The Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital is finally set to educate employees about diversity nearly two years after the state Human Rights Commission found discrimination against workers of color. But not all racial justice advocates are satisfied with the long-awaited remediation plan.
The state Department of Mental Health is hiring ReGeneration Resources of Brattleboro to offer a one-time training to its 200 hospital employees on bullying and harassment, such terms as “implicit bias,” and how to report and respond to problems and “contribute to the creation and maintenance of a healthy, cohesive workplace culture.”
“Our hope is this will help us ensure that we have a positive workforce culture addressing some of the issues that have come up,” state Mental Health Commissioner Sarah Squirrell says.
The Human Rights Commission called for training after releasing a January 2018 report that found more than a decade of “repeated hostile, offensive and racist comments and actions” at the Berlin facility. There, one employee faced calls of “chocolate boy” and found the N-word scrawled on his car windshield, a second was told she commuted on “the welfare bus” and still others were tagged “nappy” and offered a stereotypical spread of fried chicken and watermelon.
The state has sought a training provider three times in the past 22 months. It requested help presenting with a one-time program without specifying a price range last fall, only to add a $10,000 spending cap when it re-advertised the call this spring.
In response, Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Brattleboro-based Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, asked why the hospital wasn’t developing a larger, long-term agenda.
“There’s no directive that this is part of any overall strategy of inclusion and equity,” Reed said earlier this year as he pointed to news reports about how the state’s last try at training spurred white workers to arrive with the watermelon. “The $10,000 would be better spent bringing on a consultant to help them develop a coherent and comprehensive approach. In the absence of one, you’re just throwing away taxpayer money.”
The state ultimately chose not to award a contract this spring but instead issued a third call this summer that increased the budget to $20,000 to add an undefined assessment “to determine the type of training needed by employees.”
That didn’t appease Reed, who’s interested in the issue not only as a leader of color but also as a longtime provider of bias-awareness and anti-discrimination education for the State Police, departments of Human Resources and Tourism and Marketing and municipalities from Burlington to Brattleboro.
Reed believes ridding the hospital of racism will require more time and money than a one-session training. He notes after the release of the 2009 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report “Racial Profiling in Vermont,” State Police launched what’s now a decade-long effort to educate leadership, new troopers and those in middle ranks.
“You do this in an effective and groundbreaking way,” he says, “and everyone else will follow.”
When Reed first sought to share his concerns with the Department of Mental Health this spring, state officials said they couldn’t speak with him until the selection process was over because he was a potential bidder for the contract and they didn’t want to appear to be giving him “an unfair advantage.”
Reed eventually was invited to meet with officials this summer — only to discover they were calling for another round of bids and still couldn’t discuss the issue.
Reed’s nonprofit didn’t bid on either the spring or summer calls for training.
“The reissuance of the request is putting lipstick on a pig — there were virtually no changes other than the addition of some vague assessment,” he says. “The question remains: What is their strategy to change the hostile culture? How do you try to move to a more inclusive and equitable anti-racist work environment? That’s what missing.”
In response, Squirrell says the $20,000 contract will pay for a two-to-three-week assessment this fall that will use staff surveys, interviews and focus groups to determine what’s needed in two half-day trainings for each employee this winter.
“I certainly understand the need for ongoing training,” she says. “My commitment is to utilize this as a springboard. This initial contract is to get us started.”