*Please note the italicized/bold sentences are excerpts from Andre’s article referenced throughout and not my own words.
Sometimes you’re just driving your usual route after work, mindlessly running your errands when a text lands on your phone that makes everything slow down and speed up at the same time. I glanced at the message at a red light and my eyes peeled. I started sweating and suddenly couldn’t remember where I was going. I haven’t experienced many of these moments in my life which is why I pulled into a random parking lot and started reading.
Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group
My heartrate increased as I wondered, “what is this?” I hadn’t kept up with Relevant in a long time or kept in touch with anyone who still worked there.
Did I write this in some fever dream I couldn’t remember?
Did I accidentally publish it?
Why did I feel like I was in trouble?
I figured we’d continue to be intentional about making content that was both timely and centered marginalized groups at the intersection of faith, culture, and justice.
“Oh! So you’re just making decisions now,” he asked.
All of my subordinates and the Brand Manager attend the content meeting. So when he asked about me “just making decisions” as though that was not exactly what I’d been hired to do, as though my authority to do so was questionable, it was awkward for everyone. I didn’t know how to respond.
I wanted to be respectful. And I couldn’t think of a respectful way to say “Well, that’s what you hired me to do, isn’t it?”
So I bit my tongue.
I scrolled back up to the top of the article mid-way to look at the name of the author half-expecting to see my own.
These were angry tears. After only three months at what I’d imagined would be my dream job at the largest Christian media company serving millennials in the U.S., I’d determined, in tears, there was no way I could stay there indefinitely. I promised myself, after that meeting, I’d quit once I’d completed a year at the company.
Although Andre Henry and I had never met or spoken before, I knew who he was before I read my former coworker’s reply—Andre Henry was the former Managing Editor at Relevant Magazine, the man that got my job at Relevant after I was fired.
It didn’t matter that I was meeting my family across town in 30 minutes or that I still had a few errands to run, nothing else mattered other than this article, this moment, this validation of my own experiences in the lion’s den that I’d never asked for or recognized so intimately. Not until now.
My life converged with Relevant in the Summer of 2016.
I returned to Florida by chance. Up until then, I’d worked for a year at a start-up in New York City that wanted to become the next Buzzfeed (spoiler: they didn’t). I’d managed 15 remote teams of content contributors, led a monthly speaker series hosting guests from CNN, Refinery 29, Blavity, New York University, The MET, and other institutions, I had solidified my network of talented media professionals and after a year, I was ready to move on to the next thing. I resigned from the company with a healthy amount of savings and thanked leadership for the opportunity to serve our contributors alongside them. They would unceremoniously let go of 60 members of the editorial staff in droves shortly after burning through 24 million dollars in capital. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Up to this point, I’d lived in New York City for 5 years and grown increasingly exhausted by the backdrop of subways in disrepair, the rat race, the literal rats, the long winters and I was feeling totally wrung out. I wanted something new but didn’t know quite what yet. I decided to spend a month in Orlando near family and friends while I figured it out. I moved out of my apartment in Brooklyn and put my belongings in storage while I spent a month living at my best friend’s in Central Florida, applying to jobs in New York City, Colorado, and Los Angeles.
As ambiguous as the future seemed, I was confident in what I’d accomplished thus far and prioritized restoring my soul with rest before moving into the next opportunity. It was, in every practical sense, a quarter-life sabbatical.
Around the same time, one of my best friends who had been working at Relevant for a year told me about an opening for a Managing Editor. I didn’t follow Relevant closely but as someone who grew up in the church during their mid-2000s peak, I respected the work produced by the publication and invited the opportunity to expand my network. My friend had graciously been in the ear of leadership promoting my editorial skills and the next thing I knew, I had a phone screening arranged on my behalf with their Editorial Director.
Shortly after, I had an in-person interview arranged with both the Director and Cameron Strang, the CEO/Publisher/Founder. This was over three years ago now and I remember it feeling like any other interview I’d been in. Strang impressed there were 400 applications stacked on his desk for this position that he hadn’t looked at but somehow, I’d ended up in front of him. Outside of his repeating this comment a few times, there was nothing particularly remarkable about this occasion except I’d heard the stories about Cameron regarding his temperament, his despotism, and occasional unusual brand of barbarity.
