On December 12, 2018, I reported that several former members of the leadership and admin teams of the self-described Egalitarian organization Ezer Rising had brought very serious allegations against the founders of the group. Among those allegations were claims that group founders Sierra White and Amber Picota, with the help of other figures, had fostered a toxic and abusive culture among the group and its leadership.
If you have not yet read that post, I ask that, before proceeding, you familiarize yourself. It can be found here.
In response to these allegations, a figure named in the post and associated with ER, Noelle Toscano, posted a defense of the organization, seeking to discredit these persons. In addition, Toscano took to the comment sections of my posts on Facebook in an attempt to attack and discredit my work in giving these allegations a platform.
In light of these attempts, I was asked by those who brought the original allegations to offer a public response demonstrating how Toscano’s words and actions highlight the exact sort of toxic and abusive behavior Ezer Rising has been accused of fostering, and to bring to light a private exchange which calls her motives into question.
Toward that goal, this post will be divided into three portions, addressing the blog post and Facebook comments respectively before briefly covering a private message from Toscano specifically addressing the allegations made.
For those wishing to read Toscano’s full blog post, it is available here.
For those wanting full context for the Facebook comments pictured below, see here.
Who is Noelle Toscano?
Before examining her words, it is important to first establish precisely who Noelle Toscano is. According to the “About” page on her blog, Toscano is a published author with Crosslink Publishing and an advocate for gender equality in the church. According to the Ezer Rising website, she also serves on their leadership as a Staff Writer.
This is an important detail, as, while she offers her response on her personal blog, she also identifies herself explicitly in her leadership capacity for Ezer Rising. Which is to say, the person who wrote the words I will critique below is, in every way, an official spokesperson for Ezer Rising and someone whose work they support and endorse.
This is not a fringe person, but an insider defending the organization and its leadership against serious allegations.
It is my intent to show that the way she has responded to these allegations is entirely consistent with the allegations made against Ezer Rising.
From the very first paragraph, it is quite clear that Toscano has no intention of engaging honestly. She begins by claiming, “I won’t go into great detail on the many unfounded accusations made against Sierra [White]…”
As the reader may recall, among the allegations against Ezer Rising (ER) is their affiliation with and promotion of Kingdom Bliss ministries. Kingdom Bliss is known to use prosperity doctrine to manipulate followers into giving them money. Among these tactics was the peddling of “anointed prayer cloths” in attempts to gain “donations” of thousands of dollars.
Clearly, then, there is at least one indisputable allegation against Sierra White and Ezer Rising Leadership, they have a history of openly and publicly promoting this ministry.
For example, this post from Ezer Rising’s public Facebook page:
The author of this post, Rene Picota, is the spouse of Ezer Rising co-founder Amber Picota, making it entirely unlikely that leadership was unaware of his ministry tactics.
The connections between Ezer Rising and Kingdom Bliss are not a matter of dispute, nor is the content of their website. So, on at least one occasion, we know it is true that Ezer Rising was willing to promote content from a ministry using exploitive and dangerous tactics to elicit donations.
It is odd, then, that Toscano in no way even mentions these very real, and very serious allegations in her defense of the organization and its leadership.
From the outset, it seems likely that Toscano’s motive is not to be transparent, but to deflect criticism using deceptive and dishonest tactics. What I argue below, in my opinion, confirms this.
After reading this post several times, there were several tactics employed that stuck out to me, each of which I consider to be entirely consistent with the allegations made against Ezer Rising.
Please consider the following:
- “It can’t be true, it didn’t happen to me.”
Right out of the gate, Toscano has nothing but praise for Sierra White. She claims that White created a team of leaders and contributors who were “united in our passion to help women to understand who they are in Christ and encourage them to live it to the fullest.” White is seen as a “visionary” who has never done anything but make feel Toscano encouraged and heard. She agreed with the decisions Sierra made, and was met with kindness and affirmation as a result.
This, of course, has zero relevance to whether or not Sierra White, and others, engaged in abusive tactics toward other persons. As Maisha Johnson has pointed out: someone “can be both well-loved and capable of perpetuating violence. Humans are complex beings, and we’re all capable of both wonderful and terrible things.”
Having a great personal relationship with an alleged abuser has absolutely no bearing on whether they have abused others. Insisting that one’s personal experience negates the lived experience of other people is nothing short of erasure.
Preserving one’s personal comfort by erasing others is complicity in their abuse.
2. Victim Blaming
It is further notable, then, that Toscano follows up her praise of White by blaming the victims for being divisive and non-compliant. She apparently has no sense of irony, as this sort of behavior and rhetoric is precisely what the allegations against Ezer Rising leadership explicitly detail.
Setting oneself up as self-appointed arbiter of another’s truth is a common method of victim blaming. It is notable, then, that according to Toscano, their pain can’t be real because she doesn’t share their perspective.
