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'This Is Where It Stops': One Woman's Bid To Address Racial Harassment In State Workforce

A complaint filed by Ismina Francois in 2016 has put a magnifying glass on working conditions for employees of color at the state-run psychiatric hospital in Berlin.
Jane Lindholm
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VPR File
A complaint filed by Ismina Francois in 2016 has put a magnifying glass on working conditions for employees of color at the state-run psychiatric hospital in Berlin.

The woman whose complaint put a spotlight on racial discrimination in the government workplace says the state of Vermont has yet to resolve the issues that led to her suit.

In the summer of 2016, Ismina Francois filed an employment discrimination suit against the Vermont Department of Mental Health. An ensuing investigation by the Vermont Human Rights Commission uncovered a chronic pattern of alleged racial harassment at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital.

Francois started working at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital about four years ago. In her first public interview since filing the complaint, Francois says it can be difficult sometimes to find the right words to describe the experience.

“You ever have those moments where you have so much you want to say, but you don’t know where to start?” Francois says.

For Francois, the problems started almost immediately after she first joined the hospital staff as a mental health specialist, in 2014. She says it’s not uncommon for the mentally ill patients being treated there to use racial slurs. What shocked Francois, she says, was when supervisors would repeat those slurs when briefing staff on patients’ behaviors.  

Ismina Francois says she tried to address issues of racial harassment internally before filing a formal complaint.
Credit Ismina Francois / Courtesy
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Courtesy
Ismina Francois says she tried to address issues of racial harassment internally before filing a formal complaint.

“Rather than use 'the n-word,' they would say the actual word,” Francois says. “The first couple of times it happened, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not right.’ You know, we’re a group of professionals. We’re educated. ... I don’t understand why they feel the need to say the actual word.”

Francois chalked the incidents up to simple ignorance. She says she assumed the staff wasn’t trying to make her feel uncomfortable, and that they probably just didn’t realize it was inappropriate to repeat racial slurs in the workplace, let alone in the presence of employees of color.

“I was new and ... I didn’t want to stand out,” Francois says. “I wasn’t ready to be, like, the person who is now making an issue of things.”

But the “things” kept happening, like references by white colleagues to “colored people,” for instance. Or being mistaken repeatedly by her supervisors for other employees of color. Or the time a group of white co-workers saw Francois arrive at work, and made a comment — not to her face — about her having just gotten off the “welfare bus.”

Investigators from the Human Rights Commission later substantiated that account.

“Like, I went from heated and frustrated to just feeling sad, you know? I was really sad, because it was just kind of like, that’s so hurtful,” Francois says. “Like, what was it about me that said I was welfare, or that I got off the welfare bus?”

More from VPR: Investigation Finds Evidence Of Widespread Racial Harassment At State-Run Hospital In Berlin (Feb. 5, 2018)

Francois is a smiley 29-year-old. She lives in Barre, and has two kids and a fascinating backstory.

Francois was born in Haiti, but her biological father decided she’d have a better go at life in the United States.

“And so he brought me over on a visiting visa, which I think it was supposed to last all of two weeks. And I overstayed that by 20-some-odd years. And that’s how ... it all started,” Francois says.

Francois says she’s tried to make the most of the shot her dad tried to give her. She says she studied hard, worked even harder and that she generally does well with people.

“I think I’m a pretty likeable person,” Francois says.

Which is one of reasons, she says, that her experience at the hospital has been so confounding.

Francois says that until the “welfare bus” comment, she’d tried to address the issues directly with offending employees. When that didn’t work, she’d asked supervisors to correct the behavior.

For Francois, the welfare comment was the turning point.

"I took my anger and turned it into power, and I was just kind of like, 'No, you're going to know that that wasn't OK ... This is where it stops.'" — Ismina Francois, Vermont Department of Mental Health employee

“I took my anger and turned it into power, and I was just kind of like, ‘No, you’re going to know that that wasn’t OK, whether it’s me telling you or someone else telling you. ... You’re not going to say that comment to me, about me — this is where it stops,’” Francois says.

