JASON RANTZ

Rantz: King County banned white staff from workshop and tried to cover it up

Mar 30, 2022, 6:00 PM | Updated: 6:09 pm

A King County agency hosted a radical seminar that claimed dieting and traditional concepts of health are racist. But it was the rules for who could attend that were racist: it purposefully excluded white people.

In fact, when a white person showed up, he was banned from the meeting. And county officials tried to cover this controversy up.

The King County Department of Human Resources announced the remote workshop, “Anti-Blackness and Diet Culture,” in an all-staff email newsletter. It was part of the county’s Balanced You program, which focuses on staff wellness. Tacoma-based Liberating Jasper, which conducted the workshop, claims dieting is harmful to black people, and that “Western ideals of attractiveness and health are steeped in whiteness.” It even implies that obesity can be healthy.

Despite claims to the contrary, the workshop intentionally excluded white people. Indeed, the event was promoted both publicly and privately for “BIPOC employees only.”

King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office claimed the discriminatory description of the event was in error. But scores emails obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH reveal the intention was, in fact, to exclude white people.

White staffer booted from the workshop

One white King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) staffer was banned from the Feb. 17 workshop due to his race.

According to the complaint, obtained via public disclosure request, the incident occurred moments after the staffer turned on his webcam.

“During the first few minutes I had my front facing camera turned off and was enjoying the training,” the employee said in an email to Interim Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall. “I turned my front facing camera on and was promptly removed from the training. I am a White male County employee. I said nothing in the training and my microphone was on mute. I tried to rejoin the training and was blocked from doing so as it said I was removed by the host.”

In his email complaint, the staffer asked if other attendees were removed, but concluded, “I was kicked out of a work training session based solely on the color of my skin.”

Cole-Tindall forwarded the complaint to the county Balanced You staff, demanding an answer.

The initial excuse

In an email to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, Executive Constantine’s office confirmed the KCSO staffer was banned from the workshop. But initially, spokesperson Chase Gallagher blamed it on a technical error.

Gallagher said, “the vendor had technical issues on their end with the session, which impacted several people that got bumped out and then weren’t able to rejoin.”

That same message was delivered to the KCSO complainant.

“I’m so sorry you had this experience, we were navigating some technology issues today and weren’t fully able to come back online,” Shawna Johnson, Employee Health & Well-Being Specialist responded.

The KCSO staffer told Johnson that he found her claim hard to believe and again asked if anyone else was removed from the room.

“…yes, there were other employees dropped from the conversation. I apologize for each of your inability to participate in the full conversation and as previously conveyed, will send you the slide deck materials for reference,” Johnson responded.

But this was not true. The complainant was removed because he is white.

The investigation uncovered a lie

After the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH asked about the incident, county spokesperson Gallagher says he “was told that there were technical difficulties faced by the vendor that resulted in several participants being removed and unable to rejoin, and not a deliberate act.”

But after an internal investigation, it became clear: an unidentified staff member lied about what happened.

“Following your inquiry and subsequent information received by staff, an investigation occurred to gather all the facts and full understanding of the events that took place,” Gallagher told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “That investigation found in fact there was a deliberate decision by one of the employees involved in the session to remove an individual from the event. The information provided by that employee led to the response that was relayed to you, which we know now was not accurate.”

When the investigation was complete, the “employee resigned their position.”

There was also a second white employee who was unable to get back into the room after being removed. But a review of internal documents does not make it clear whether this was intentional or an actual technical error since she received a different error than her white coworker.

“I tried to rejoin the Anti-Blackness and Diet Culture workshop, I had to go to another computer with sound but I [sic] all I got was the message below and was never let in. Could you let me know why?” she wrote.

She attached a screenshot of a message that read, “Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon.”

It’s hard to imagine why a county staffer thought it was wise (or even legal) to ban participants from a taxpayer-funded seminar on the basis of race. But emails obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH indicate the intent of the event was always to exclude white staff.

Segregated by design and the evidence is overwhelming

When the county was initially questioned about the “BIPOC only” event, the spokesperson responded with a claim that the workshop description was “not as clear as it could have been.” Internal emails consistently show that the claim is untrue.

In late 2021, Johnson, the county Employee Health & Well-Being Specialist, emailed the Black African American Affinity Group at King County about upcoming workshops around body positivity.

