Kimbal Musk’s school gardening nonprofit lays off entire unionizing workforce

Big Green laid off half its workers right before the busy school season—and just a month after hosting a gala where it sold two bongs for $50,000 each.

On July 31, the school gardening nonprofit Big Green held its glitzy annual gala in Aspen, Colorado. The singer Jewel performed; actor Adrian Grenier made an appearance. It’s a company tradition to auction off a bong signed by a famous person—previous autographs have come from Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson—and this year, rocker Michael Franti graced the piece. Also on auction: A private jet flight with Big Green founder Kimbal Musk to visit the launch site for SpaceX, his billionaire brother Elon’s commercial space travel venture. (Tickets did not include a trip to space, though they did come with a “curated lunch by a world-class chef.”) 

Just over a month later, despite the lucrative fundraising event (boosted in part by two $50,000 bong sales) the organization would lay off about half of its staff. It’s the latest—and possibly final—blow in a bitter, summer-long battle between employees hoping to unionize and Big Green leadership. (It goes without saying that Musk’s brother Elon has also been involved in various anti-union activities.) The layoffs, framed as an organizational restructuring, eliminated the jobs of the entire 10-person bargaining unit. 

“There were tons of events scheduled with schools that week that were canceled the day of, or the day before, without any notice to our school-based partners.”

At the gala, though, there was little outward indication the organization was on the verge of a seismic shift. Guests embraced the “Age of Aquarius” theme, snapping Instagram photos astride a flower-festooned VW bug. Wearing his signature cowboy hat atop an iridescent metallic print suit, Musk took the stage to extol the virtues of planting gardens at low-income schools, expressing his excitement to get back to campus this fall. 

“We’re going back to 650 schools,” Musk said in footage of the event reviewed by The Counter. “Six hundred fifty schools with kids that need us—kids that want us, kids that love us. We cannot wait to get back to them.”

Yet the employees responsible for actually visiting those schools would no longer have jobs by the time the school year started. The layoffs were announced before many of the gardens had even been planted for the fall season. “There were tons of events scheduled with schools that week that were canceled the day of, or the day before, without any notice to our school-based partners,” said Jenny Tokheim, one of the laid-off program coordinators based in Memphis. “So it was very, very stunning—not only for us, but for the teachers that use our services.”

Until recently, Big Green’s primary focus was building and maintaining Learning Gardens—attractive, modular raised bed configurations—at Title I schools in major cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Memphis. The idea was that proximity to the gardens would help students get more familiar with fruits and vegetables, boosting their willingness to eat fresh food while providing outdoor education at the same time. A major selling point was that busy teachers wouldn’t have to maintain the gardens all alone. Staffers from Big Green would help build the gardens, plant the beds, and harvest the crops each year. 

For a long time, though, the program coordinators who worked with local schools had begun to feel tension building with the national office in Boulder, Colorado. They say arbitrary-seeming decisions would be handed down from above with little room for negotiation. Some coordinators felt like they had to put on a show when wealthy donors visited schools, bristling when they would talk about the students as if they were out of earshot. Other changes the coordinators advocated, like growing culturally relevant food, should have been easy to implement, but dragged on. 

“Big Green would go into communities of color and be like, ‘what? You don’t like kale? What do you mean? You don’t make kale chips for fun?’” said Kelsey Gray, a former program coordinator in Denver who left earlier this year before the layoffs. “It was like fighting tooth and nail just to be, like, ‘can we please grow collards or mustard greens or something?’” 

The coordinators sought to address these concerns, first through a pitch to the organization president, then through a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) council, a committee that was disbanded after Big Green leadership claimed it violated company policy. The plan to form a union was the most recent effort to give coordinators more sway in the national decision-making process—before it backfired spectacularly. “The mantra of Big Green is that you always expect national [headquarters] to react in the worst way, and they always react in a way that you can’t even imagine. When the union went public, it was like, ‘What’s the worst thing they can do?’” Gray said. “And then they went 10 times overboard and fired everyone.”

Big Green did not respond to requests for comment or a detailed list of questions for this story.

Founded in 2011 by Kimbal Musk and chef Hugo Matheson, Big Green is focused on building a “replicable, scalable school garden solution,” a uniform set of garden designs and lessons that can be implemented anywhere in the country. To qualify, schools don’t even need a patch of fertile soil: Big Green’s curved beds are meant to work on any surface, including some roofs. In theory, the Learning Gardens program knocks down many of the biggest hurdles to providing garden education in public schools. Big Green handles the planning, the infrastructure, the build-out, most of the cost—even seed purchases. It also sends program coordinators into schools to help teach the lessons. “I’m a teacher now, and that kind of support is unheard of,” Gray, the former program coordinator, says. 

