Damaging legacy of ‘racism, sexism, discrimination’ at SFMTA persists

A racial equity plan draft presented Tuesday seeks to right some of the wrongs against employees of color

Employees of color at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency are less likely to reach management roles than their white counterparts. They’re also far more likely to be on the receiving end of disciplinary actions, report feeling uncomfortable sharing thoughts and opinions with leadership, be terminated from their job or resign because they’ve simply had enough.

These findings were presented at an uncharacteristically candid SFMTA board meeting Tuesday where Executive Director Jeffrey Tumlin copped to the transportation industry’s “long history of destroying Black wealth” and his own agency’s “long and well documented history of racism, sexism and discrimination.”

Staff presented a draft racial equity plan to dismantle this longstanding structural racism that would start with a “frank and open assessment of our past and current failures, of which there are many,” and move on through two phases of work to address racial equity internally and externally.

Grace Kong, an SFMTA employee who helped pen the plan who is Cambodian-American, laid out a two-phased approach to the board that focuses on seven key development areas including hiring, retention and growth, discipline, leadership, upward mobility, organizational culture and diversification of boards and commissions.

First, SFMTA must create specific, timeline-bound recommendations and performance indicators for each of the seven areas that will help achieve racial equity within the four walls of the agency by the end of the year. It also must submit annual progress reports to The City’s Office of Racial Equity and regular updates to the board.

The second phase turns outward early next year, and will strive to deliver equitable service to the public.

Kathy Broussard has worked for the SFMTA for 15 years. She appeared Tuesday as a representative of the Black and African-American Affinity Group. The organization was formed last year “out of the urgent necessity” to see change after a harassment scandal first reported by the Examiner led to the ousting of former director John Haley in 2018.

Mayor London Breed then appointed Doris Blanding as ombudsman. She ultimately authored a “scathing” assessment of discrimination within the agency and its “culture of silence.

On behalf of her fellow BAAAG members, Broussard leveled criticism at the slow progress of the agency, noting it took more than a year after the release of the ombudsman to make material steps toward racial justice in the form of the draft equity plan which, even now, is “just words on paper.”

“Racial equity shouldn’t just be for a moment,” she said. “It needs to be a lived priority every day.”

Broussard previously sued the agency over alleged discrimination and harassment by a supervisor, a case which has more recently led to a scandal over its mishandling by the Department of Human Resources.

Blanding’s report was released in 2019, and statistics from the last fiscal year that ended in June reflect very little has changed for employees of color despite the report’s condemnation.

Though white people make up just 14 percent of SFMTA’s total workforce, they account for 50 percent of senior management and 47 percent of middle management.

As a result, people of color make up a disproportionate number of the transit operators, who are more likely to receive corrective actions. Last fiscal year, 93 percent of the agency’s discipline was directed toward these workers, which necessarily means more non-white employees were the recipients. Of the 11 terminations total, six were Black employees.

Black women bear a particularly jarring percentage of disciplinary actions.

Though they account for 12 percent of the transit operators, they received about 20 percent of the discipline last fiscal year. There were “literally zero instances of corrective action applied to white women in transit,” Kong said.

Kong called the gap in discipline the “main area of concern” for the agency, and she noted it is “complex” and influenced by factors including inconsistent policies, subjective application, too few alternatives and the fact that more senior positions — which are more often held by white people — are less likely to be subject to corrective action.

Broussard called for a moratorium on all disciplinary actions until truly equitable processes could be implemented. Other representatives from affinity groups for Asian, Latinx and white employees joined her in asking for an agency-wide commitment to restorative justice and robust racial bias training for all supervisors.

Tumlin, who said repeatedly achieving equity is one of his highest priorities, owned his own role in the stagnancy revealed by these statistics. He acknowledged it’s been “many months” since he’s attended a meeting with one of the agency’s affinity groups.

“Part of what I need to do is make sure that those meetings are on my calendar so they don’t get pushed away in the scrum of the day-to-day work […],” he said to the visible nods of Broussard on the video call.

A key part of the racial equity plan is its budget for hiring what will be known as a Race, Equity and Inclusion Officer, a person charged with leading these efforts, keeping the agency on track with its commitments to racial justice and helping to change the culture.

Affinity groups told the board the work required is more suited for an office, not an individual, and they encouraged the agency to prioritize a fully staffed unit even amid the current budget crisis.

Even the creation of a single position has implications on the agency’s finances, and Tumlin recognized this could mean other agency services take a hit.

“We need to sacrifice a little bit of our service in order to clean up our own house,” he said, adding this remains true “even in an era where we’re having to shrink the number of people at the agency as quickly as we possibly can” without mass layoffs to date.

SFMTA staff is collecting feedback on the draft from a number of agency stakeholders, and it will present the final proposed plan to the board on Dec. 15 for approval for implementation starting early next year.

Discussion of the draft racial equity plan was followed by a presentation by Kimberly Ackerman of SFMTA’s Human Resources Department during which she outlined steps her office had taken to remedy the concerns raised in the Blanding report.

She said many strides had been made in visibility and accessibility, transparency and the development of training to improve workplace culture, but reform to disciplinary protocol remained wanting.

“A huge amount of work remains to be done,” Tumlin said. “This work is more important now than ever, both because it is right and necessary, but also because of the economic devastation of COVID-19.”


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