“And, here’s what to look forward to in 2022: Identity specific workshop series (workshops open to: BIPOC, people of size/in larger bodies, and LGBTQ+ folks only),” she wrote.

In a weekly report to managers in November 2021, Johnson again explained the upcoming workshops was exclusionary. The language for the event was reviewed by Stephanie Guzman-Barrera of the Office of Equity & Social Justice on January 3.

“No concerns from me this looks great. Thank you Shawna for your work on this! Really excited to see the intersectionality approach of anti-blackness and anti-fatness,” Guzman-Barrera replied.

Johnson said the same thing to an HR communications specialist on January 6: “This series is open to BIPOC employees only with a capacity of 50 for each workshop.”

The message was sent to multiple staff who asked questions

When an employee struggled to sign up for one of the workshops, she emailed Johnson for assistance on January 6. After offering guidance, Johnson wrote, “also note: the content for the two workshops will be very similar, one is just a BIPOC only session which will hold more space for BIPOC folks to show up.”

Another employee emailed Johnson: “Quick question, the BIPOC employees only, does that include Hispanic? It says anti-blackness but you mention brown bodies as well. It’s a bit confusing.”

Johnson replied: “Yes, BIPOC does include Hispanic.”

In an email from a staff member over confusion on which session she was registered in, HR staffer Anna Micklin responded: “I see you are signed up for the session on Thursday, Feb. 17 from noon to 1 p.m. This is the one designed to be a safe space for BIPOC employees only.”

The employee wrote back: “Thank you for checking, yes I am black and white mixed so I’m really glad this session [sic].”

In an all-staff email on January 11, the executive assistant to HR leaders included a PDF of the final draft agenda for an upcoming staff meeting. It listed the event as “For BIPOC employees only.”

On February 3, Johnson wrote another email to the Black African American Affinity Group at King County. She noted: “Two sessions of this workshop will be offered – one, open to BIPOC employees only and one, open to all employees.”

Even the contract with Liberating Jasper to conduct the workshop details the race-based intent: “Access to after-program weekly support groups for up to 10 weeks for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and Spanish-speaking populations.”

County walks back public statement

Gallagher, the county spokesperson, walked back his earlier statement claiming the seminar’s description was unintentionally unclear.

“Regarding your review of the emails in the records, it is true that multiple staff approved that language, but it was not reviewed or authorized by the appropriate leaders,” Gallagher said. “As I mentioned and you cited, the description of the workshops was revised before the events occurred to reflect that both sessions were open to all employees.”

But the language was, in fact, reviewed by appropriate leadership, according to emails.

HR Chief of Staff Sandra Newton emailed HR Director Jay Osbourne and Deputy Director of HR Adrienne Leslie on January 14 with a PowerPoint draft for an upcoming management meeting. One slide lists upcoming training sessions, including the listing “Anti-Blackness and Diet Culture (For BIPOC employees only).”

According to an internal email dated February 1, Osbourne emailed Newton and Leslie a 2022 communications planning form. It also listed upcoming workshops, showing county leads who are working on the training, along with its purpose and target audience.

“Culture and Anti-Blackness workshop (BIPOC only)” was listed, and included an extra note that it was meant for “BIPOC employees that have expressed interest in or previously attended a Liberating Jasper workshop.”

This issue was not new, either. As early as April 2021, HR was alerted to the concern. Rather than change the language, they defended it.

County deliberated on how to defend BIPOC-only events

BIPOC-only wellness events were pitched as early as 2021, and one county employee was concerned. She emailed her thoughts to the county’s Health and Well-being Project Program Manager Megan Jourdan on April 30, 2021.

“Inviting only BIPOC front-line employees to participate in the hour-long stress group is ridiculous. You do realize everyone regardless of being BIPOC or not could benefit from this? This, I feel is racist,” the staff member wrote.

Jourdan defended the BIPOC-only events in response.

It is important to note that King County leads with racial justice. We know the pandemic has been incredibly difficult for everyone. We also know that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted BIPOC communities across a range of health and economic outcomes, and that BIPOC individuals and communities have endured additional layers of traumatic experiences throughout the past year. Just as King County promotes equity by designating spaces for BIPOC employees via Affinity Groups, Balanced You promotes equity by designating healing spaces co-designed by and for BIPOC employees.