Yet when the 5’10 individual himself finally appeared in front of me in expensive sneakers and black-rimmed glasses, he looked like someone I’d sooner grab a beer with than fear. The stories didn’t align with my first impression of him and either way, I was a strong, independent woman who had just cut my teeth in New York. How bad could it really be? I cautiously—naively, perhaps—disregarded the stories as hearsay. After all, this wasn’t just a potential boss. Cameron Strang was a brother in Christ.
The role of Managing Editor was offered to me at $45,000 a year. It was $20,000 less in salary than I had earned in New York but I figured that the cost of living in Florida, as well as the opportunity to be near my family, would be a considerable exchange. Beyond that, I was excited for the opportunity to use my talents to build God’s kingdom in such a unique way. The convergence of my story with this opportunity at Relevant felt, at that time, divine. And I was excited to get to work.
I joined the team September of 2016.
When I was brought on, Relevant still operated out of their Winter Park office at 900 Orange Avenue. The office had an open floor plan and a beautiful recreational area complete with a pool table and several couches that faced the huge windows looking out onto a beautiful commercial street. The editorial team sat in the front of the building, Cameron’s office was in the center and the back was designated for creative, and the studio where the Relevant Podcast was recorded each week. There was a huge banner featuring Nicholas Cage’s face in in the back and you could very well have confused the staff with Urban Outfitters catalog models. This is important to note because when you came into the office, Relevant presented precisely the way it wanted to: cool, relaxed, irreverent. The 30-page employee manual I was handed should’ve suggested otherwise.
The Editorial Director I directly reported to was a wonderful leader, which probably made me ignore the red flags I’ll outline momentarily. He was patient, genuinely curious towards my goals, my experience, and kind. I also appreciated that the Editorial Director made it clear what my role was responsible for:
- Curating, editing, and publishing 20 feature-length articles per week on the digital website
- Writing 3-5 daily news blurbs on a variety of trending topics including pop culture, entertainment, politics, the church, and faith
- Contributing to and editing the bi-monthly print magazine
- Participating as a guest in the Relevant Podcast when directed to
Relevant, although they’ve been around for 10+ years, operates on a skeletal staff with a barebones budget. While I was there, the soda cans complimentarily offered to staff were replaced with 2-liter pitchers in order to pinch pennies.
One woman who was often regarded as Cameron’s right hand was responsible for all matters related to HR, Operations, and Project Management. The first red flag to me was when during our orientation (an informal chat on the couch with paperwork) she explained to me how Relevant operated.
“We’re like, one big family and I’m mom, you can come to me for anything, and Cameron’s dad. Our job is to keep dad happy.”
I was onboarded at the same time as Relevant’s newly hired Social Media Producer. The only reason this is significant is because Cameron Strang’s method of “leadership development” was to regularly suggest that we were not coworkers or equals, but competitors. This tacitly implied there was only room for one successful female leader. What we were competing for is still unclear to me, but my assumption would be his favor.
He had a similar dichotomy set up between directors as well. One was the gentle, sober-minded, quiet strength of the editorial team but he was openly disparaged and undermined by Cameron in meetings. Another director was the golden child. I was often instructed to mimic this individual’s voice and ironic humor in our daily news blurb distributions. After all, this person’s popularity and Relevant’s popularity were implied as one in the same. This man was not disposable—unlike the others.
The second red flag appeared during my first week when the Editorial Director explained to me that he would be my buffer. His job was to protect me from whatever ran downhill. He explained that the most exceptional boss he ever had did that for him and he, in turn, would do that for me. He kept that commitment. And the relationship I would observe between him and Cameron was disparaging. It wasn’t enough to discuss deadlines and proactive choices that would move us in unison in their direction, Cameron would often subvert my boss’ authority in my presence and question his talents, too.
Fill this calendar.
