HIV Aids

Did a Racial Power Imbalance Lead to a Pair of Firings at a Michigan HIV Agency?

It all started with the N-word.

In July 2018, Erwin Willhite, a Black gay man who was then a prevention specialist at the Community AIDS Resource and Education Services (CARES) of Southwest Michigan, was hanging up some photos in the conference room of CARES’ Benton Harbor office with a Black colleague, administrative assistant Krystal Major, when Major joked that she was going to “n****r-ate” the job, meaning to improvise to get it done.

In walked their white boss, Dave Watt, the head of prevention, who casually asked, “What does n****r-ate mean?” Everyone laughed. Then Watt repeated his question, saying the N-word again, adding, “I really want to know.”

The trio’s hour-long drive back to CARES’ Kalamazoo office was silent and tense, according to Willhite. “Dave knew he’d messed up, because he sat in the back seat and said nothing. He didn’t apologize.”

That evening, says Willhite, he posted a “blind item” on Facebook saying that white people should never use the N-word. The next day at work, Willhite says, he heard that Watt had told CARES’ executive director, Kelly Doyle (a white woman), what had happened and that Doyle was calling the office’s five Black staffers into her office one by one.

“She wanted Krystal and me to tell her what happened,” says Willhite, “and wanted to know how the others felt about it. I told her that what happened was messed up and that at very least, Watt needed to apologize and some [policy] had to be put in place so it can’t happen again.”

After that, says Willhite, who at that point had been at CARES seven years, Watt approached the office’s Black staffers one by one to apologize. “It was very lackluster,” says Willhite, “like he was apologizing because he was told to. So we said, ‘OK, we accept your apology, now help us get a policy together.’” (Willhite says that he, Major, and Watt had had a good relationship prior to the incident.)

As for the promised policy, says Willhite, “They swept it under the rug—but by early October 2019, every Black person in the Kalamazoo office had bogus writeups.” Willhite says that he was told that he’d failed to meet targets on his work, such as recruiting enough people for the HIV prevention workshop Healthy Relationships.

Major was let go after a workplace hand injury made her have to go on workers’ compensation and cut to part-time. At a certain point, she says, she was let go, told that she was no longer able to do her job. But she feels that the firing relates to the N-word incident.

“After that,” she says, “there was more tip-toeing around me and micromanaging me. They would tell me I tied my shoe wrong. They were more motivated than ever to catch me doing something wrong. I got written up once over not having my cell phone. I was told I was being irrational. Little things like that. The moment my injury happened, they were looking for a replacement for me.”

A Different Story

Not surprisingly, Doyle, who has been with the agency since 2003 (save a brief departure) and was made executive director in 2015 after what she calls “a competitive [hiring] process,” has a very different version of events.

She acknowledges the inciting N-word incident—noting that Watt has since departed the agency, not because of the incident but to fulfill a long-held plan to move to Arizona—and calls it “unfortunate.” She disputes Willhite’s claim that she was mad that he posted on Facebook against white people using the N-word. “I agree with him on that,” she says. “So I talked to Dave and told him that Erwin was upset, and David apologized to him, saying he was just repeating the word, and what could he do [about it]?”

Then, says Doyle, she followed through on Willhite’s request that she talk to all the Black employees. “My job was to sit down with them and make sure they understood that, yes, he repeated the N-word, but not with bad intentions, and that of course he’d never do it again.”

Doyle also disputes Willhite’s assertion that over the following year all the Black employees were let go. “Only Erwin and Krystal were let go,” she says, noting that another Black employee left because he got a music scholarship and another is out on medical leave but is expected to come back. Other Black staff—including Beth Lewis and Virgil Hatcher, both in management positions, HOPWA specialist Andrew Chaponda, and newer hires Madilyn Brink, Krystina Edwards, Pam Hatcher, and Vera Holmes—are all intact, she says.

Overall, says Doyle, across both offices, Black staffers make up one of five directors, one of four team leaders, and six of 16 total staff. Of a board of 10 members, three are Black, including two clients who were recruited for the board.

Furthermore, she says, “Erwin’s been harassing me on Facebook for over a year. I’m actually looking into legal action for slander against him for continuing to say things about me publicly that are not true.”

In fact, TheBody learned of this story via this June 10 post of Willhite’s that begins: “Are we ready for the discussion about racism in the field of HIV?” Then, on June 17, he wrote on Facebook: “It has been 365 days since the executive director of #CARES #KellyDoyle of Kalamazoo put her knee in my neck by using her white privilege to fire me and deny me HIV services, in hopes of protecting her fellow white man that used a n***** joke towards staff. I’m still kicking. I won’t be silenced and I’m only getting louder!”

