.
On September 15, both of the Scrap’s Instagram accounts (@scrapexchange and @scrapthrift) posted photos soliciting votes for a Chapelboro contest, saying they needed funds for their Social Justice Initiative. Commenters flooded the pages asking why they didn’t pay their workers a living wage or release a statement on Black Lives Matter.
On June 4, The Scrap Exchange shared a statement about George Floyd’s death, saying that the store was deciding to step aside to make room for Black voices. The post does not use the words “Black Lives Matter.”
“We will be here, quietly creating an environment where communities of color feel welcomed and resisting the temptation to highlight our journey or drown out important voices that need to be heard right now,” the post says. “Tokenism is as harmful to the community as complacency and it’s not the time for more words.
But employees say this wasn’t the reason they were given. Amy Centner created handmade Black Lives Matter signs for her yard. A few weeks after she was hired, she says, she asked Murray and another supervisor if they would post similar signs at The Scrap Exchange and Scrap Thrift. She says she was told that Nicholson “didn’t want to be political,” and the idea was not brought to the director.
“They just were getting so annoyed with me,” Centner says.
Centner noticed how many Black Lives Matter shirts were being donated and began hanging them up as a display. Murray, she says, made her take them down, saying they were inventory they should be selling. Centner moved the shirts to mannequins, so the phrase was still visible. The next day, a scarf was covering the words.
This wasn’t the first time politics have been contested in The Scrap Exchange. In September 2019, the Roxboro Road Chick-Fil-A shared a Facebook post using the Scrap’s logo, saying they were partnering with the store for an event. Social media users and employees complained, upset that Scrap would partner with a company that donates to conversion therapy and anti-LGBTQ political campaigns.
“This is not a question of whether we should tolerate ‘opposing views and values,’” former employee Mad Bankson wrote in an email. “When a company’s views and funding allocation undermine my right to safety, freedom from discrimination, and peaceful existence, that is not a viewpoint that we should accept even passively.”
In an all-staff meeting, employees expressed their frustration to Nicholson. The Facebook event was changed to say that the Kids Morning Out event was “using materials from The Scrap Exchange,” but the event went on. Employees say one person quit over the incident.
Nicholson told the INDY that it wasn’t a partnership, but the organization being hired for an event, then attending it. She also mentioned that later in the year, the Scrap partnered with the Bull Town Strutters for the organization’s first Pride parade float.
“Our mission is to promote creativity, environmental awareness, and community through reuse,” Nicholson says. “Community means everyone, and this has been something that Scrap has held up for a very long time.”
Woodward says that this was also standard when she was in charge.
“People would come to us and say, ‘We want to do an Obama pin-making class,’ and we’re like, ‘That’s fine. you can do it here,’” Woodward says. “And the flip side, if someone said, ‘We want to do a Trump pin-making class,’ we couldn’t say no to that, too. We had to be nonpartisan, essentially; we could not discriminate.”
Employees also question The Scrap Exchange’s definition of “community.” Kipp says the organization has never offered programs in Spanish, despite having Spanish speakers employed.
Employees feel the space is becoming less accessible in subtler ways, too. In February, Nicholson brought on her husband, Billy, to work security at both stores, first as a volunteer, then as a five-hour-a-week employee. Some employees felt uncomfortable that he was involved in the construction of a fence along the store’s picnic tables over the summer, as if to shoo Lakewood’s neighbors away, and they say he would give them orders. One says he threatened to give her “walking papers” for popping bubble wrap, and she couldn’t tell if he was joking.
Anderson says Billy Nicholson once asked him to help perform a “sobriety test” on another coworker. He also set up a security system, including a series of Ring cameras in both stores. Some employees say they feel like they’re being watched at all times. A few weeks ago, Anderson says, he was in the parking lot after work, teaching his partner to drive. Billy drove up to them, not knowing it was Anderson, as if he’d been watching the cameras from home.
Laura Nicholson says her husband no longer works at Scrap Exchange after being laid off in July. She also says that he doesn’t have access to cameras, although it’s unclear if he did prior to his termination. Finance Director Wendy Smith has told employees that the board is aware of the concerns brought to them about Billy Nicholson.
Employees also say that the Scrap no longer values arts and creativity the way it once did. While the Scrap has always thrown away material it can’t use, many allege that Murray throws out more usable material than ever before. Maehl is worried about the store being turned into a “classy boutique,” forsaking its scrappy origins. She says some of its most beloved features—an art installation made of baby doll heads and other staff-created art projects—have been tossed.
“I’m frustrated with [Murray] draining the feel or the vibe of creative expression,” she says.
Employees that had good relationships with Nicholson and Murray also voiced their support of the staff speaking out. Former processing lead Kyle Knight says he and Nicholson and Murray got along well, but he couldn’t ignore the “evil they do.”
Board members have been made aware of staff concerns. At least three emails have been disclosed where employees wrote to the Board of Directors to detail issues with Nicholson and Murray. Other employees confirmed that current board president Stacey Poston—who also works for the City of Durham as the Arts, Culture and Sustainable Communities Division Manager—responded to one whistleblower complaint, saying their concerns would be taken more seriously “if [they] had mentioned even one thing that the new Executive Director had done well during her 15-month tenure.”
Poston declined to comment on the complaint.
“It’s up to the new director to kind of do what she wants, and it’s up to the board, and I feel like she did do good things when she came in,” says Rebecca Currie, Scrap Exchange’s former chief financial officer. “So I think the board is in a difficult decision right now, because of COVID, because there’s all this stuff going on. They’re looking at the whole entirety of her tenure, and seeing it stabilize the finances.”
Almost every employee that spoke with the INDY said they still love the Scrap Exchange. Many began shopping there as children or found it comforting after a long move. Kipp says the store has a lot of potential for neurodivergent folks, as it gives them a safe way to explore different sensory experiences. Employees believe in it so much they’re willing to risk their jobs for it. Some who were laid off due to COVID or left on their own accord say they’d take their job back if they could.
“I’m doing it to see the Scrap Exchange thrive and be better and get what it deserves as a living, breathing entity and a leader in the creative reuse industry,” Knight says. “If art and community are taken out of the Scrap Exchange, it’s nothing.”
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