This attitude permeates the post, as we are told that White is merely a “no nonsense” communicator and a “go getter” (sic) who was trying to protect the Ezer Rising group from “divisive” issues, like basic equality for queer persons.
This culminates when Toscano addresses a specific instance involving one former Ezer Rising leader. This leader, perceiving the homophobic culture being fostered within the organization, chose to come out to Sierra White as bisexual, hoping that realizing how this bigoted culture was affecting a personal friend she might reconsider allowing it to continue.
Instead, White responded in a manner that Toscana describes as unsupportive, insensitive, and deeply hurtful. However, because White is dedicated specifically to the “empowerment” of women, Toscano wants us to know that had the group been “affirming” it would have “swallowed them whole.” Which is to say, as the former ER members have alleged, Ezer Rising considered empowering queer women a distraction from their cause of “women’s empowerment.”
From these methods, it seems a fair conclusion that the current leadership of Ezer Rising doesn’t consider queer women to be fully women.
But Toscano does not believe anyone should be bothered by this, especially not this specific bisexual woman. As she sees it, treating queer women as a distraction to “women’s” causes isn’t hurtful, it is merely practical. After all “there are, quite literally, thousands of online communities that cover LGBTQ+ issues.”
Further, in Toscano’s eyes, White is very passionate and wants “to get it right so badly” and that is sometimes a “messy” process. But, we are told, White offered an apology to her bisexual friend and “I [Noelle Toscano] found it genuine.”
In her estimation, it is entirely irrelevant that the actual queer person in this exchange felt like the apology was disingenuous and only furthered the hurt. Noelle Toscano has spoken, and the opinion of anyone else – including the queer person directly impacted – is irrelevant.
In promoting this deeply queerphobic rhetoric, Toscano clearly and unapologetically resorts to blaming queer people and their allies for being too sensitive and refusing to listen to Sierra White’s heart. Rather than a request to have their basic humanity dignified, queer women asking to be seen fully as “women” within Ezer Rising’s mission are a distraction.
If they could just divorce their queerness from their womanhood, Toscano seems to believe they would find they fit into ER’s culture easily.
Toscano believes that there is no fault to be found in Ezer Rising operating on an essentialist, cisheteronormative vision of gender that results in the oppression of queer people. Instead, it is the fault of queer women for refusing to accept and adhere to their proper place within that framework. She believes the problem is that: “[T]hey have in common an extreme sensitivity level that made me wonder how it could be that they would be able to manage their lives without being in a constant state of offense.”
If they would only listen and behave appropriately, if they would only conform their identity to the framework forced upon them, there wouldn’t be any hurt.
3. Moving the Goalposts
Noteworthy to this discussion is what Toscano specifically doesn’t address in her attempted rebuttal. Namely, the story of Amanda Flowers Peterson.
According to the authors of these allegations, “White supremacy and racism began to blatantly rear their ugly heads in US society and ER leadership was being challenged by women of color (WOC) for some of their problematic views on racism.” In response to this, a black woman, Amanda, was brought on to help the group correct these problems.
However, instead of heeding the advice Amanda brought, the leadership team regularly resorted to censorship. When Amanda asked for backup against racist attacks on her posts, she was told not to be so sensitive. When other leaders tried to come to her defense, they were “rebuked by leadership for being too radical and offensive.”
In discussions with other leaders behind Amanda’s back, Sierra White is said to have joined in painting her as an “overly hostile, wounded” person. That is, as White and ER leadership perceived it, the issue wasn’t that the group had become a safe place for white supremacy and racial animus to fester, but that a black woman refused to accept these offenses as a part of their work toward “women’s empowerment.”
According to these allegations, after Amanda chose to leave Ezer Rising leadership, White criticized her, by claiming, “some people stay in their victimhood for too long and encouraged [other leaders] to believe Amanda was acting out of being ‘too triggered.’”
Instead of noting and addressing these allegations, or the troubling prosperity ideology of Kindom Bliss, Toscano intentionally moves the goal posts, focusing only and exclusively on queer people; while brushing accusations of racism aside with a quick note that “[Sierra White] is biracial and constantly speaking out on racial reconciliation” and thus the allegations are “slanderous.”
However, as many anti-racism activists have noted, anti-blackness among Non-Black Persons of Color (NBPOC) is common and must be addressed. It is both possible for Sierra White to speak against racism in some instances, and engage in anti-black racism at others. By definition “slander” must be false, and rather than demonstrate any coherent evidence against the claims made, Toscano instead demonstrates her own ignorance on the dynamics of racism.
It is my opinion that Toscana very flippantly dismisses charges of racism as “slanderous” out of a desire to shift focus onto a supposedly bitter and angry group of queer people and their allies trying to seize control of the group and derail its message of “women’s empowerment.”
