Alerted by an all-staff email outlining on-the-job racial discrimination earlier this year, St. Louis County said this week it is “renewing its commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
The county’s statement comes as additional information suggests the contrary, including a County Board training session sources described as “awful” and “a failure” for the lack of engagement by a majority of board members.
The county’s issues with racial discrimination surfaced in a report last week by Minnesota Public Radio. The report outlined how John Staine, an employee in the assessor’s department, was singled out by Duluth courthouse security for being Black and despite wearing a badge that indicates his employment.
In the incident, Staine described making small talk with a female county worker when court security interrupted and asked, according to Staine: “Do you work here?”
Describing the incident as a tipping point related to an accumulation of similar incidents, Staine sent an all-staff email in January introducing himself to county employees as a way to bridge the gap with his majority white peers.
“You get to the point where you don’t want to be seen as the angry Black person,” Staine told the News Tribune. “The reaction to those instances was building up for me. It was my way of letting them know, ‘Hey, I’m here. Acknowledge that I'm here. Acknowledge that I do work here. I live in the Twin Ports, so acknowledge that I’m a part of the city.”
All told, St. Louis County said it investigated four incidents reported by Staine.
Human Resources Director Jim Gottschald said the results of those investigations is not public information.
He seemed to excuse multiple complaints by saying court security is part time, that staff is expected to sweep the building at the conclusion of every day at 4:30 p.m., and that the Sheriff’s Office directs employees not to let others piggyback building entry on key-card swipes outside of office hours in the interest of security.
“There are many employees, citizens and (court) hearing participants, including from diverse populations, passing through the county facilities every day,” Gottschald told the News Tribune in emailed responses to questions. “Candidly, (court security) just don’t personally know all the employees who work in the courthouses, because they spend much of their time inside of the courtrooms during their work days.”
Staine contradicted that by saying there have been times in which several white county workers pass by before he’s been confronted.
“You’re saying you know all of them except for one, two or three persons of color?” Staine said.
St. Louis County commissioners Beth Olson and Frank Jewell both addressed the issue, praising Staine and acknowledging an example yet to be set by the board whole.
A County Board training arranged by Olson in February was designed to address power and privilege. Openly gay and the board’s only woman, she said she had been undercut at times in meetings by Commissioner Keith Nelson, who declined to speak for this story. The training was intended to open eyes to the position of privilege held by white male board members.
“It probably was a failure because the trainers did not fully understand how bad it could be,” said Jewell, who lunched with Staine following his all-staff email.
“We can’t have a safe conversation about it on the board at this point," Olson said.
Olson, who is leaving the board with the expiration of her term at the end of the year, said the board needs to be supportive and involved in anti-racist work.
She remains hopeful the County Board will step up into a leadership role requisite of its position as one of the area’s top employers with nearly 2,000 employees.
“One person can set a tone, but only if we allow them to,” she said, describing how majority white leaders at the county need to step back and listen.
In 2013, the county adopted a revised discrimination policy, which Gottschald said yielded mandatory agencywide discrimination, harassment and retaliation training throughout the years, most recently in 2013 and 2018 — in addition to a wide array of rolling training sessions that reach departments at other times.
“I do believe the diversity and inclusion training we offer is achieving the desired impact, but also recognize our work will likely never be done on this front,” Gottschald said.
He added that the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody earlier this year has redoubled the county’s attention to the matter, leading to the assembly of a department head team, to go with an existing “diversity action team,” aimed at addressing social injustices and systemic inequalities.
We could not be more proud to call John Staine a UWS alum and for the ways he is changing the narrative and addressing systemic racism. Thank you @MPRnews for sharing John’s story. #WeStandTogether https://t.co/wSXFLQQeWK— UW-Superior (@uw_superior) July 16, 2020
As for Staine, challenges remain. He outlined with the News Tribune two instances in the field in which homeowners threatened gun violence if he didn't leave their property during his assessment work.
"That was certainly part of the frustration of not feeling heard or seen, especially while doing my job," Staine said.
Staine noted that his all-staff email, which was supported by his supervisor, Mary Garness, and received more than 200 widely supportive responses, wasn't done solely for introductions.
"I mentioned in the letter, 'I want to make you all feel comfortable,'" he said. "But more so, I want to make sure I'm feeling safe."
Staine has since accepted an invitation from Judge Jill Eichenwald to join the Sixth Judicial District Equal Justice Committee, which Eichenwald chairs.
“I don’t expect an outcome for myself. I know that will happen now because of how vocal I was,” Staine said. “What I expect is moving forward the next person of color that works in that building, they don’t get questioned.”