I was given the same imperative that Andre described in his article, almost exactly, but it appears that Andre was also responsible for Instagram and building new products, which I cannot even imagine possible within a 40-hour workweek. We were already producing 80 articles a month to publish on the website. If we’re responsible for coordinating 80 articles a month, can you imagine how much content we’re reading through simply to curate, edit, and refine the select few fit to publish? As I look back on this time, it was a Herculean ask but I trusted that as the Managing Editor working in close unison with the Editorial Director, we’d get this right. After all, it wasn’t rocket science and we had over a hundred talented contributors.
I was soon proved wrong.
The editorial meetings on Monday mornings became increasingly wrought as time went on.
I began dreading editorial meetings because the goal, and Cameron Strang’s vision, was an ever-moving target. Yes, we could populate the articles and present them but there was always something wrong. They either weren’t culturally relevant enough, they were too Jesus-y, too stale, too secular. The message communicated to Andre was that his ideas were too Black. My own were found too feminist.
What made navigating this reality so exceptionally difficult was that you never knew which version of Cameron you would get on any given day. He would either shoot the breeze with you animatedly discussing The Magic team’s latest blunder, recent blockbusters, or recalling some zany memory from the podcast like their Nicholas Cage movie marathon. In these times, you felt like you were finally in. You were trusted or you were succeeding. You could breath.
Other days, he would arrive to the office visibly perturbed, ready to skewer whoever displeased him first and you’d keep your head low hoping to avoid the misfortune.
I’ll remind you that we already had the burden of being understaffed, over-exerted and now, eternally suspended in the unknown of which Cameron we would get.
Would it be the temperamental CEO that made it evident he believed he was surrounded by imbeciles or Cameron, the Christian? Cameron, the friend?
Monday mornings became a matter of holding our breath and hoping he had a good weekend, a good morning, a good breakfast. Although the office space was open seating, everyone kept to themselves. There was no sense of community fostered at Relevant. The words “purpose” and “vision”, the few times they were thrown around in meetings, soon became empty. Our job was to come in, feed the internet, and keep Dad happy. You just hoped you wouldn’t get scalped in the midst of trying to do so and walked out the door as soon as 5pm hit.
I would often take my laptop to work on the couch in the common area, as was typical at the start-up I worked at in New York. I got used to not being at a desk but Cameron took issue with it and said it appeared slovenly. I was asked not to sit on the couch again.
If I remember correctly, there were 14 full-time staff members in the office. Our tireless copy editor was Black. I’m Latinx . Everyone else was white. That’s a diversity rate of 14%. But it doesn’t matter. Andre’s article did an exceptional job communicating the race fatigue any non-white individual would experience as an employee.
RELEVANT remains without excuse for the patterns of tokenization of Black people and fetishization of racial justice efforts that characterize their work, and the harm it has caused to Black people within and outside of the organization. As long as they refuse to acknowledge this about their praxis, they’ll remain an unsafe environment for Black people and a collaborator in the racist status quo while giving themselves credit for being an ally.
I cannot communicate the points made in Andre’s article with the same clarity of mind or his tenacity, and I won’t try. Andre’s experiences, his observations, and his story-telling are both exceptionally unique to his lived experience and all too common of a story when it comes to the subject of the largest Christian company serving millennials.
In this respect, Cameron Strang and Relevant are interchangeable entities. If the source of water is toxic, the body of water is not fit to swim in. You see where I’m going with this?
My intent in speaking up about my tenure at Relevant is to co-sign Andre’s experiences as regrettably familiar. I suspect we both find ourselves as hosts of these stories because Cameron Strang’s greatest fear is that people aren’t interested in what he—or Relevant —has to say.
Instead of leaning into the mystery of what God could be speaking in present day and the diversity that He has gifted each of us with, Strang continually allows his fear to choke out the voices, strengths, and giftings of the people he hires.
This account of experience as the Managing Editor at Relevant Magazine is an effort to recover the voice stolen from me during my time with this company.
All of my subordinates and the Brand Manager attend the content meeting. So when he asked about me “just making decisions” as though that was not exactly what I’d been hired to do, as though my authority to do so was questionable, it was awkward for everyone. I didn’t know how to respond.
It was in one of these terrible editorial meetings where the subject of a famous Christian Black rapper and how he had been criticized by white evangelical America for speaking out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement was brought up. In an effort to build framework around how to discuss the challenges this man was facing as a result of the backlash and abandonment, Cameron Strang suggested we feature him in the magazine with a noose around his neck as a “shocking image to symbolize his lynching by white evangelical America.”
