Earlier this year, Latino Rebels wrote about the language policy used by local administrators of VarageSale, a fast-growing Canadian app that allows people to run virtual garage sale groups in their local communities. Several Spanish-speaking members had let us know that one local Texas VarageSale group (the town of Brenham) had instituted an English-only policy for its community.
When Latino Rebels reached out to VarageSale, a 2014 Startup of the Year winner in Canadian tech circles, the company’s founder sent an email stating that a new policy would be utilized for groups, saying that it was a safety issue. In her email, founder Tami Zuckerman wrote that her “number one priority is ensuring members feel safe. Thanks to our volunteer admins, VarageSale is safe! The problem is, if an admin doesn’t speak Spanish (and the majority don’t), it’s tough for them to do their jobs properly.” Zuckerman also added:
The good news is we have a temporary solution. Beginning this week, we’re going to make sure our admins are all on the same page when it comes to the following:
- It’s always okay to send PMs (private messages) in any language a member desires.
- When posting or commenting publicly, we simply ask members to write in both their native language and English. All they need to do is use a free translation tool to make sure their post or comment appears in both Spanish and English.
Late last week, Latino Rebels received an email from a VarageSale member who claimed that administrator for Brenham VarageSale group (Hope Ruemke) was doing the very same things that had led to VarageSale to address Brenham’s English only policy. In an email dated May 7, VarageSale member Anita Azenet Collins told Latino Rebels that her VarageSale account had been deleted and suspended because, according to Azenet Collins, she had been sharing her concern that Ruemke was back to policing member posts, particularly those posts in Spanish.
Here is part of Azenet Collins’ May 7 email:
For the past week, Hope Ruemke was back at it again, deleting comments or posts made in Spanish. I looked back at all the other rules they “enforce” and when it comes to things like multiple listings and such, and they will give them an opportunity to change/correct their postings. But, when it comes to the Spanish posts that fail to post an English translation, they automatically delete them stating that they are going against the rules. I said nothing.
Today, the admin named Kristie asked for someone who posted a hammock “hamaca” to post the English translation. I publicly THANKED HER for asking for the translation before deleting the post, unlike other admins who just delete without warning. She said no one deletes Spanish posts and that she’s trying to make the website “stress free”. I told her it’s not stress free for the Spanish speakers and gave her two examples of a post and a comment that were deleted by her admin, Hope Ruemke, within the last 24 hours. At that point she stated that she was “tired of me” and said that “HQ said” she could cancel my account, so she did.
Azenet Collins also closed her email with this:
I am a member of another city’s chapter of VarageSale (San Marcos, TX) and they do not have the “no Spanish” rule! This is BRENHAM’s choice to have this rule. Having come from Los Angeles to Austin and then Brenham the past few years, I am appalled at the discrimination and racism in this town. They have no desire to embrace the ever-increasing Latino community.
A day later, Azenet Collins sent another longer email, saying that she spoke with a VarageSale representative about her being suspended and Brenham’s language policy:
VarageSale.com’s position is that the (Brenham) community is doing nothing wrong by asking members to post an English translation; that they (VarageSale in Brenham) are an “English-based” community and they can set any rule they want.
When asked why posts were allowed to be deleted before giving them a chance to add a translation, they (HQ) said it’s because when a (Latino) member joins, they must first agree with the (English-written) rules that states that all posts and comments will be written in English. I suggested that they offer the rules in Spanish as well. (And honestly, that rule needs to be removed completely. I am a member of the San Marcos VarageSale and they don’t even have that rule.)
When asked why my access was deleted, she said the Brenham Admins felt I was “undermining” their authority by giving them examples of the Spanish-written posts that were deleted and that it wasn’t the first time (more about that later). They said I should have expressed myself privately to an Admin via Private Messages instead of on the post itself. I told her that then Admins should be doing the same. Instead of calling-out Latinos BY NAME when they delete their post or comment when it wasn’t written in English, write to them privately and let them know they need to add a translation.
If you ask for the transcript of my comments that were made YESTERDAY, you will see that mine are polite and to the point. I will admit that in the past, my passion got the best of me. In January, a disabled man’s post looking for aluminum cans or any metal he could recycle to help him make it until his next disability check was deleted. Hope Ruemke told him a photo needed to be included on his post or it would be deleted. He added a photo (of what, I will admit I don’t know) and she decided it was not an appropriate photo to go with his search for aluminum cans, so she deleted this man’s post. This was not done privately. It was out in the open and the disabled man was very upset. I stood up for him and told the admins they were acting like nazis policing this website. They said that was “Strike One.” Never have I been told that I had a “Strike 2” and now because I “undermined” their authority, I was deleted.
So, basically, nothing is going to change. After the last go-around (when [Latino Rebels] came to our aid) the Brenham Admins changed their graphic from NO Spanish to a much friendlier “Welcome Spanish Speakers” followed with something to the effect of make sure you add English translations to all posts and comments. But, that was like so many other instances in the Latino struggle… the illusion of inclusion.
And, you know what makes me really mad? The fact that (some of) the Latinos on Varagesale in Brenham APOLOGIZE for writing their posts in Spanish. Christina Espinosa (who contacted Latino Rebels last time) suggested that I have a poster made that says “Speaking Spanish is not a crime” and she will sell it on VarageSale. Better yet, sell them written in Spanish.