The employment discrimination suit that Francois decided to file after that incident would lead to an investigation that uncovered a disturbing pattern of racial harassment at the state-run psychiatric hospital.

According to the investigation, one African-American employee was routinely called “Chocolate Boy.” The same man once found a racial slur scrawled on his car by a white colleague in the hospital parking lot.

Francois thought that by spotlighting the alleged abuse, the government she worked for would take steps to resolve it. But Francois says the problems persist — and state data show that Francois’ case is not an isolated incident.

According to records on file at the Vermont Department of Human Resources, people of color have filed 35 formal complaints of racial harassment or employment discrimination against state workers, or the government agencies they work for, over the past five years.

More from VPR: Complaints Across State Agencies Spotlight Racial Divide In Vermont Government Workplace (Feb. 15, 2018)

Since 2014, the state has paid out more than $60,000 to settle claims of racial discrimination in the government workplace.

The money went to people like Alfred Churchwell, an employee at the Agency of Transportation who says he began experiencing racial harassment at the state garage he was formerly assigned to.

“There was a bunch of old-school guys there, you know. They were 25, 26, 27 years in. Here come this, you know, uppity black guy, and they didn’t like that,” Churchwell says.

The state of Vermont paid Alfred Churchwell $16,000 in 2016 to settle his claims of racial harassment in a garage run by the Agency of Transportation.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
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VPR
The state of Vermont paid Alfred Churchwell $16,000 in 2016 to settle his claims of racial harassment in a garage run by the Agency of Transportation.

The investigation into Churchwell’s complaint revealed the use of racial slurs in the state garage he worked at. Churchwell says his supervisor there plainly despised African-Americans, and that he was relegated to low-level tasks, despite having a Class A commercial driver's license.

“That’s how they kept their thumb on the black guy,” Churchwell says.

Churchwell received a $16,000 payout as part of his settlement with the state. He was also transferred to a different state garage. Churchwell says he’s happier now, and likes the people he works with.

But the experience hasn’t left him.

“It was just bad,” Churchwell says. “I’ve never been … so mistreated in my life.”

Ismina Francois’ case is still pending. The Human Rights Commission has found reasonable grounds that she has in fact been discriminated against, based on her race.

The attorney general’s office, which responded to Francois’ complaint earlier this year on behalf of the Department of Mental Health, acknowledges that inappropriate racial remarks have occurred at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital. The state has also substantiated some of the specific claims made by Francois.

But the attorney general’s office says those incidents are “isolated,” and “taken together, are not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive work environment.”

According to the attorney general’s response, “unacceptable workplace behavior such as that alleged in [Francois’] Complaint may be inexcusable, but is not always actionable.”

"I've never been ... so mistreated in my life." — Alfred Churchwell, Vermont Agency of Transportation employee

Francois says that at this point, she wants a job elsewhere in state government.

“Honestly, I just want to run away from this problem,” Francois says.

She says she’s ready to move on because she can’t fathom how the state could rectify the situation at the hospital.

“I don’t have the answers,” Francois says. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

More from VPR: Scott Plans Review Of State Psychiatric Hospital After Allegations Of Racial Harassment (Feb. 8, 2018)

By speaking publicly for the first time since she filed her suit, Francois hopes she can get Vermonters to think a little harder about the state’s race issues.

“They’re hearing my voice, and they’re hearing me, as opposed to seeing my skin and tuning me out. So I guess in a way this forces some people to hear me,” Francois says.

And if people listen to what she has to say, Francois says then maybe her 10- and 3-year-old children will have a better experience than she has.

“Someone, some people, will hear this,” Francois says, “and will make the world a better place, I guess — as cliché as that sounds — for that 10-year-old and that 3-year-old, in spite of being born from an African-American woman.”

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