Julia “Judy” Kahrl, a lifelong reproductive rights champion and an heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, has made a very public break with Pathfinder International, the global reproductive health charity founded by her father 64 years ago.

Kahrl, who lives in Arrowsic, and her brother Walter Gamble resigned from Pathfinder’s board Sept. 27 over what they regard as its failure to fully disclose and reckon with the legacy of their father, Dr. Clarence Gamble, who promoted eugenics – an early-20th-century movement that sought to prevent poor people, disabled people, racial minorities and others from reproducing – as well as concerns about Pathfinder’s management, which has presided over record turnover while paying out six-figure severance packages.

Walter Gamble resigned from the board at Pathfinder International on the same day as his sister, Judy Kahrl, Sept. 27. Gamble had served on the board since the beginning, in 1957. Courtesy Judy Kahrl

“We have lost faith in the organization’s current leadership and are gravely concerned about the organization’s lack of transparency,” the two wrote in a letter to senior stakeholders. “We are withdrawing all financial support of Pathfinder and urging all Gamble family members to do the same.”

Pathfinder has contested their description of events as “wholly inaccurate and unfounded,” and board chair Roslyn Watson issued a statement Sept. 28 insinuating that Kahrl and Gamble had left because they were opposed to exposing their father’s eugenicist legacy. When pressed in an interview, however, she conceded that the two had wanted greater exposure than the board believed prudent for the organization, whose reproductive rights work faces aggressive opponents at home and in many of the 20 countries it has permanent programs in.

“We do highly controversial work in countries that have strife, our abortion work was targeted by the Trump administration, and this kind of data (from our archives) could be used against our organization in ways that we cannot even imagine if it were freely available to anybody who would want it,” Watson told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

LIFELONG COMMITMENT

The break is particularly dramatic given the 87-year old Kahrl’s longstanding commitment to reproductive rights and Pathfinder.

Her parents were early activists for legalizing and destigmatizing contraception – radical positions in the 1920s – and family planning, birth control and reproductive health were commonplace dinner table conversations while she was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s. Her father, physician Clarence Gamble, and mother, Sarah, were close allies of contraception pioneer Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and helped her overturn federal laws preventing the mailing of birth control materials and literature. When they founded Pathfinder in 1957, Judy joined the board, and her eldest brother, Richard, ran the organization until stepping down in 1985.

The organization promotes access to reproductive health services for women across the developing world and today receives the majority of its funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. In its public tax returns for 2019 it reported 177 employees, a budget of $121 million and a $2.4 million operating deficit for the year, primarily due to reduced grant revenues compared with 2018.

Ben Kahrl Photo courtesy of Judy Kahrl

While traveling to see Pathfinder’s work in low-income parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, she has said she saw how women were empowered to improve their lives and their families’ prospects by having access to comprehensive reproductive health services. She later brought her own children and then grandchildren on these trips. Her son Ben Kahrl joined the Pathfinder board in 1988.

They have close ties to Maine. Kahrl has been summering in Arrowsic since 1952. The broader Gamble family has spent summers at a cottage in Georgetown since 1960, and in his final days in 1966, Clarence Gamble was transported by ambulance from his home in Milton, Massachusetts, so he could die there. Judy Kahrl, a counselor, moved to neighboring Arrowsic full-time in 1996, and, alarmed over the growing challenge to Roe v. Wade, founded the Maine-based national advocacy group Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights (or GRR!) in 2013.

But in recent years Kahrl said she had grown increasingly concerned about the leadership at Pathfinder. The organization has experienced a 100 percent turnover in U.S. personnel in the five years it has been led by CEO Lois Quam. Several senior staff members had departed with six-figure severance packages in exchange for signing nondisclosure agreements disallowing them from speaking to board members about the circumstances of their departure, including the chief human resources officer, who Kahrl says received $216,000 after just four years on the job.

When Kahrl and her son tried to access a comprehensive outside review of Quam’s job performance, they were blocked by the board’s executive committee, which also declined to share the reasoning or wording of the NDAs departing staff members had signed.

“All of these things raised red flags for us and yet getting more information was a nonstarter,” Ben Kahrl said in an interview with the Press Herald. “So people say, ‘Do you have any evidence of malfeasance,’ and the answer is that we’re not sure, because we can’t get the information to do proper board oversight.”

Cate Lane, a former Pathfinder employee who left without signing an NDA, and who served under Quam as a technical adviser for youth and adolescents from 2017 to 2019, told the Press Herald she left because of Quam’s “toxic” leadership style. She said experienced people had been systematically driven out of the organization in favor of cheaper, less capable replacements, undermining capacity and morale. “Unless somebody takes Lois out, I think Pathfinder is on a slide to irrelevance,” Lane said.

Then there was the issue of Judy’s father.

The Gamble family in 1937. From left: Richard, Walter, Julia “Judy,” Clarence, Sarah Louise “Sally,” Robert and Sarah. Photo courtesy of the Gamble family

AN UGLY PAST

Like Margaret Sanger, Clarence Gamble had been a devotee of the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, which sought to improve humanity’s genetic stock by preventing people with allegedly undesirable qualities from reproducing, sometimes via forced sterilization. Undesirables typically included poor people, disabled people, those alleged to have low intelligence, and people of color. Adolf Hitler would become the most infamous of eugenicists, but prior to the Holocaust such views were broadly held among the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite of the U.S. and U.K., championed by Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill and funded by the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Gamble co-founded the Human Betterment League of North Carolina in 1947 to promote eugenic sterilization under a now-notorious state law that allowed social workers to designate people as “defective” and encourage their sterilization at state expense. Of the 7,600 people sterilized under the state’s program, 85 percent were female and 40 percent were minorities. The state later negotiated reparations for survivors.