When Latino Rebels followed up with VarageSale about whether local Brenham admins are not following the new language policy, Zuckerman’s husband, a VarageSale co-founder, responded via email:
As you may know, VarageSale’s only focus is to build trusted local communities; a friendly environment where it is safe to transact and connect. The quality of our communities is our raison d’être.
The member you are referring to recently saw her VarageSale membership revoked, but not for the reasons you describe. A combination of bad behavior, cyber-bullying and vulgarity led the admins of her community to suspend her access. We support this decision fully as this type of behavior is not acceptable on our platform, for our members’ benefit.
As my wife Tami mentioned in the past, we at VarageSale value people from any culture, language, gender or sexual orientation equally. We never have and will never discriminate against anybody. I believe the extreme diversity on our staff speaks for itself. We have employees from 16 different countries speaking a total of 11 languages. I myself am French Canadian. We believe diversity makes life much more interesting and we think our communities can benefit from this just as much.
Co-Founder & CEO
Knowing that Azenet Collins told Latino Rebels that her “nazis” comment had to do with a previous incident unrelated to her account being suspended in May, I sent Mercier three follow-up questions:
1) You mention cyberbullying from the member and I want to ask specifically if you have examples of that alleged cyberbullying.
2) The suspended member spoke to someone at VarageSale yesterday and she was told that she was suspended for questioning the language policy.
3) Would you be willing to share the forum conversation that led to this member being suspended?
These are the answers Latino Rebels received from Mercier:
1) Over the last few months, we have received numerous requests from other people to remove the member in question. Her behavior was constantly inappropriate and it undermined the user experience of others.
As I said in my last email, our only focus is to build trusted local communities; a friendly environment where it is fun and safe to transact and connect. We take great pride in the quality of our communities. This is why our members come back to VarageSale every day. The fact that this person was constantly causing trouble, calling people names and getting involved in cat fights is more than justification for her to be removed. As an example, she recently publicly called one of the admins a “nazi”. This kind of behavior is absolutely unacceptable on VarageSale and we need to protect others from this.
2) It is true that she spoke with Alysha on our team, but these affirmations are absolutely false. What you described is not what was communicated to her. Her membership was revoked because of her continuous bad behavior, vulgarity and bullying.
3) I attached a couple of screenshots of conversations that happened in public. For privacy reasons, we cannot share anything that was exchanged in private.
VarageSale has been growing fast over the last couple of years. It is important for us to focus our time and efforts on improving the experience for our members. I’m sure you’ll understand that we cannot let the false accusations of a single person distract us from delighting our millions of satisfied members. In an effort to be respectful of everybody’s time, this will be our last comment on this matter.
With that email response, Mercier included the following two screenshots. The first one shows Azenet Collins’ “nazis” comment, while the second one shows a member telling Azenet Collins to lay off Ruemke:
I sent a follow-up to Mercier with this:
Also, as a follow-up, the “nazi” comment was in January and the person’s account was not suspended then, but a few days ago she was suspended for a different reason that had nothing to do with cyberbullying, bad behavior or vulgarity, at least from what our team can determine. We have several screen grabs of why she was actually suspended and it has to do specifically with the language policy. Will you share that specific thread or just the one example which you have shared?Thank you again for all your responses.
Hi Julio, I understand you’re trying to do your job but I think we explained the reasons of this decision quite extensively. It has absolutely nothing to do with discrimination whatsoever. We have no further comments on this matter.
We then shared Mercier’s email and two screenshots with Azenet Collins, who then emailed us back with a response to Mercier’s email:
And, yes, like I told you in my original email, I called them nazis because that’s how i felt they were policing their community. That was back in January, my “first strike,” which was probably deserved. The strike was deserved because I called them nazis, not because I spoke up for the disabled man. Ask to see the conversation from a couple of days ago and ask what could have been deemed bad behavior, cyber-bullying or vulgar. NOTHING. That last instance was the reason my account was deleted. If they had such an issue with the nazi comment, they would have deleted my account back in January.
You asked, “Would you be willing to share the forum conversation that led to this member being suspended?” and they responded with “For privacy reasons, we cannot share anything that was exchanged in private.” Julio, the last comments I made were NOT private. They were on the feed of their “Bienvenido/No Spanish” policy. I am so upset that they deleted the conversation before I or anyone else could take a screenshot. You need to persist on getting the transcript or screenshot of the conversation of May 8.
They are trying to shift the focus of the problem and say I was deleted because of bad behavior, cyber-bullying and vulgarity when in reality, it’s because I said that Spanish posts and comments were still being deleted.
Azenet Collins shared with Latino Rebels some private screen grabs of conversations she has had with other VarageSale members who believe that Ruemke does cross the line when it comes to Spanish posts.
Finally, Azenet Collins also gave us a private conversation she received from Reumke earlier this year, (before VarageSale instituted a new policy.). In that email, Reumke claims that English is the official language of the United States:
Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. A 1990 Harvard graduate in the History and Literature of Latin America, he pens columns on LR regularly. Julito has represented the Rebeldes on several outlets, including MSNBC, CBS, NPR, Univision and The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream and is currently the Digital Media Director for Futuro Media Group.