This is where I need to pause and bring you into my position in the editorial leadership meeting.
I was both the only woman and the only person of color in a room of five people. And now the CEO of the company signing my paychecks was suggesting featuring a man of color in a noose on the publication with my name in the masthead. I spoke up immediately and tried to choke back the wry disbelieving laugh that had crawled up my throat in shock.
“We can’t do that,” I said.
The rest of the editorial staff blinked and avoided eye contact with me. Cameron doubled down. “No, like imagine someone is reading the magazine,” he said as he picked up a previous month’s issue “and flipping through the pages and they see [redacted name] in a noose. It’s like, WHOA, what is this about.”
I paused before speaking and suddenly felt like I was in a trap I wouldn’t get out of safely. He wasn’t getting it and as the token person of color in the room, I had the singular responsibility of walking him back from this ledge.
I took a breath in hopes to restrain my emotion from reaching my voice and continued as professionally as I could.
“Listen. I’m telling you, as a person of color, that if I were reading this magazine, whoa is not the reaction I would have. I would be deeply disturbed. And alienated. We do not need to publish an image of a Black man in a noose. This isn’t a good idea.”
I didn’t bring up the viral videos of Black mens’ bodies being broken all over Twitter.
I didn’t bring up the fact that I believe we need more representation of Black excellence, not Black trauma.
I didn’t bring up how embarrassed I would be to approach the individual’s camp with this idea, or having my name on the masthead if we proceeded with it.
I just hoped he would trust me.
Instead, Cameron Strang grew exasperated with me and I think we left it at having to agree to disagree. He was obviously annoyed with me and I left trying to hide my exhaustion towards this environment, and my white coworkers that remained silent throughout our interaction. It was at this time that a glaring qualification I was missing to succeed at this job became obvious: Cameron wanted a “yes man” and I’d just revealed my lack.
During another editorial meeting, I pitched an article about millennials and how the lack of job opportunities was making them susceptible to pyramid schemes (like Lularoe and those essential oil companies) where you put capital forward for inventory and then have to make up your profit by selling these items to friends and family. I’d been exceptionally dismayed by the lack of opportunity in Central Florida for my graduate-degree educated friends and thought we could flesh it out into a meaningful conversation around capital, education, and the diminishing middle class.
There was an increasing amount of dialogue around the factors that keep millennials from buying homes and the burden of student debt; with the right direction and contributors, I believed we could craft it into a meaningful conversation.
Cameron replied, “Well, if they don’t like their job, why don’t they just get another one?”
I didn’t even think about my reply.
In fact, it was an immediate knee-jerk response that stated the obvious.
“I think that’s a privileged statement,” and I thought of friends who weren’t able-bodied or people who couldn’t even get in the door for interviews at many institutions for arbitrary factors like the name given to them by their parents.
I already knew we live in a world where the name your parents gave you can get your resume overlooked.
There are more men named John and Robert in CEO positions than there are women in total, period. I didn’t think I was making a particularly bold or incendiary statement to Cameron when I pushed back. I just thought reality wasn’t as simple as he was deducing it to be.
That comment alone led to a sit-down reprimand conversation with Cameron and my boss. Unbeknownst to me, Strang had left the meeting in great offense towards me and the next day, he talked for 20 minutes about my inappropriate behavior and proceeded to impress to me that he’s traveled the world, visited war zones, and spent time with refugees. He therefore could not possibly have a worldview that qualified as privileged.
(A quick aside here: even if we ignore that his last house sold for over a million dollars or the capital spent on a rotating sneaker collection he openly discussed, using refugees as an argument for why you’re woke is a bizarre move. Moving on.)
I can’t tell you exactly when I fell out of Cameron Strang’s favor but if I had to guess I would say it was when I insisted being called by my preferred name.
