Two race campaigners – one Black, one White – who created a “woke” diversity, equity and inclusion organization after a racist incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks, are taking legal action against each other, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
Michelle Saahene and Melissa DePino created Privilege to Progress after a White Starbucks employee called the police on two Black businessmen who requested to use the restroom at the coffee shop in 2018.
Upon arrival, police handcuffed the men, who later sued and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
At their peak, Saahene and DePino were paid $10,000 to speak at events, amassing over $100,000 in 2021, according to the report.
The pair would ultimately become close friends after working with global brands including Google, Spectrum, Ikea, Yale, MIT, Tufts and the United Nations. They even appeared on the now-defunct Red Table Talk show with Jada Pinkett Smith. At one point, Saahene would babysit for DePino’s daughter at her home and had access to her marijuana safe, according to the report.
But things went left after Saahene began to question the role she and her business partner played in the organization. Saahene, who would spend long stints in Ghana, where her family is from, “started to realize that I was the draw: my skin, my story. I was growing faster and thinking about this all at a deeper, more complex level,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I told her the pain I was feeling about how we were making money off of this. Her responses were cold.”
Then, Saahene says she grew conflicted over capitalizing on Floyd’s murder, in addition to how the funds they made should be split. Initially, they split the profits in half, but Saahene believed she deserved more than half since speaking about race required more effort and “emotional labor” on her part.
DePino opposed, stating that she did most of the research, so the amount of money they made should be split equally.
“She was setting boundaries. I respected them. I never told her to do anything more than what she wanted,” DePino told the Los Angeles Times. “If she wanted an equity model for pay, I would have been open to discussing that.”
Saahene also alleges DePino grew uncomfortable after the former recommended they visit a lynching memorial in Alabama.
As the months came and went the pair grew more distant, DePino said.
“I thought we were working things out. I thought we were best friends. Instead, I learned that we were not friends anymore,” DePino said. “The organization had a mission and she no longer supported it.”
So in March 2022, DePino suggested they go their separate ways. But with social media accounts, bank accounts and corporate contacts tied to both their names, it became difficult as to who would have access to what.
The following month, Saahene posted on the organization’s social media that DePino was “not honest” and had no “commitment to ending colonialism.” She then plugged her personal social media account in the post.
DePino immediately deleted the post, then emailed Saahene writing “You cannot legally slander me…I will send a cease-and-desist ASAP.”
Enter legal teams, which are now working with their respective clients. To date, the pair only communicate through their attorneys.
Both Saahene and DePino continued to post and delete content, but the organization’s website and social media accounts have been down since September.
“I spent so much time talking to white people about a white problem: racism,” Saahene said. “It’s draining. I want to make Black people my audience. I’m over it, I’ve moved on. It’s a new chapter. A new me.”
Meanwhile, DePino says “I don’t really know where she is or what she’s doing. But I wish her the best.”