Note: Some names have been withheld from this story to protect sources from retribution. Instead, the Mercury is identifying them using letters to differentiate quotes.

The Portland Japanese Garden, a lush and peaceful urban oasis located just outside downtown, is one of the city’s most prized natural and cultural attractions. But to many garden employees, the working experience has been less than tranquil.

Staff describe an atmosphere marked by denigrating language from the nonprofit’s leadership, and big spending on CEO salary, bonuses, and lavish travel. Garden employees, several of whom spoke to the Mercury on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, say they enjoy many parts of their job. But recent interactions with leadership have left a sour taste in their mouths. 

Under the leadership of CEO Steve Bloom, the Portland Japanese Garden has grown significantly over the past few years, and leaders have ambitious plans for its future. In recent years, the nonprofit has embarked on several large projects to increase the garden’s cultural and arts programming in Portland and establish a significant international presence. 

In the midst of such enterprising endeavors, however, many garden employees feel left behind and underpaid. They’re also afraid of what will happen if they speak up. 

Problematic language and reports of retaliation 

The Portland Japanese Garden was first conceived  in the late 1950s, just over a decade after the end of World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese immigrants across the United States were forced into internment camps for the duration of the war, and continued to face amplified racism and hostility once the war ended. With the Portland Japanese Garden, founders wanted to create a site that would “forge a healing connection” between the U.S. and Japan and their respective peoples. 

Another view of the Garden. Courtney vaughn

“At this time in U.S. history, Japanese gardens were founded across the country as a way to build cultural understanding,” the garden’s website states. “Needing no translation, an American could experience firsthand Japanese ideals and values, communicated simply through nature.” 

Over more than 50 years, the Japanese Garden has established itself as one of Portland’s finest cultural institutions, particularly for people interested in Japanese culture. To garden employees, this reputation is one of the primary reasons they wanted to work at the nonprofit. 

“I am half Japanese, and I wanted to be closer to my community, learn more about my culture, and take part in the Japanese cultural heritage,” one employee, identified herein as ‘A’, told the Mercury. “I’ve had some experiences in the past where I felt disrespected in other work environments, and that was also a factor in me wanting to be around people I felt would be more understanding and respectful.” 

Another staff member, B, described the garden as “the best place to work in Portland for someone interested in international relations and Asian culture.”

Employees were disheartened when they realized that despite their workplace’s ethos on paper, their managers at the garden don’t always appear to live out inclusive and anti-racist ideals. 

Garden staff told the Mercury there has been concern for some time about Bloom, the garden CEO who is a white man, using an anti-Japanese slur during speeches about the history of the organization. Employees report that when they asked Bloom to reconsider his use of the term, he doubled down on his stance, and workers who spoke up have since been disciplined. 

I am half Japanese, and I wanted to be closer to my community, learn more about my culture, and take part in the Japanese cultural heritage. -Japanese Garden employee

At the 2022 American Public Gardens Association’s Annual Conference, Bloom gave a version of the speech employees say he’s known for repeating during media interviews, events, and staff meetings. In the speech, Bloom describes the racist treatment the Portland Japanese Garden’s first director, Kinya Hira, faced in the 1960s while he was living in a trailer on garden grounds before it opened. 

(Note - December 13: At the time of publication, the Mercury linked to a public video of Bloom's speech from the Japanese Garden's YouTube channel. The video has since been made private or deleted.)

Bloom became emotional while speaking about Hira’s experience at the garden. He said people protested the concept of a Japanese Garden in Portland, badly beat Hira, and defaced his trailer with an offensive, anti-Japanese slur, which Bloom repeated. 

To Bloom, the story is meant to highlight the prejudice people of Japanese ancestry faced after World War II and the controversial nature of building a Japanese garden in Portland at that time. 