Doyle also claims that when Willhite was let go from a previous job, he had his friends call the workplace to threaten the person who’d let him go—a transgender man who feared for their life for a number of months. And, she says, “There was a vacation I had three years ago that got interrupted because he was getting in a fight with another staff member on social media. This is how he operates.” (As for the latter claim, Willhite says that the fight on social happened because both he and the other staffer were dealing with tensions related to their respective recent HIV diagnoses.)

On June 30, TheBody acted on Doyle’s suggestion to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to see the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) case filed by Willhite; the EEOC is currently reviewing our request.

Above all, Doyle insisted that “we fired Erwin for cause. He didn’t meet his outcomes, which had not improved from the previous years. He had to get 35 people a year to attend three three-hour sessions of Healthy Relationships, and I’ve always made it clear [with hires that they have to meet their goals], but he didn’t.”

As for Willhite’s desire for the agency to institute a policy against specific words, “I talked to him about that,” she says. “We already have an EEOC harassment policy, which HR told me already covered [the issue of offensive language on the job], and that any list of words that can’t be used would constantly evolve.”

Asked by TheBody if other staff would back up her side of the story, Doyle put TheBody in touch with Beth Lewis (with CARES six years) and Virgil Hatcher (with CARES 11 years), both of whom say they spoke of their own will despite being asked to by their boss.

“I don’t agree [Erwin’s firing] was racially motivated,” says Lewis. “We still have several Black people working here.”

Lewis says that Willhite and Major’s initial reaction to Watt’s repeating the N-word felt mild. “They came into my office and were like, ‘Girl, you’re not gonna believe this!’” she says. “But then they changed really quick and said that, no, it was wrong. Dave Watt called me to apologize if I thought he did anything wrong. I said, ‘Oh yeah, I accept your apology—you were just repeating what you heard.’”

Hatcher says that when Watt apologized to him, he didn’t even know what he was talking about. “I told him I couldn’t find it offensive.”

Says Lewis: “We have a very diverse staff—not just in color but in gender and LGBTQ [identity]. It’s an unwritten thing that you don’t go there [with words that could offend someone in a particular group]. Sometimes people on social media are so hungry looking for something negative. But CARES letting Black people go because they’re Black is just not true.”

Hatcher agreed. “CARES is ahead of the game in terms of dealing with racial issues. We intentionally hire people who look like the people we serve. We feel comfortable here saying something about what’s going on [if it upsets us].” And, he says, the agency has held racial workshops such as a “privilege walk,” in which different participants form a line, then take steps backward or forward depending on their different “privilege points” including race, gender, class, and education.

White at the Top

Willhite’s allegation caught our eye at TheBody because, between spring 2019 and spring 2020, when we were doing a series of interviews with leaders at nearly 50 HIV agencies nationwide, we saw that agency leadership and board make-up was often (though certainly not always) all or majority white, while lower-level staff and clients were heavily Black or other people of color. (Often, this was the case in areas where the population was majority white and minority Black, but the HIV population was the reverse, reflecting HIV’s disproportionate burden on Black communities.)

Our goal in highlighting the Michigan CARES incident is not to cast a verdict on it, or even to suggest that readers do so, but to look at the power dynamics that can arise when agency leadership does not fully reflect agency-wide staffing or the populations being served. This frequently seemed the case with older agencies founded at the height of the AIDS epidemic by white people—some of whom might still make up the leadership—but which then, as data showed the undue burden of HIV on Black or Latinx communities, onboarded staff of color, often in peer advocacy or case management positions to run programs tailored to those communities.

Doyle says that, although she insists that Willhite and Major’s firings were not racially motivated, she does not think Black and Brown representation among CARES’ leadership is sufficient. “I’m constantly working on trying to recruit Black staff, to have Black leadership and board members,” she says. “We’ve been working on it for years. Our staff is more diverse than most for this area. More than half of our staff identifies as LGBT, and 20% are living with HIV. My directors have been here 10 to 15 years, and I’m not pushing anyone out. But when there are openings, that’s where I’m really looking to try to hire more people of color. It’s been on our mind for years.”

She says she agrees with leadership at other HIV agencies who’ve told TheBody that a barrier to hiring more people from underrepresented groups is that some jobs—including those with funding and requirements set by federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—require bachelor’s or even master’s degrees. “Our leadership positions require a bachelor’s, but a lot of our clients don’t have them.”