Sometime between December-January, I was working on a round-up of what to expect from the music industry in 2017. The headline was Good Lorde, This Will Be Another Great Year For Music and you can guess who the talented young ingenue anchoring this editorial was. As I was editing, I noticed my byline featured my full legal name, Rebecca Marie Jo Flores, which was odd because I’d been writing at Relevant and other publications under my more commonly used name, Rebecca Marie Jo. I don’t think I need to explain why I write on the internet under Rebecca Marie Jo because privacy is, you know, a thing, and beyond that I’ve never felt an affinity to my last name which wasn’t a conversation I necessarily expected to get into with my employer.
I figured it had been a mistake and corrected my byline to remain consistent with my previously published articles. It was either that same afternoon or a day later that I noticed it had been changed back and I brought it up to my boss, the Editorial Director. He explained that had been a call made by Cameron which is when I grew concerned and confused. Consistency is important to me, and so is, you know, whatever has my full legal name published on it so I asked my boss to speak to Cameron on my behalf. A few moments later, I received a Slack message advising me that he had done all he could but this was a call made by Cameron and little could be done.
At this point, I’m reasonably confused and notice Cameron’s in the office. His door was open, as it usually was, so I popped my head and asked if I talk to him about something. I was visibly annoyed, I’m sure, but I kept it professional and thought, “maybe if he hears it from me, he’ll understand and we can move on.” I told him I was changing the byline back to Rebecca Marie Jo just to remain consistent with formerly published articles and said something to the effect of “I don’t write under my full legal name.”
And I thought this would suffice.
Moments later, I received a Slack message from Cameron himself reprimanding me for coming into “the CEO’s office” without an invitation and providing an explainer on, once again, how inappropriate this behavior was. His solution (punishment?) was to take my byline off the article altogether. And he cited the reason being that he had to rework my introduction anyway because my writing quality was terrible.
Can I tell you that I absolutely lost it in this moment? All of it. Whatever it I had. It was gone.
It was the middle of the workday and I started crying hot, angry, ceaseless tears at my desk. I have never had another professional moment like this to this day, but I was inconsolable. If you’ve cried at work, and particularly in an open floor plan office, I’m buying us both these matching shirts. I was hurt, I was disappointed, and I was livid at Cameron’s retribution for something that I thought would be a non-issue. I’d worked hard on that article. I was proud of it.
Was I brought there to lead, to use my taste to shape the kind of content they published, to use my voice, as I’d been told?
The next day, I was brought into a meeting with the Editorial Director and Cameron and very nearly fired on the spot. Cameron said something to the effect that this brand was not to build *MY* name and therefore, my reaction was wholly inappropriate. Then, he ended his diatribe with something about me being there to build HIS vision and it’s HIS name on the masthead and that if I don’t like that, well, there’s the door.
It was at that point that I realized I wasn’t there to build God’s kingdom. I was there to build Cameron’s.
I said something to the effect of “I understand” and I didn’t have the courage to leave yet, not when I had invested so much and had so many great relationships with my contributors. I wasn’t ready to go then, so I told Cameron I’d shut up and play the game. That’s when I wholly checked out of my work.
“Your taste,” they said. “Your vision,” they said.
Strang began having challenges with his HR/Operations/Project Manager. She wasn’t project managing the magazine as closely as he wanted (maybe because she had three job titles), but his solution was to offload her project management responsibilities to me, in addition to curating, editing, and publishing the 80 articles a month in addition to writing daily blurbs that got all of our traffic.
I will openly concede to the fact that I did not do my best work at Relevant, not consistently, because of the volume demanded and the stress of navigating the environment itself. I was now given project management responsibilities on top of that and I had never been a project manager in my life. To be completely frank, I just kind of nodded and figured it would pan out. I took it upon myself to prompt the Editorial Director more frequently about the status of things. This didn’t make him or anyone else move any quicker, mind you.
But what was I gonna do? Say no to Cameron Strang? He made sure I’d learned my lesson.
I grew increasingly depressed and disassociated in my role. I was miserable and felt indebted to my responsibilities, to my commitment and to the vibrant community of contributors I’d built relationships with. I cherished them and their words, and wanted to honor the opportunity to steward this platform well.
There were still times that I would be so moved by the content I was reading from our writers that I would feel God’s presence intimately and believe in His ability to use Relevant Magazine, despite the toxic despot at the helm. I figured Cameron’s regular lashings were a sad reality of the work itself and kept going. Like, Andre,
I tried to rationalize that access to the platform was an opportunity.