“For a million years, Dame Nature found she could develop her people only by selecting for survival the most prolific, the toughest and smartest,” Gamble and a co-author wrote in a 1950 pamphlet. “In our time, notwithstanding the rapidly mounting world-wide burdens of overpopulation which are increased by limiting epidemics and salvaging weaklings, our organized efforts toward fostering breeding for quality rather than quantity can show only three decades of active development.”

Judy and Ben Kahrl told the Press Herald they were highly supportive of the Pathfinder board’s decision, after the police killing of George Floyd last year, to hire independent researchers to exhume Clarence’s legacy from the organization’s archives, including any lasting imprint his eugenicist views may have left. But they became concerned when, one year later, the archives remained sealed from view by either the board or the public.

The outside consultant’s reports – which the Kahrls shared with the Press Herald – provided surprisingly little new information on Gamble. At one point, instead of relying on the archives, it cites a report by an anti-abortion activist group, the Population Research Institute. At another point they attribute to Clarence Gamble a note on an office memo from 1972, six years after he’d died.

“It was embarrassing, a pretty bad report,” Kahrl said. “I don’t know a better word than ‘junk.’” The reports were never discussed by the board, she said, and even after they were submitted they were told they could not see the company archives.

Judy’s nephew, Jim Epstein – a grandchild of Clarence Gamble who served on the Pathfinder board through the 1980s – said he shared her disappointment. “There needs to be a full reckoning,” he said. “That’s an essential part of the process. Our sense is that the organization has been slow-walking it.”

Ben Kahrl said he was voted off the board last month after he pushed for fuller disclosure of both the documents related to his grandfather and the internal review of CEO Quam’s tenure. His removal was the final straw prompting his mother and uncle Walter – the only other Gamble family members on the 19-person board – to resign. “I pray that there will be healing, but I feel I had done all I could do from the inside,” Judy Kahrl said.

Judy Kahrl outside her Arrowsic home. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

DISCLOSURE AND TRANSPARENCY

Board chair Roslyn Watson, one of Boston’s leading African-American businesswomen, initially responded to the resignations with a statement suggesting the Gambles had left because they were uncomfortable with wider disclosure of their ancestor’s legacy. It noted their pride in their efforts to recruit a more diverse board and address Clarence’s “racially biased and unscientific personal beliefs through an independent review free from family influence.” She noted they had resigned in the wake of such efforts and said they sought to “distract us from fulfilling our mission,” including “commitments to racial and gender equality.”

When questioned by the Press Herald, Watson conceded that the Gambles had been pushing for greater disclosure than the board wanted, including the public release of 30 boxes of documents from the 1950s and 1960s locked in the company archives.

“We’re not a research organization. We have an operating responsibility for over $100 million in programs each year, and we need to safeguard that and make sure that nothing gets in the way of providing those services,” said Watson, a prominent investor in Boston and Paris real estate and past general manager of the powerful Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan Airport. “Spending the majority of our time trying to protect ourselves from the raw materials out in the international sphere wouldn’t serve the organization and its mission.”

She said Pathfinder had to have “a forward-looking lens” and “not get stuck in a kind of rabbit warren hole of debating past behavior and what it means.” She also expressed full confidence in Quam, the consultant’s reports on the Gamble legacy and the state of the organization. Annual turnover is not unusually high for the international development nonprofit sector, employee satisfaction is good and fundraising is healthy, she said.

She also said the nonprofit’s use of nondisclosures and severance packages is appropriate and that the Kahrls had been denied access to the independent review of Quam in accordance with board policies restricting access to the executive committee. Ben Kahrl, she said, had been voted off the board because “for two years he consistently behaved in a way that was inappropriate and undermined the board and CEO and organization.” Examples, she said, included contacting country officers directly to push a personal agenda and implying to staff members that he disagreed with policy decisions made by the board and CEO.

She noted the organization is amid a strategic pivot to give more power and autonomy to individual country offices, which are staffed by people from those countries, and reduce the influence of Pathfinder’s headquarters staff in Watertown, Massachusetts. She said Quam – a former official at The Nature Conservancy who headed the Obama administration’s Global Health Initiative – had been “an exemplary leader.”

Quam, whose 2018 compensation was $438,066, did not respond to an interview request made via Pathfinder’s spokesperson. Pathfinder has a solid 86.7 out of 100 rating from the independent nonprofit rating service Charity Navigator, which reported 89.6 percent of Pathfinder’s total expenses in 2019 went to programs.

Judy Kahrl said she’s diverting her attention to other initiatives such as Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights and that Pathfinder is now in her past after more than six decades of board service.

“I resigned because I wanted more transparency,” she said, “and I wanted to make a strong statement that we are absolutely opposed to eugenics and that board members need to be given the information they need to make responsible, accountable decisions.”


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