“What we’re trying to do is be honest about [our history],” Bloom said in an interview with the Mercury. He added that Hira has given Bloom his permission to retell his story, since he’s no longer fit to travel and share it himself. “We’re trying to make sure that we get his story right, and that we convey what he wanted to convey… it’s not uncomplicated, and we’re thoughtful about using it only in the context of telling our story in a meaningful way.” 

But staff members find the language offensive, and say Bloom could get the message across without stating the slur outright. At a staff meeting in early November, employees felt they had an opportunity to relay their feelings to him. 

“They didn't call him out. They just said it had come up that Japanese American staff, especially, are uncomfortable with that word being used, and asked how we could prevent it from happening again in the future,” employee A, who was present at the staff meeting, told the Mercury

According to employees who attended the meeting, Bloom reacted by comparing the request to book banning and telling staff, “We can’t all hold hands and sing Kumbaya.” Employees said his response felt “very demeaning” to staff in the room, who were on the same page about their discomfort with his use of the word. 

It’s not uncomplicated, and we’re thoughtful about using it only in the context of telling our story in a meaningful way. -Steve Bloom

Later, employees report those who spoke up were reprimanded by management and told they had been disrespectful to Bloom by speaking up.

“The staff were expressing concerns in a way that I felt was completely respectful, and they were basically retaliated against,” another garden employee, C, told the Mercury. “It really shifted my perspective of working here, and has made me a lot more concerned about being open about my thoughts from here on out.” 

Bloom said he’s both sensitive to employee concerns, and to making sure he tells Hira’s story in a way that honors his history. He also said that as a gay man, he has personal experience being the victim of hate crimes and prejudice. 

“And I lived in Hawaii [as a white man], where I was also kicked to the ground and beaten by my neighbor who didn't want my kind in his neighborhood,” Bloom said. “So I understand these issues in a very personal way.” 

Bloom disavowed the retaliation employees say they experienced in the aftermath of the meeting, and promised to investigate any instances of retribution. 

Employees said Board President Drake Snodgrass has also used the slur at events. Snodgrass, the CEO of landscaping company Drake’s 7 Dees, is married to Lynn Snodgrass, the former Republican state representative known for her anti-environmentalist, extremist Christian agenda. Drake Snodgrass declined to be interviewed for this story. 

Staff members say the behavior from Bloom and other executive employees exacerbates their other negative experiences at work. Employee A said garden guests have made inappropriate comments to her in the past, and she wants to feel supported by her managers when she brings up those experiences. 

“There’s not much you can do about [ignorance and unpleasant questions from guests], because the garden is supposed to be a place for people to come and have their ideas about a different culture changed and hopefully experience something new,” A said, but she knows other Asian employees have left their job in the past due to this treatment. 

“For that reason, it’s especially hurtful that they won’t listen to us,” she said. 

Employees say while they were upset about garden leaders using the word, Bloom’s reaction to being asked to stop was “completely unacceptable,” removing the possibility he didn’t know his use of the slur was offensive. Staff members feel the incident was swept under the rug after the meeting. 

“There was understandably a lot of anger and frustration. But it's all been kept very on the down-low because of a fear of retaliation,” A said. “As far as I’m aware, it’s never been addressed. There’s been no statement made about it, no apology, nothing. They basically moved on like it never happened.” 

Bloom told the Mercury he saw the conversation at the November meeting as just the beginning of a longer dialogue about the issue. Since he’s been traveling for the last few weeks, that dialogue has had to wait. 

“We’re a place of peace, that’s what we’re supposed to be. I want to make sure my staff feel comfortable,” Bloom said. “That being said, we had one conversation, and we haven’t had a chance yet to follow up on it. That part of it caught me a little by surprise… I’m just sorry that the need was felt to snowball it out into the public instead of being able to have a further dialogue about it.” 

Employees said they tried to have a dialogue, and it didn’t go anywhere. 

“If there was a way to [have the conversation] internally, I think the opportunity’s gone now,” A said. “We’re trying to put a little more pressure on them to see that this is something that’s important to us, since they just haven’t listened at all so far.” 