In late February, I went on vacation to the Netherlands for 9 days. I hadn’t earned the entire bank of those vacation days but I had committed to this trip before I had started my work at Relevant and was once again duped by the illusory easygoing nature of the company. I had little concept or care for the number of grievances Cameron had against me at this point. As Cameron followed me on Instagram, he was privy to my joy, my freedom, my best carefree vacation self. And to this day, I speculate that he resented it. I wasn’t producing, and therefore I wasn’t of use to him.
I returned to the office on a Wednesday morning, 8 hours after landing in the States. I attended a local music festival that same weekend. As miserable as my job was, I was trying to cultivate joy in other areas of my life, like my friends and any opportunity for adventure in their company.
The Sunday after the music festival, I was watching the HBO tv series Girls and found the subject of the episode hit too close to what I was feeling in my life. The main character, Hannah Horvath, had realized her prestigious grad program at the University of Iowa for fictional writing was not what she imagined it would be. She was disillusioned and disappointed by her hopes when held in contrast to her isolated reality.
I could relate.
I surprised myself with my own tears and began praying alone in my living room. I no longer knew what my purpose at Relevant was or if it could be accomplished. I felt responsible for so many things—the readers, the writers, my desire to share the beauty of God’s work in everything—yet denigrated, robbed of my agency, my leadership potential, and my own well-being.
I prayed for the freedom to let go. That sounds like I prayed to be fired or quit but at the time, I just prayed God would give me permission to move on. I didn’t want to quit prematurely, but I also couldn’t withstand another day. I was in a truly depressive state and dreaded the editorial meeting that was scheduled in a few hours. I knew I had ambiguous project management responsibilities that I would not know how to account for. I didn’t have anything left in me to pretend or bite my tongue or tuck my tail between my legs, and I knew it.
I emailed my boss at 3:08am to tell him I wasn’t feeling well. I asked for a day to recoup from jetlag and get my bearings. In reality, I felt like my vacation had reintroduced me to full self and suddenly, I had to shrink to fit into Cameron’s world again. For whatever reason, I couldn’t do it in that moment. Maybe I refused to.
My boss replied “No worries! Feel better,” when I woke up at 7am to check my email that morning and by noon, I’d received a 500-word email from Cameron Strang effectively letting me go from my position. He told me I’d failed to live up to my responsibilities. That 30-page employee handbook? He had cited it extensively, even added in a P.S. in case I missed the point of my firing.
What I didn’t know at this point was that the Social Media Producer who had started her role alongside me had put in her notice days before I returned from the Netherlands. Could Cameron see another resignation coming? I’ll never know.
To add insult to injury, the Macbook Pro I’d used at work had been left at my desk the previous Friday and for some reason, Cameron assumed I had returned on the premise to put my computer back the afternoon after my firing so I received a follow-up email from HR/Ops personnel notifying me know that the police would be called on me if I returned to the premises without advising anyone and to return my key fob as soon as possible.
Am still aghast, even as I recall these memories.
I coordinated to return my key fob to my best friend who had gotten me the job. The HR/Ops person who emailed me this… threat.. apologized months later and put the onus of it on Cameron.
After that period in my life, I did everything to put Relevant behind me, chalking up my experience to a loss, not necessarily for me, but the Christian community as a whole. God is still using Relevant, can still use Relevant, will continue to use Relevant—but for the leadership, this is an incident, not a priority.
As I wrote this article, I remembered the disparaging things Cameron Strang spoke over his associates, his friends, and many of the Christian celebrities we featured in the magazine. Comments I haven’t thought about in years. I will never go into public detail about those. The only thing these memories have in common was how often Cameron was able to solicit my empathy against these villains in his own life out to get him.
Cameron Strang is exceptionally talented at behaving for those whom he must behave for and that itself reveals the inner conflict that drives so much of this egotistical behavior. This is probably the most important thing I can communicate about the experiences that are all too common between myself and other former employees.
He’s either aligned with the winners or he’ll be the victim, but he can never be the loser.