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'You can’t celebrate us without creating a seat for us'
The Chief Diversity Officer problem came to a head last night
In all my years covering Worcester, I’ve been on record with all sorts of criticisms of the city administration, from deeply reported and substantive examinations of its shortcomings to off-the-cuff invective. I don’t think I’ve ever, through all that time, been on record saying that Ed Augustus is a stupid person. He is a highly intelligent and politically cunning man, and that is what makes him dangerous.
His political aim is a Worcester that is worse for people like you and me. I’ve shouted that from the mountaintops. However, I don’t think I’ve ever said he’s not good at achieving his aim.
That’s why I’m going to leave his comments last night on the departure of our Chief Diversity Officer Stephanie Williams right up here as an epigraph of sorts—something to reference and seriously disentangle as we get into this whole mess. It was a masterful bit of rhetorical gymnastics.
Here’s the bulk of his comment, minus a few points better left paraphrased:
I don’t claim to be an expert in how to dismantle structural and institutional racism. That’s some big stuff. This city is 300 years old. These systems have been built up over 300 years and it’s gonna take more than just Stephanie Williams or Ed Augustus or anyone in this room to dismantle them. And we’re going to have to stay at it. And we’re going to have false starts and we’re going to have frustrations and we’re going to have failures and we’re going to have disappointments but we have to be committed to it. That’s why I’m proud of, in the 300 year history of the city, I’m the first person to sign an executive order acknowledging the reality of it and committing ourselves as a city government to dismantling it, because that’s important work.
And I would just leave with this. We all have to be open—I am completely open—because if we’re going to actually get this done, we can’t come at this work like we know all the answers. I have learned every single day I have been in this job, and as soon as we stop learning and as soon as we stop being open to understanding and appreciating things that we may not have been exposed to or understood before, then we’re not going to be able to do our job well.
I guess I’ll leave with this, and it’s something a history professor once told me. History is the measure of how far we’ve come. Morality is the measure of how far we have to go. So we have come a long way, but we have a long way to go.
I for one, and it sounds like every member of this council, is committed to continuing that journey.
He then went on to say that Eric Batista, assistant city manager, will do a good job filling in for the chief diversity officer and that there are significant disconnects in the way different departments do their hiring that make the CDO job difficult.
It was an impressive sleight of hand to invoke the 300-year history of the city and position himself within that as being the first city manager to sign an executive order creating a chief diversity officer.
Impressive or not, a sleight of hand is a sleight of hand.
Baked into that bit of rhetoric is an implicit assumption that Augustus created the position of his own volition—and, as the tone of his comments would suggest—in a high-minded act of benevolent governance toward a righteous end.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Cue the meme of the moment:
Why can’t we keep a chief diversity officer?
My brother in Christ, you structured the position.
The Chief Diversity Officer was not some idea born from the genius brain of a city manager who walks like god among men. It was a direct demand made by racial justice activists amid the first wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Much like Augustus’ decision to remove cops from schools last year, it was a response to the demands of the community, and only a partial response at that. It was, however, Augustus who created the job description and structured the position and it’s to Augustus that this position directly reports. The aspects of the job that are forcing smart and talented black women to leave at a clip rest solely on him.
This is why Augustus is such a powerful foe. He presented in his comments the decision to hire a chief diversity officer as a historic act of benevolence, when in reality it was a capitulation. But he does an incredible job of positioning himself as the adult in the room among the petty squabbling of the City Council that most people are just going to accept his framing. He has, over the near decade he’s been city manager, completely sublimated the council to his will. They don’t dictate policy to him, they wait for him to dictate policy to them. As a political dynamic, it is ass-backward to the way our system of government should function, quirky as it is. We got here because Augustus is cunning and the Council is, on average, the very opposite of cunning.
As a city, it seems we don’t really think about this dynamic at all, and a big reason why is that even more so than the council, Augustus has won over the local press. It’s the Worcester Renaissance, baby! And Augustus is the ‘Man With The Plan.’ Every single ~mainstream~ news outlet in the city has willfully and gleefully participated in this blatant hagiography. Let’s Go Baseball! Any voice to the contrary, such as my outlet and its comparatively small reach, is dismissed thoughtlessly as “naysaying” and its concerns are delegitimized. Albeit on a much smaller and less nightmarish scale, it is very much reminiscent of the 2003 “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” sort of vibe of the national press.
While it is on the outlets themselves (and let the Worcester Business Journal’s stellar work on Polar Park be a testament to it), it’s also a problem of our beleaguered local press corps. There are so few reporters being asked to produce so much content with all the media consolidation diminishing the ranks of reporters around the country. The Worcester Renaissance narrative is, frankly, a hell of a lot easier to write about than anything that would rub up against it. If you’re a reporter and you have to file two stories a day, and the Worcester Renaissance story involves a 10-minute press release rewrite, and the serious examination of that narrative requires hours upon hours of research and interviews and fighting with the city’s press team, which are you going to pick? The easy way out is to just dutifully report what the manager says, and trust me, I have been there before. It sucks. Convictions tend to fly out the window when faced with content requirements that determine your employment.