That barrier is also acknowledged at the agency AIDS Alabama by its longtime CEO Kathie Hiers, a white lesbian, and its prevention director, Tony Christon-Walker, a Black gay man. “The CDC is persnickety as hell about who I hire,” says Hiers. But, she says, “There’s plenty of Black folks out there with the necessary degrees—and I think a lot of times degrees are unnecessary for jobs. I put a lot of faith in lived experience and being part of and understanding the community you’re serving. That’s just as real as a university.”

Christon-Walker concurs. “I know a workplace where I said to them, ‘You don’t have one Black person doing outreach. Why?’ And they said that lots didn’t have a bachelor’s. Why do you need a bachelor’s degree for a part-time outreach position? You’re not even trying to hire Black people, and that’s because a lot of these agencies don’t have roots in the communities they’re trying to serve. They’re hard-pressed to find 10 HIV-positive Black people to come to a focus group.”

But Hiers points out that, at any given moment, her agency might look low on staffers of color because some have recently moved on to new jobs. “I spend a lot of time, effort, and money to develop our employees with additional training, then they move on to a new job at UAB [University of Alabama-Birmingham]. Someone told me that AIDS Alabama is an incubator, which made me feel a little better, but it still breaks my heart when people leave.”

But she never rests on her laurels, she says. “Right now we’re in a moment where people are finally recognizing that we’ve had systemic racism for centuries. If any agency thinks they’re good enough [on racial representation], they’re wrong. And we ourselves still have work to do. I need more diversity on my board, and I’m encouraging my staff to help me find people from the community. The leadership is going to be more effective if it reflects the epidemic.”

The HIV nonprofit sector both is and isn’t like other work sectors, according to Ernest Hopkins, the Black gay longtime policy principal at San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “The same persistent white supremacy and white privilege that you see in public and private work sectors and health departments nationwide are reflected in the HIV community,” he says, with the caveat that “many HIV organizations are led by people who consider themselves progressive and conscious of bias, and are striving to improve.

“But the focus on ensuring that there’s equity and a racial justice lens put on the upper echelons of these organizations hasn’t really been attended to,” he says. “A lot of the frontline staff are Black and Brown people in grant-funded services for populations who look like them, but directors and administrators are still predominantly white.”

National HIV groups are ahead of local ones when it comes to better racial representation, adds Hopkins, pointing out that AIDS United and NASTAD now both have Black leaders in the top position (Jesse Milan Jr. and Stephen Lee, M.D., respectively). And such representation at the top is important, he says, because otherwise “it leads to a silence of discussions about race and a perpetuation of systems that oppress and marginalize people of color—discussions that would result in change.”

As for white leadership that says it’s committed to racial equity at the top but that “it can’t happen overnight,” Hopkins is skeptical. “That’s a line to perpetuate exclusion and a pernicious loop.” He urges that agencies and their boards really ask themselves if their educational degree requirements for certain jobs are necessary—and if they are offering salaries and benefits competitive with their field, “especially when you look at the differential between [salaries in] the C-suite and the frontline workers. Nonprofit is never going to be as lucrative as tech, but it could be more equitable. Some nonprofit workers can’t even afford to live in the communities where they work.”

But by the same turn, Hopkins doesn’t think that white leaders should resign overnight if they don’t have sufficient retirement pensions because they’ve worked their whole lives in nonprofit (notorious for not always giving employees 401Ks or other retirement builders)—and if a quick exit, especially of a well-liked top dog, is going to set up successors of color to fail. “Boards need to put in place succession plans that are not seen as punitive or accusatory, but that facilitate smooth and successful transitions,” he says.

Conflicting Visions

It’s important to note that Doyle, at CARES, did not agree with the premise of this story—that a racial power imbalance at CARES led to tensions and misunderstandings that led to the firing of Willhite and Major. She is adamant that they were fired for cause.

“I did what was best for the agency and its clients, and I would not do anything differently when it came to these two incidents,” she says. “I don’t take firing lightly. People need to live. I was laid off from CARES myself back in 2009 and lived on $744 a month” in unemployment, she says.

If she could make CARES leadership more diverse overnight, would she? “All of a sudden, just boom? Magic? Yes—if I didn’t have to let go of people who’ve been here a long time. I’m going to continue to push to hire people of color and have them move into leadership positions.”

As for Willhite, who is now working as an assistant manager at a gas station while the COVID-19 pandemic puts his master’s in social work coursework on hold, he says he’s mulling whether to pursue further legal action against CARES. Regardless, he says he would still like to see a language policy put in place at CARES on top of preexisting policies, the resignation of Doyle, and a closer look at the agency’s entire board “to make sure that people aren’t being used and abused.”

He adds: “As long as we’re compliant and do what they want, it’s OK. But as soon as we speak up for some rights, they wanna shush us and put us off to the side.”

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