I woke up this morning to the news that Children’s Hospital has contracted with Eric Holder and his law firm, Covington & Burling, to assess Dr. Ben Danielson’s claims of racism and make recommendations to Seattle Children’s. I had a flashback.
From 1990 to 1997 I served as Associate Director for Social Justice, then Director for Antiracism Programs, of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Once a year, our leadership team took a group of constituents to Washington D.C. to meet with their legislators around issues they identified as priorities. The leadership team had a standing annual meeting with Senator Ted Kennedy lasting thirty minutes and ranging in topics each year.
One year we arrived for our scheduled meeting with Senator Kennedy and were met by three members of his staff. We were told he wouldn’t be joining us. The three then introduced themselves. I couldn’t tell you today who the first two were, because when the third one introduced himself all the air left the room: Thurgood Marshall, Jr., then serving as part of Kennedy’s team on the Senate Judiciary Committee. We all experienced mixed emotions: irritation at meeting with Kennedy’s staff instead of him; awe at the name Thurgood Marshall.
That, of course, was the whole idea. Give the dog a nice, juicy steak to distract. Thankfully, we were all fairly professional and, while moved, unimpressed. He was not the decision-maker we came to see. A couple of seconds later everyone caught their breath and we continued with our agenda. After voicing our displeasure, following year we met with Senator Kennedy again.
This was exactly what I thought when I read this morning's news. Slip in the name Eric Holder, forever associated with his tenure as U.S. Attorney General in Barack Obama’s presidency, and Seattle’s Black community could get distracted, maybe even let down its guard. But don’t count on it.
Too many of us have been on corporate and non-profit boards not to see behind this ploy. Too many of us know the tactics of Human Resources departments. Reaching for a lawyer is a bully move. It’s an act of intimidation. It also shifts the emphasis to the legal liability of the institution, rather than making a good faith effort to learn about the atmosphere within and identity of the organization. When I worked for The Bon/Macy’s we were required to attend yearly legal training about harassment policies, not so we wouldn’t misbehave, but so if we did the institution could say, “Gosh, we tried. See, they even signed in to the workshop, so it can’t be our fault. We followed the rules.”
Reaching for a high profile Black lawyer is the ultimate, cynical gaslighting. It’s the equivalent of a rapist hiring a woman lawyer to defend him. What better way to cancel a local Black community hero than to bring in a national figure? Shame on Holder for allowing himself to be used that way. Shame on Children’s Hospital for using him.
And nothing says, “We really care about how our community feels” like reaching for an out-of-town lawyer with no local roots under the guise of having someone “independent.” Are there no anti-racism organizers and trainers in the Seattle area qualified to do an internal assessment for Children’s? I can think of a half-dozen off the top of my head who are more than qualified. Does Children’s actually believe their staff will speak freely to a law firm hired by their employer? Do they think indigent families will interact comfortably with people brought from out of town, who have no connection to or established credibility with the local community? It’s hard to believe that level of naiveté exists in the leadership of a billion dollar organization.
Watch the About Covington introductory video on Covington & Burling’s website. Their dedication is to solving their “clients most challenging problems” with an “unwavering dedication” to their clients. And who is their client? Seattle Children’s Hospital, not Seattle’s Black community.
These are steps corporations take when they want to cover their asses, not when they sincerely see a community problem that needs to be solved. Everything about this is alarming.
I want to be wrong, really I do. Time will tell.
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Welcome! I am an essayist, poet, and facilitator, passionate about social justice and integrity, who lives and works in the Pacific Northwest. These observations are based on a lifetime working in the private and non-profit sectors, in a variety of organizational development capacities.