All this to say: a complicit council and complicit local media allows Augustus to get away with saying ‘Hey, I’m trying, okay?’—albeit in a cunning way—on the chief diversity officer issue and effectively absolve himself.
Look close enough at this issue, however, and his narrative starts to fall apart.
Before I get into the substance of this issue, a plug is in order. I would never in a million years be able to publish this post in any of our local media outlets. The Worcester Sucks project exists in intentional opposition to the forces which make our local media so unquestioning and complicit and boring. With this platform, I’m allowed the time and space to seriously tangle with issues I would not be allowed to at any of the traditional outlets—and It’s only possible with reader support. That’s the only way I make any money at all off this and it’s now my sole source of steady income. So if unflinching local journalism is important to you, please consider joining those who give me a small amount of money every month/year to keep this project going. And if you’re already a subscriber, you are the best boss I could ask for :-)
Now that we got the plug out of the way, some background to catch us up…
Stephanie Williams is the city’s third chief diversity officer since the city created the position in 2016, and she’s leaving.
Her departure, which came to light about a week and a half ago, raised some immediate red flags among the folks who follow this stuff. The local NAACP chapter, led by Fred Taylor, came out with what was to my mind the strongest statement. He said the organization would be pulling out of the city’s 300-year anniversary festivities until demands were met. Augustus responded in kind with a statement pooh-poohing the organization for not participating.
At the City Council meeting last week, councilors Khrystian King and Thu Nguyen were able, at the end of the meeting, to sneak in a quick conversation about the issue. King called for a substantive report. Nguyen underscored the importance of the position to the community. No other councilor joined them in talking about the issue, despite the fact it was obviously the biggest deal of the current moment and remains that way.
After the meeting, Williams herself released a statement which both answered questions and further condemned the administration. She wrote:
A chief diversity officer is a disruptor because we are expected to challenge the status quo. We are positioned to point out incongruence between organizational values and apparent contradictions that plague our practices, procedures, and policies. Many of the current structures and practices in place revealed a disconnect between organizational and institutional impact needed in order for this work to be successful.
After that, Nguyen tried to file an order for the City Council agenda meeting. In a post on Friday, they demonstrated how City Hall tried to neuter their demand. Nguyen compared it quite brilliantly to the Wish meme.
Thu filed an order asking the city manager to hire a real consultant with real diversity expertise to do three things: create a report with findings on what the position needs to be successful, anti-racism training for city staff, and a report on how to better retain and recruit BIPOC employees.
The law department read the order and sent back revised language—something Nguyen didn’t ask for and something that I don’t think is common practice. The city clerk is supposed to be unbiased and just put the councilor’s orders on the agenda. That the law department reviewed the item speaks to some measure of interference and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was interference from Augustus himself. It is not, and should not be, the normal course of business that every councilor’s order is first submitted to the law department for a rewrite. Councilors can ask the law department for an opinion, but any interference short of that is an obvious circumvention of the legal process of the council. No freakin bueno! Who knows how many times this has happened? If Nguyen didn’t post about it, we’d have no idea.
This is what the law department sent to Thu.
“Request City Manager provide City Council with a report concerning best practices used by other communities to recruit, create career pathways and retain BIPOC employees, including but not limiting to the feasibility of using external Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEl) consultants with a long, reputable history of working experience with Black communities and intersectional racial justice issues in addition to Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and new migrant communities.”
Cutting through the legalese, what the law department is saying here is Nguyen can request that the city manager put together a report on the issue himself, and that in that report, he can consider whether or not he thinks it’s a good idea to hire an outside consultant. That’s what “feasibility” means in this context. “Feasibility” is legal shorthand for “if Ed wants to.”
Instead of kowtowing to the law department, Nguyen refiled their order with slightly altered language—an importantly defiant move.
Through sheer force of will, Nguyen’s order made it onto the agenda and forced a conversation. And if they hadn’t, it’s far less certain that Augustus would have committed to hiring an outside consultant to come look at things.
The item was lent an additional credence the night before the meeting when the city manager’s diversity and inclusion advisory committee voted to literally disband itself because, as Chairwoman Leigh Woodruff said, they “started to feel complicit.”
“If we continued to go through the motions,” she said, “we were saying that everything was ok. That having this committee and a CDO was enough. It is not and it never will be.”
So with that in the not-too-distant past, Nguyen’s item went to the City Council last night for a conversation which went about as expected and culminated with Augustus’ above bit of rhetorical trickery.
But it opened with Nguyen, who picked up where Woodruff left off. They said City Hall needs to reckon with the fact Williams said in her statement that the organization is not ready to take on the work of attacking institutional racism.
“Why are we not ready?” Thu asked.
Then Nguyen, who is not only nonbinary but historically nonbinary, given they’re the first elected official in state history to publically identify in such a way, gave an example. Someone in the HR department—the HR department!—told them in a meeting they were glad Nguyen was on the council and that there were “more women in these roles.” If your HR department can’t get pronouns right, then you know what, maybe as an organization you aren’t ready to have a chief diversity officer. Maybe Williams was right on that one.