There’s been no statement made about it, no apology, nothing. They basically moved on like it never happened. -Japanese Garden employee

Glaring wage gaps

During that same November meeting with Bloom, staff also brought up concerns over low pay. While most customer service workers at the garden earn close to minimum wage, tax documents show Bloom made close to $1 million in 2021.

People present at the staff meeting said Bloom didn’t make any promises to increase customer service wages, and even said that since the majority of employees at the garden are seasonal staff working part-time while they’re in college, “they aren’t looking for a living wage.” 

In an interview with the Mercury, Bloom said many front-facing employees at the garden just started their positions in the last year, so they “haven’t seen what we’ve done over the last several years.” According to Bloom, the nonprofit decided to offer across-the-board cost of living increases to staff in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, and now they pay competitive wages. He said seasonal workers’ pay “tends to be lower, because those are college students who are just there for a summer job.” 

“They're not career track [at the garden], they're there to earn summer money while they're going to school,” Bloom said. 

Employees told the Mercury Bloom’s assertion isn’t true: They are looking to make a living wage, and many staff members have graduated college, some with masters degrees. Most customer service workers at the garden report earning roughly $16-18 an hour— several dollars less than the $21.95 cost of a ticket into the facilities. 

“That’s the easiest way to show the inequity in what we're getting paid,” Employee D said. “We can work an hour here and not even afford a ticket into the place.”

One employee also described being saddled with an overwhelming workload during the busy season, which, at the direction of his managers, he had to complete without clocking in for overtime hours.

During the November meeting with Bloom, employees report the CEO said raising the starting wage for customer service staff  “takes years.”  

Meanwhile, Bloom is paid exceptionally well for his position as CEO of a nonprofit. According to tax documents, Bloom was paid a base salary of $377,019 in 2022, and received an $88,028 merit bonus on top of that. In 2021, Bloom’s base salary was $327,299, and he received an eye-popping bonus of $632,792, bringing his total reported compensation that year to nearly $1 million. That same year, the Japanese Garden received just over $1.1 million in pandemic-related PPP loans that were forgiven. 

We can work an hour here and not even afford a ticket into the place. -Japanese Garden employee

In addition to his salary and bonuses, the Portland Japanese Garden Society pays the monthly dues for Bloom’s family membership to the Multnomah Athletic Club, “primarily used…for business purposes.” 

Bloom said that salary bump can mostly be attributed to a $500,000 bonus he received for his completion of the Cultural Crossing site expansion in 2017, which he took as deferred incentive compensation to be paid out in 2021. He said IRS forms don’t always accurately convey how much take-home pay he received in any given year, due to unique reporting requirements for these kinds of incentive bonuses. 

Such high compensation is unusual for nonprofit organizations that earn comparable revenues. In 2022, the garden, which employs about 170 people, brought in roughly $14.5 million. By comparison, Portland nonprofits with similar earnings, like Hacienda Community Development Corporation, Do Good Multnomah, and Impact NW all pay their CEOs and executive directors less than $200,000. The CEO of the Oregon Food Bank, which takes in about $106 million in annual revenue, earns about $190,000 per year. 

Lisa Christy, the garden’s chief external affairs officer, told the Mercury the organization hired an independent consultant to determine Bloom’s salary. The consultant looked at comparable organizations in Portland and elsewhere to “make sure [Bloom’s] compensation was not much different.”

Christy also said the nonprofit provides annual bonuses to all staff, including those who work in lower-paying positions, when the budget allows. The amount of a typical bonus payment is a percentage of an employee’s salary, so higher paid staff will earn significantly more. That data isn’t shown in the nonprofit’s 990 forms, but an employee who earns a little more than minimum wage confirmed with the Mercury they received a bonus of just over $600 last year. 