I believe that this choice of framing speaks heavily to who Toscano assumes her audience will be. She seems unsure they would support a direct attack on a black woman speaking against racism, but believes queer people are a fairly safe and easy target.
As such, she deflects the blame onto a mutually assumed “other” and makes the story about their unwarranted aggression, allowing Amanda’s narrative to be handily and quietly dismissed among the fray. Rather than recognized as a legitimate and important critique in their own right, worthy of consideration apart from the other allegations made, Amanda’s story is treated merely as an aspect of the agenda of these angry queer aggressors. Amanda is reduced to a tool in the agenda of malicious queer people working against a vision of “women’s empowerment” which excludes them.
This subtle framing stands in stark contrast to the way the original authors of these allegations handled Amanda’s story. In fact, as the reader may recall, these persons are very clear in admitting their own culpability in what happened to Amanda.
They state explicitly: “Those who are drafting this document have personally apologized to Amanda for this reason. As a team (Amanda included), the authors additionally want to apologize to women of color experiencing spiritual abuse who sought ER for refuge while they were in leadership. The authors’ partnership with the facade of safety ER projected allowed all of their hands to be involved in the continued abuse WOC endure in every space in which they engage.”
Which is to say, they don’t consider Amanda’s story a tool in their arsenal, they consider it a personal failure for which they must make reparations.
By glossing these details, and diminishing the testimony of Amanda Flowers Peterson, Toscano is functionally claiming that Amanda telling her story is also working against “women’s empowerment.” Toscano tacitly declares that fighting against racism is less important than making sure that the supposedly angry and bitter queer people, who refuse to keep their queerness in the groups for “LGBTQ+ issues,” don’t derail Ezer Rising’s mission.
In her desire to target queer people, to demonize them, and deny them basic human dignity by asking queer women to divorce their queerness from their womanhood, Toscano treats a black woman who encountered significant instances of racism as an acceptable casualty.
Rather than address the multiple points of abuse mentioned, Toscano moves the goalposts to justify her own antiqueer animus.
- Playing the Victim
After making herself the center of all meaning for everyone claiming hurt and abuse at the hands of Ezer Rising leadership, and after strongly implying that queer women are a distraction and unworthy of “women’s empowerment,” Toscano then goes on to claim that she is entirely innocent in all this.
She is sure people will try to go through “year old private messages” (sic) to find some fault in her, that they will try to assassinate her character. But she hasn’t actually done anything to hurt anyone. She’s just a mom with “noses to wipe” who is “not addicted to drama.” The only way to find fault in the engagement of this mild-mannered wife and mother would be to take things out of context out of malicious intent.
In contrast, the persons speaking up against abuse are described thus: “They will defend each other through countless passive aggressive social media posts. They will not have mercy. They will not stop. They must think it’s their calling and God’s will to bring God’s wrath upon you. That’s why no one publicly opposes their posts anymore. Everyone is afraid of them.”
These words cannot be emphasized enough. In Toscano’s own words. a queer woman asking for equality, and decrying the abuses she suffered for doing so, is the aggressor. Those who sought to dismiss her and treat her as less than fully “woman” are simply doing God’s work.
After setting herself up as the hero of all this, she engages in a classic conditioning method. She praises her audience for uncritically accepting her dishonest and bigoted claims. She tells them what they want to hear, that by accepting her narrative they are in fact practicing discernment and honoring Christ. They, like her, are the good people fighting to keep the onslaught of the LGBTQ+ agenda at bay.
But, the reality is, in order to establish this narrative Toscano has needed to engage in blatant dishonesty, move goal posts, blame victims, and center herself as arbiter of other people’s pain.
As I have argued above, it is my assertion that Noelle Toscano has ironically worked against herself. Rather than demonstrate the innocence of herself and of Sierra White and others involved with Ezer Rising, her so-called defense demonstrates the sort of toxic and abusive ideology that has been alleged against them..
However, I think there is still one more element important to be considered.
Specifically, I believe it is of note how, despite Toscano’s claims to the contrary, one can easily pull solely from her public statements since these allegations were made to suggest that she has, in fact, been complicit in these alleged abuses and involved in hurting other people.
Pictured here is Toscano’s accusations made against me in a public Facebook comment thread (link to this post provided above).
A few things are noteworthy here.
First, the utter dishonesty is staggering. I never claimed to be involved with Ezer Rising, beyond knowing one of the founders and having spoken with the persons bringing these allegations; and it seems odd to label something “smoke and mirrors” if it was never claimed.
Further, the notion that these allegations would have to directly impact me in order for me to be rightfully involved is an incredibly privileged take. I’m a cis queer white man, which means that, by this logic, I should never speak up about issues of misogyny or racism.