Some coordinators felt like they had to put on a show when wealthy donors visited schools, bristling when they would talk about the students as if they were out of earshot.

Tensions between the national office and program coordinators on the ground began to bubble up in the spring of 2020, when Gray and several peers signed up for a 21-day Racial Equity Challenge run by Food Solutions of New England. They received daily email prompts, meeting remotely once per week to discuss their work. It was the first time many had spent time together without managers present. “For every story someone shared about Big Green and how operations made them uncomfortable, there were like three other people who had similar stories,” Gray said. 

High among those concerns were the dynamics between donors and students during garden visits, interactions that left staffers feeling caught in the middle between watching out for students and minding Big Green’s bottom line. Coordinators also suspected the national office blew the gardens’ impact out of proportion: Gray recalled an instance where a teacher at one of her 64 schools used the garden to help students overcome language barriers. She shared the anecdote with the national office, emphasizing that the lesson hadn’t been her idea. She later glimpsed a Big Green grant proposal that suggested all 64 gardens facilitated bilingual education. Her peers in other regions had similar stories. 

This tendency to universalize nice-sounding anecdotes went all the way to the top of the organization, Gray said. At fundraising events in different regions, Kimbal Musk would tell the exact same story—say, about a kid pulling his first carrot out of the ground—over and over again, swapping out the name of the region in each telling to suggest the quasi-fictional child lived in Indianapolis, or Pittsburgh, or L.A. “It’s a running joke in the organization that Kimbal says the same story, the exact same words, same inflection,” she said. Another former employee who was not involved with the layoffs confirmed both the existence of the joke and Musk’s tendency to recycle anecdotes. 

Kimbal Musk blurred in the distance points towards students of color at Eucalyptus Elementary School raising their hands in the foreground. March 13, 2019.

Kimbal Musk would have a tendency to tell the same nice-sounding anecdotes at fundraising events, adding to a growing sense that aspects of the organization held up the white savior complex.

David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

These tendencies, among others, contributed to Gray’s growing sense that aspects of the organization held up the white savior complex, a term that refers to white people “helping” non-white people in a self-serving manner. The group continued meeting after the Racial Equity Challenge reached its end, drawing up a large chart that detailed a path forward, citing detailed examples of other organizations that succeeded in similar efforts. They eventually met with Big Green president Tighe Brown to go over the proposals. She said she’d consider them, though Gray said she never followed up. Soon after that, at the end of June, a handful of employees were laid off. Others saw their hours cut and lost their employer-provided health insurance. 

When the organization did eventually form a DEI Council, Gray joined. Months later, in partnership with the media outlet Modern Farmer, Big Green launched the Million Gardens Movement, a fundraising initiative that sent miniature gardens to homes and classrooms. Gray said it seemed like a benign PR stunt at first, but then she learned it was a “carbon copy” of a similar initiative from a partner organization, presented without proper attribution. An archived version of the Million Gardens Movement website reviewed by The Counter included notable similarities in both content and design.  “It was taking this idea and all this work from an organization that was primarily people of color, and launching this million-dollar campaign off it.” Another person who was on the DEI council at the time confirmed the substance of these concerns. 

“It’s a running joke in the organization that Kimbal says the same story, the exact same words, same inflection.”

The council considered the issue, ultimately writing a letter to Big Green leadership outlining its concerns. In response, Big Green launched an investigation, claiming the council had violated company policies. (Neither Gray nor a second person on the council at the time could remember exactly which policies they had violated; they had not been aware of any such rules at the time.) Leadership proceeded to individually interview council members about the letter, a process Gray called “really scary.” Big Green disbanded the council while it investigated the alleged violations. It was after the dissolution of the council, Gray says, that union discussions began in earnest. 

There were aspects of the organization’s pandemic response that rankled employees, too. For example, when teachers could not provide on-site garden education after schools went remote, some Big Green gardens were repurposed to grow food to donate to the community—an awkward pivot, given the relatively small size of the beds. “All of a sudden now we’re a food security organization, not an educational organization,” said Emma Dietrich, a program coordinator in Detroit who was laid off this month. “And we were basically required to then grow food in gardens all over the city. I think we spent more money driving to 30 gardens than it would have cost just to buy the amount of food we grew and give it to the food bank. It was just an ineffective program, and all for show.” 