Bloom’s vision for the nonprofit spans far beyond the Japanese Garden. The garden took on the $37.5 million “Cultural Crossing” expansion in 2017, adding galleries, libraries, and more opportunities to “discover the richness and wisdom of Japanese culture” to the site. In 2022, the garden established the Japan Institute, a “global cultural initiative” the nonprofit wants to establish as an “international hub for world leaders, artists, gardeners, and scholars.” The Japan Institute contains the Global Center for Culture and Art, International Exchange Forum, and the International Japanese Garden Training Center.

Because of the international endeavors the nonprofit has recently embarked on, Bloom and garden board members, donors, and partners often travel abroad. From 2022 to 2024, the Japan Institute’s International Exchange Forum set out to host six “Peace Symposia” in six different countries, meant to be a platform for discussing “the evolving role of public spaces as the platform for peacebuilding and community engagement.” 

So far, Peace Symposia have been held in Tokyo, London, New York, and Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2024, the events are planned for São Paulo, Brazil and Sydney, Australia. 

Bloom travels to Japan several times a year, and he and other major garden stakeholders were recently in Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. All of this travel adds up: In 2022, the garden spent $273,625 on travel. 

According to Christy, the organization has partnerships with Delta and hotels to help cover some of the travel costs. Christy also said the travel expenses include bringing people from Japan to Portland for artist residencies, lectures, training events, and more. 

“As an organization dedicated to Japanese culture, we're trying to do our best to make sure we stay as connected and authentic as possible,” Christy told the Mercury. “That's why you might see a little more travel with our organization. It’s a way to make sure that we are being true to the culture.” 

The garden’s front-facing staff told the Mercury they are interested in the work their organization is doing abroad. But they don’t want it to come at the detriment of the people working on the ground in Portland, and they’re concerned about the large disparity between Bloom’s pay and travel expenses and what they earn. 

"We're engaging in a lot of these really big, long-term, multimillion dollar projects, while staffers struggle to buy groceries," Employee C said. 

Staff describe a “huge sense of elitism” among upper management. 

“At the end of the day, we front-of-house folks are the ones who keep the whole place running and bring in a stable income for the organization through memberships, retail, and ticket sales,” B said. “You would expect for an organization who wants to present a good image, they would care about us more.” 

The Future 

Every employee who spoke to the Mercury said they want to work at the Portland Japanese Garden— that’s why they don’t want to attach their names to any statements that might jeopardize their futures there. They cite positive, close-knit relationships with their fellow front-facing staff as an especially promising perk of the job. But they said the situation with management has become untenable. 

“One thing that rubs a lot of employees the wrong way is that when there are interactions with senior staff, they’re usually talking about how much money the garden has raised for some project or other,” Employee D said. “People definitely think in that moment, ‘If the garden is raising so much money, how come I’m making subsistence wages?’” 

Another employee, E, said their goal is not to “get [Bloom] canceled or make him pay,” but rather to “show there needs to be accountability.” 

“It’s such a frustrating thing to work there, love the place, love the people you work with, and see people at the top be so naive or ignorant to the actual needs and thoughts of their employees,” E said. 

Employees want to feel comfortable addressing workplace concerns without being afraid of losing their jobs or getting in trouble. 

If the garden is raising so much money, how come I’m making subsistence wages? -Japanese Garden employee

“I think it would be a completely different story if [Bloom] was completely unaware that he was being offensive, and then took that very seriously and looked to make amends,” Employee C said. “I would love to see staff actually listen to feedback about how that conversation should have gone and open up channels for us to raise our concerns without being fearful of this happening again.” 

Employee B said the recent events have “really changed [their] opinion of the place.” 

“The Japanese Garden I was proud to work for suddenly seemed like it was all built around serving one man’s ambition,” B said. But they also said they’re optimistic about the future. 

“In the garden’s 60 years of history, this feels like a recent change,” B said. “I still believe in the magic of the garden’s original goals, and that it can get better.