Nguyen then focused on the mayor, saying he celebrated in his inauguration speech the most diverse city council and school committee ever elected.
“The city cannot celebrate us without creating an actual seat for us at the table, especially one we earned and fought for,” they said.
And that just cuts right to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? Is Augustus, as he said, learning and growing and weighing history against morality? He’s obligated to complete the work of racial equity but neither is he free to abandon it? Or did he willfully create a position that looks good on paper but is toothless in practice? The compromise here is that he created a toothless position by accident but with good intentions. I personally feel that’s generous and I have about eight Freedom of Information Act requests in with the city right now that might give us a clearer picture. But for now, all we’ve got is William’s statement and Augustus’ statement. We don’t know what really went on.
Regardless of what any investigation yields, we will understand Augustus’ intentions through how he responds to Nguyen’s call for an independent review of the position. Will this be a priority he takes seriously? Or try to let it blow over? That’s how we’ll know.
The rest of the council conversation made me feel like this…
…and I won’t punish you as I was punished with all the details. However, some good lol moments: Kate Toomey went full “all positions matter” and said there’s high turnover at other departments we should also look at. King called her on it, saying we’re talking about the CDO and bringing other departments into the conversation both waters it down and draws false equivalents. Toomey got back up in a huff and said she was not in fact doing an “all positions matter” or trying to minimize the issue. Nice save, Kate.
Candy Mero-Carlson said “I know what it’s like” which… sure. Then she left us with this entirely cryptic bit of inside baseball:
“The one thing, though, that I do want to say, and one of my colleagues said it earlier. How can we be helpful? How can this entire council be helpful and not just some at the table? Because we all know… that that’s what’s happened. This entire council should be at the table to be helpful to move us in the right direction.”
Donna Colorio and Moe Bergman were smarter than Toomey or Mero-Carlson and decided not to speak on this one.
Everyone else was agreeable.
Sarai Rivera complimented the administration on the good work they’ve done and said the council needs to do what it can to help them continue to do good work. She didn’t have to say any of that. She could have stood with the councilors using their position to push the city manager and not praise him. But she didn’t. Disappointing, but what are you going to do?
So now the ball is in Augustus’ court and we’re going to see if he means what he said. Or if he retires before he shows us one way or the other, which is entirely possible and also would be a tacit confirmation that all that stuff about being “committed to this journey” was a crock of shit.
This entire drama—and the fact Augustus publicly committed to an outside audit—hangs on Nguyen’s decision to disregard the law department’s rewrite of their order. That was a bold move and a huge win for the good guys. If we ever find out who instructed the law department to rewrite Thu’s order, it would give us a much better sense of who’s the real bad guy.
Huge news coming out today from Living In Freedom Together (LIFT). Apparently there has been a longtime abuser of prostituted women at the St. John’s Soup Kitchen who was protected by the church. Here’s part of the statement from LIFT
Survivors deserve and demand accountability. Only after a reporter questioned the diocese and only after a survivor came forward herself to make a direct report (in light of the diocese’s stance that it would not take action without “first hand” information), Mr. Reilly has been placed on leave and an investigation is forthcoming. However, given its years of inaction, it is clear that the diocese is reluctant, at best, to acknowledge the situation let alone take responsibility for it. LIFT questions the integrity of an investigation paid for by the church. We strongly urge the diocese to act and remove Father Madden immediately. Father Madden did nothing when he received reports from abuse victims. He did nothing when he witnessed Mr. Reilly taking prostituted women from the soup kitchen to live with him in his home. If Father Madden had done something, anything, this abuse would not have spanned decades. Father Madden’s inaction enabled and empowered Mr. Reilly.
Prostitution is an act of power wielding violence, and it is always our community’s most vulnerable that suffer at the hands of perpetrators. Women were forced to choose between access to food and warmth or stopping the abuse and that is not fair or just. We demand justice for Survivors and are proud of those who came forward to use their voices to stop this egregious violation of human rights.
The reporter mentioned here is probably John Lavenburg for Crux, a vertical focused on the Catholic Church that I didn’t know existed until today. But in any case, Crux is on the the story.
Hey! You wanna see me try to do comedy and bomb hard? Tonight’s the night. The only night ever! First AND last night!
We go on at 8 p.m. on the Wootenanny Twitch stream. You don’t need Twitch to watch it but it is a nicer experience if you have the app. Free and easy to download.
Speaking of Twitch we had another great Worcester Council Theater 3000 stream last night, and the presence of Johanna Hampton-Dance made it even better. She rules. I’m still cracking up about how she said here in Worcester we have “the most diverse racist city in the world.” Put that on a freakin’ t-shirt!
As always if you appreciate my work please consider a paid subscription or even just a free subscription or even just tell your friends about it :-)
Okay, more soon! Now I mentally prepare to bomb.