The reality is, it is not remotely relevant to the truth of these claims whether or not I have personal experienced these abuse.
It is further telling to note how this comment ends. As with the blog post, Toscano attempts to condition her audience to respond favorably. They are providing “insight” and showing “courage” and that gives Toscano “hope for humanity.” The contrast couldn’t be clearer.
Those who question her or those who uphold her position privilege are demonized and insulted, while those whom she believes she can use or manipulate are met with a saccharine sweet tone.
These trends continued in further engagements.
Notice again, the false claim. At no point have I claimed objectivity, or that I have listened to both sides. I never once claimed to have spoken to Sierra White; further, I was explicit that I had weighed the evidence presented to me and chosen a side.
Like the persons who brought these allegations, I am depicted as an aggressor who just needs a reason to be mad. I am a false advocate who is “constantly crusading in situations that [you] have nothing to do with.”
If I wanted people to actually like me, I wouldn’t stick my nose where it doesn’t belong.
I am thus labeled an enemy to the legitimate ministries of other good people.
In her continued attempt to discredit me, things took a turn for the absurd.
Besides the fact that reducing legitimate and necessary critique to “drama” is exactly what Ezer Rising has been accused of, this particular post contains a glaring contradiction which highlights Toscano’s consistently dishonest engagement well.
First, we are told, “I believe that these slanderous allegations over and over and over and over and over and over and over again are truly ridiculous.” Then, the redundancy of that statement aside, she claims, in direct contradiction, “Sierra made mistakes.”
If Sierra White made mistakes, which resulted in accusations of abusive and toxic ideology being brought against her, then at least some of these allegations are legitimate. Someone wishing to be consistent might make the claim that the hurt is real, the mistakes were made, but it is a step too far to call it abuse.
But that is entirely different from attempting to both call the allegations “slanderous” and excuse by insisting merely that “Sierra made mistakes.”
Either Noelle Toscano is playing with concepts she doesn’t understand, or simply has no regard for honest engagement. If the former, then there is a serious question raised about her ability to engage with and correctly assess the basic terms and categories necessary to weigh in on this issue. If the latter, well…make of that what you will.
It is a neat trick, for a person who serves on the leadership of Ezer Rising to insist that the people accused of fostering an abusive and toxic culture are in fact the good guys, and those accusing them are bitter, abusive, and vengeful.
It is even more telling for them to claim that, by asking for honest engagement, I am somehow inhibiting or even opposing their desire to be a good parent.
Yet that is exactly what Toscano did, after I pointed out the dishonesty and inconsistency in her claims repeatedly.* According to her, I’m so sensitive and hyper-offended, that I would find her caring for her children to be abusive toward me.
That is, instead of address the blatantly dishonest and self-contradictory nature of her comments, she instead tried to move the goalposts and make me somehow the enemy of basic motherhood.
As with her blog post, the goal behind Toscano’s words appears, in my personal estimation, to be less about truth and transparency, and more about puppy-guarding her own privilege and the platform of those who grant her the position of influence she desires.
The reality is, while the target here is myself, the glaring issues with her engagement here are equally present in her response to those bringing the allegations against Ezer Rising, and in fact entirely representative of specific abuses named therein.
After reading these public words from Noelle Toscano, I was more than a little surprised to learn from a source that her tone in a private exchange on April 20, 2018, had been entirely different.
I will present these photos with no comment, except to ask the reader to consider what insights these words may provide into the motives behind Toscano’s public engagement, and what they suggest about her willingness to engage with integrity in these matters.
In conclusion, it seems important to note once more that this is not a random defender or rogue operative. This is a key leader within Ezer Rising, acting on ER’s behalf. This engagement is representative of the sort of person Ezer Rising chooses to platform and name as a leader on their website.
No one needs to dig into “year old” (sic) private messages to find evidence that she is complicit in the abuses alleged within Ezer Rising (though ones from 8 months ago are enlightening). They merely need to look critically at her public responses in the past week.
I have clearly chosen a side here, as has Toscano. I am not a neutral party, and I will not claim to be. I am an advocate who has weighed the evidence made available, and acted according to what I believe to be right and just.
I do not take that choice lightly, and neither do any of the persons bringing these allegations
It is my opinion, and that of those persons who brought the original allegations, that Noelle Toscano’s public engagement is indicative of precisely the sort of toxic and abusive culture Ezer Rising has fostered within its ranks. Far from convincing anyone of their error, it has only further cemented our resolve that these critiques are necessary.
*While my side of the engagement has not been included her for the sake of brevity, it is publicly posted at the Facebook link provided above. The reader is encouraged to read and form their own judgment.
Update notice: On 1/29/19 this post was updated to correct a reference to Rene Picota as Amber’s “former spouse.” While Amber had previously made public statements the two had split up, they have since reconciled and the post was thus updated to reflect this.