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SFMTA adopts plan to root out racism amid accusations of discrimination

Mallory Moench

Dec 16, 2020

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board adopted a plan Tuesday to root out racism within the agency and declared “anti-Black racism” a human rights and public health crisis in the city.

The SFMTA — whose leadership is disproportionately white — doles out harsher punishments for transit operators, who are overwhelmingly people of color, and Black employees more often than white workers who commit the same offenses, the agency’s data revealed. Employees have sued the agency and the city for racial discrimination, most recently last week, as the agency reckons with what its director Jeffrey Tumlin called a racist past.

“We as Black people have to endure these hardships every single day,” Kathy Broussard, a Black employee who sued the agency for racial discrimination, told The Chronicle. “To have to endure the day to day traumas from your place of employment is unbelievable.”

“It should not ever be optional to treat one employee of one race this way and another one that way. Gone are the days of hiding behind unconscious bias and implicit bias,” she added.

Tumlin acknowledged the agency’s problems and took ownership of the plan to tackle them during Tuesday’s board meeting.

“We’ve got to be candid about the ways, particularly those of us in power, are often complicit at perpetuating inequities within this agency and reflect on our responsibility for correcting that complicitness in every moment,” Tumlin told the board. “I’m committed to earning trust by making rapid and meaningful progress on action steps outlined in this report.”

The city’s Office of Racial Equity, founded last year, mandated that each city department produce a racial equity plan, to be submitted by the end of 2020. The SFMTA’s plan approved Tuesday contains around 90 action steps to root out racism in seven areas — hiring, promotion, discipline, leadership, professional development, organizational culture and boards. It includes timelines and who is responsible for making the changes happen, which Tumlin said would provide accountability.

Directors also passed a resolution Tuesday declaring anti-Black racism a human rights and public health crisis, similar to a resolution passed by the city’s Human Rights Commission this year. The transit agency’s resolution acknowledged transportation had historically contributed to racism and pledged to hold employees accountable for anti-Black bias.

The SFMTA’s reckoning over race boiled over in an emotional board meeting last month when staff presented a draft of the plan to achieve racial equity. Broussard and other employees implored the agency to address racism.

Broussard sued the city alleging years of discrimination and harassment by a white male supervisor who she said called her racial slurs, slandered her sexual reputation and told her complaining to the city’s equal employment opportunity office was one of the “seven deadly sins.” Her lawsuit also alleged she was passed over for a promotion after reporting complaints about him, and said the agency offered little to no response to her complaints.

She said she thought about killing herself to end the harassment, but instead reached out to Mayor London Breed, who the next month appointed ombudsperson Dolores Blanding to investigate the SFMTA and the handling of employee complaints.

Broussard then filed a retaliation complaint with the city’s equal employment opportunity office. This year, she learned she was the victim of a forged settlement for that complaint by a now-resigned city employee, Rebecca Sherman. Broussard’s case has since been settled officially, but for a lower amount than the forged $514,000, although the number is still private, her attorney said.

Speaking publicly for the first time about her case, Broussard told The Chronicle on Tuesday it was one of the hardest things she ever had to go through.

“It’s taken a toll on my health. It is emotionally draining and exhausting,” she said. “When you have departments that willfully and maliciously treat you different based on the color of your skin, when the complaints could be similar in such a way even where maybe the Black or African American person’s case could be more egregious and it’s dismissed as nothing, it’s discouraging, it’s disappointing.”

Broussard said creating an Office of Racial Equity was important and could be effective — but only with the right person at the helm. She and other Black city employees stressed that leadership pushing the plan forward was vital to its success.

“Nothing in that plan is the actual answer or fix to solving the issues,” said Dante King, a founding member of the city’s Black Employee Alliance. “It will rely on ownership and responsibility of the leaders there and them being accountable when it comes to following through.”

King handled employee complaints and spearheaded racial equity reform at the SFMTA for 18 months, until October, after which he joined the Department of Public Health. He urged Tumlin and the board Tuesday to empower Black staff with decision-making authority to implement the plan and resolve issues, which he said he felt he didn’t have during his tenure.

In an interview with The Chronicle, King recounted complaints he handled on behalf of Black employees being disciplined more harshly than their white counterparts for similar behavior caught on video camera. One of the points in the racial equity plan to address this issue is to develop a tool for supervisors to use when making disciplinary actions so that results are more consistent.

King also recalled the case of a Black man who did not receive a pay raise after his white counterpart, with less experience and seniority, did. King said he personally knew 10 to 15 cases of Black employees across the city, including at the SFMTA, who were qualified for new jobs or promotions, but did not receive them because of subjective opinions from interviewers.

Two steps in the plan to address this problem include evaluating interview panelists for biases and creating a path for fellow panelists to report bias to superiors. King said training on fairness in hiring already exists — and it’s incumbent on leaders to closely critique hiring processes to enforce them.

One practical challenge in advancing the plan is funding the staff to implement it amid a budget crisis. The SFMTA is facing a shortfall of at least $68 million before the end of June and is trying to prevent potentially laying off 22% of its workers.

The original plan budgeted for five positions in the agency’s Office of Racial Equity, but Tumlin told the board Tuesday that not all positions could be filled immediately. He is hiring a racial equity officer to lead the efforts within the next couple of weeks, he said.

King said “there is no way that this plan and the management of it and the oversight of it and what needs to happen will be able to have much of an impact if it’s not staffed adequately.”

Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter:@mallorymoench

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