“It was taking this idea and all this work from an organization that was primarily people of color, and launching this million-dollar campaign off it.”

In late June of this year, program coordinators and project managers publicly announced their intent to unionize, having worked with the Denver chapter of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). “We love our jobs and the organization, and realize employees must have input in the decision-making process and representation at the table, to consider and offer solutions that serve all employees in times of growth and times of crisis,” they wrote in a mission statement signed by 11 people. 

Big Green declined to voluntarily recognize the union, hiring two attorneys to fight the effort. The company claimed that staffers were not eligible to unionize because they held managerial positions and because they were geographically dispersed. (It’s not uncommon for management to try to manipulate the size of a bargaining unit; during a recent campaign to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the company fought to include seasonal workers, a change that made it more difficult for union organizers to secure a majority vote.) 

One employee, Odie Avery, posted about the union on Instagram and was subsequently banned from attending school events through the end of September, according to Vice’s Motherboard, after the company claimed he violated Big Green social media policies. The CWA union soon filed three Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaints against Big Green, alleging that it had discriminated against employees because of their union activities, among other things. Later in the summer, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held a hearing with both parties to hear Big Green’s objections to the union petition. 

Kimbal Musk (R), wife Christiana and daughter Stella, 6, look on as students at Eucalyptus Elementary School learn to plant a vegetable garden in preparation for Plant a Seed Day in Hawthorne, California on March 13, 2019.

High among coordinator’s concerns were the dynamics between donors and students during garden visits, interactions that left staffers feeling caught in the middle between watching out for students and minding Big Green’s bottom line.

David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

Employees were still waiting to hear the NLRB’s ruling when Big Green suddenly announced the restructuring that eliminated all the would-be union positions earlier this month. Three employees who spoke to The Counter were offered severance payments equivalent to one month’s pay per year at the company, though the payments were contingent upon signing an agreement that prohibited them from speaking to the press. The former employees who spoke with us declined to sign the agreement. 

The restructuring left more than just the laid-off employees in the lurch. “Quite a few teachers have our cell phone numbers and have been texting about how wild it is that the whole plan for the fall is out the window. I’d say our teachers have been very, very upset. They’re just kind of at a loss for words,” says Tokheim, the former Memphis-based program coordinator. Former employees said the timing undermines the notion that Big Green considered the needs of the schools it serves when planning the organizational changes. (It’s theoretically possible that the coordinators will somehow be replaced with volunteers in time for the fall planting season, though many students have already returned to class.)

On September 27, the Communications Workers of America union filed another set of complaints against Big Green, alleging the company had illegally discriminated against employees who intended to unionize when it laid them off, among other possible labor violations. That case is now open. 

“Once it’s not working out for the white people that are in charge or the white people that are making money off of it, they pulled out … because all of a sudden it doesn’t matter anymore.”

For now, Big Green has not made any public announcements about the pivot, and is instead enthusiastically promoting its new Jumpstart program on Instagram, offering $2,000 grants to educators interested in supplementing their outdoor education budgets. The Million Gardens Movement, the initiative co-led by Kimbal Musk that was the subject of the DEI Council’s letter, just received $1.4 million in donations from Floki Inu, a cryptocurrency inspired by an Elon Musk tweet about the name of the Shiba Inu he planned to adopt. Floki Inu released a set of limited edition non-fungible tokens of avatars called Flokitars and donated the proceeds to the Million Gardens Movement. 

Meanwhile, Big Green’s former employees are struggling to square the jobs they loved doing with the behavior of the organization’s leaders. “There’s always, unfortunately, a separation between programming and development, in that certain roles are more values-based than others,” said Amina Bahloul, a laid-off program coordinator based in Chicago. “It’s important to have direct lines of communications to other departments in the organization to ensure that the work can be continued to be shared, and that it’s sustainable more often than not. Unfortunately, we’re finding that’s really not the case.” 

Gray, who left Big Green over the summer for a teaching role, sees employee efforts to change the organization—first through a series of proposed changes, then by way of a DEI Council, and finally through a union drive—as largely a failure. She said Big Green made it clear that it hasn’t dismantled its white savior complex when it laid off half its workforce at the height of the fall planting season. 

“Once it’s not working out for the white people that are in charge or the white people that are making money off of it, they pulled out … because all of a sudden it doesn’t matter anymore,” she says. “And who really loses are obviously the communities of color and the students.” 

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.