The Sonoma County Alliance accepted the resignation of Doug Hilberman on Monday, days after the president of the influential business group sparked sharp criticism in the community with a letter he wrote about the recent racial-injustice demonstrations.
During a tumultuous 48-hour span, Hilberman posted a letter Friday on the alliance’s website that said “ALL lives matter” and that most protests aren’t worth the economic toll that they take, removed the letter and posted an apology Saturday, and submitted his resignation Sunday.
All the while, the alliance received angry calls and a series of canceled memberships.
After saying in his initial letter that he spoke for the Sonoma County Alliance, Hilberman’s apology said that his comments did not represent the alliance or its board, which held an emergency meeting Monday to accept his resignation.
“First and foremost, I want to apologize to you the community and my fellow board members for the message I wrote and posted yesterday,” Hilberman wrote Saturday. He did not respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment Monday. “I realize now it was terribly insensitive. I had intended to try and broaden the conversation, but I realize now I wasn’t even in the conversation. I know I have hurt and angered many. I strongly believe that Black Lives Matter. … I will stop talking and start listening. I made a mistake and I realize there is much more I need to learn about the issue. I am deeply sorry.”
Many view the phrase “All Lives Matter” as a shot at the Black Lives Matter movement, a crusade that has brought attention to systemic racism.
Though she has received contributions from the alliance since first being elected in 2008, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she will end her membership and called Hilberman’s letter “flat-out offensive and deeply racist.”
“This idea of ‘all lives matter’ is to say: ‘I don’t want to deal with the fact that there is systemic racism in America,’ and it dilutes the real issue and evil of racism,” Zane said. “The whole letter was an anecdote for what’s wrong with our society. It’s white, male privilege in its worst form, because it denies the fact that we don’t have economic justice, we don’t have health care justice, we don’t have social justice. How can you ignore those things?”
Zane said Hilberman’s apology and the board’s acceptance of his resignation are “little baby steps” and that the alliance should call on a diverse group of the community’s leaders to educate the alliance and help with a movement toward healing.
“They’ve got to open their hearts. They’ve got to go through pain. They’ve got to struggle,” Zane said. “They’ve got to recognize that their discomfort is nothing compared to what people with less privilege have experienced. … We are in this together, and we better be willing to be uncomfortable, because people’s lives are at stake.”
Brian Ling, executive director of the Sonoma County Alliance, did not return messages about the group’s future plans, but many members have made their plans abundantly clear.
Herman G. Hernandez of Hernandez Consulting took to Facebook to say he would forgo his $25 monthly membership dues and instead donate $30 per month to the Sonoma County chapter of the NAACP. Barbara Grasseschi, owner of Puma Springs Vineyards, ended a membership she started shortly after she and her husband moved to Healdsburg in 2000.
“I was horrified at the initial letter and how tone-deaf it was,” Grasseschi said. “In thinking about it, I realized that I couldn’t continue to support an organization that felt very comfortable posting, on behalf of membership, those sort of racist tropes all lined up and tied with a bow of white male privilege.
“One person’s resignation doesn’t change things,” she added. “What changes things is when organizations truly do the work of looking inside and understanding what those racist undertones are and deal with them head-on.”
Among Sonoma County’s top business networking and political advocacy groups, the alliance says it has spent more than $250,000 in the past five years to influence local politics.
Hilberman became the 46th president of the group in January, making him the eighth white man to rise to the top spot among the past 11.