When the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH asked about the legality of racially-segregated “Anti-Blackness and Diet Culture” workshops, Jourdan forwarded this earlier guidance as the county formulated a response to my inquiries. She noted that, “Balanced You received approval from several layers of leadership to design and market spaces for BIPOC employees.”

Jourdan noted that the “Anti-Blackness and Diet Culture” workshop purposefully excluded white employees, but it was permitted because they offered a separate workshop for all employees, too.

In a meeting on 5/13/21, Gloria told us that in order to be in line with County values, we would need to offer the equivalent services for all employees, including white employees. So, in the case of the Debriefing groups, we needed to offer groups for all employees if we were going to offer groups for BIPOC employees. I know this is being done with Liberating Jasper.

The Gloria that is referenced is Workforce Equity Manager Gloria Ngezaho, who reports to the HR Director.

King County scrambles due to “conservative news” inquiry

The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH emailed county spokesperson Gallagher about the workshop’s BIPOC-only session on February 10th. The county communications team immediately worked to compile answers.

Employee Engagement Manager Brooke Bascom distributed a draft email response to my questions.

In it, Bascom defended the BIPOC-only workshop in a section titled, “Why We Are Offering Two Sessions – one for BIPOC only and one for everyone.” It included the same language used in the April 2021 email to a concerned staff member: “Just as King County promotes equity by designating spaces for BIPOC employees via Affinity Groups, Balanced You promotes equity by providing wellness learning opportunities co-designed by and for BIPOC employees.”

The original draft answer to my questions also included the admission that “[t]here are two sessions available to employees, one specifically for BIPOC employees and one open to all county employees.”

Concurrently, Johnson (the Employee Health & Well-Being Specialist) emailed Liberating Jasper staff with a heads up that the BIPOC-only workshop was receiving scrutiny from “a local conservative news outlet.”

“We’ve been receiving employee pushback and media inquiries about this week’s workshop – questioning why it is open to BIPOC folks only. We’re meeting with leadership to work out a response,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson was referencing employee complaints to the newsletter promoting the BIPOC-only event.

“This doesn’t change plans to offer the workshop – there are 75 people signed up for the BIPOC only workshop (plus, a waitlist of 15) and 60 for the all employees version!” she continued.

Stealth edits to cover up BIPOC-only workshop

As the county communications team was crafting responses to questions about the BIPOC-only workshop, staffers removed mentions of “BIPOC-only” from the workshop descriptions online. It was replaced with “(open to all county employees).” This was done, according to Gallagher, because the intent was always to have the workshops open to all employees.

But Anita Whitfield, Chief Equity & Inclusion Officer, sent an email to staff making the edits. She didn’t seem eager to make the BIPOC-only workshop too inviting to white people.

“Also, please remember that I said to the group that we don’t have to say ‘everybody can attend both classes’,” she wrote on February 16.

Meanwhile, Bascom, the Employee Engagement Manager, drafted an email to attendees. She was alerting them that a “conservative” talk show host was asking questions.

“We are taking the extra step to ensure the privacy of workshop attendees because last week talk show host Jason Rantz, who describes himself as ‘Seattle’s fresh, contemporary conservative voice,’ inquired about the workshop and the legality of having workshops for all employees and BIPOC employees,” she wrote.

Gallagher says the staff decided not to send that email.

County pretended the workshop was never BIPOC-only

Several hundred emails and pages of documents show that officials knew the workshop wasn’t merely promoted to exclude white staff. That was the intent. Only after questions about its legality from the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, did the staff edit out those references.

Still, in its official response to inquiries, the county spokesperson argued the idea that the event excluded white people was wrong; it was just a simple mistake.

“The initial description of this event was not as clear as it could have been. Both sessions are open to all King County employees. The first session is centered on the lived experiences and learnings of BIPOC employees. The workshop description is being updated,” he wrote.

The initial description was clear. It was seen by senior HR leadership. A complaint made in early 2021 about the language was deflected. And it’s why the county is worried about a lawsuit.

The county is withholding the investigation into the staffer who lied about removing the white employee. A summary of the findings was initially promised to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

“When the investigation was launched, it was reasonably assumed that there could potentially be litigation around the incident, so the investigation and its work products were executed under attorney client privilege. Because it remains a privileged document it is exempt from disclosure and will be not be distributed,” Gallagher wrote.

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Rantz: King County banned white staff from workshop and tried to cover it up