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Black firefighters in Winston-Salem file grievance with city calling for officials to 'fire the system' and ‘extinguish racism’

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Black firefighters in Winston-Salem file grievance with city calling for officials to 'fire the system' and ‘extinguish racism’

Since July, more than a dozen Black Winston-Salem firefighters with the group OMNIBUS— along with anti-racist organizations such as Hate Out of Winston, Advance North Carolina, Emancipate North Carolina, and the Triad Abolition Project, standing in solidarity— have been calling attention to the alleged “racism, harassment, and ethnic intimidation” within the Winston-Salem Fire Department. OMNIBUS has set forth demands that include the firing of WSFD Chief Trey Mayo, instituting bi-quarterly diversity training within the department, and an external investigation chosen by OMNIBUS.

At the first OMNIBUS press conference on July 20, OMNIBUS spokesman and firefighter of 27 years Thomas Penn alleged that Black firefighters within the WSFD had been subjected to racial intimidation tactics by high-ranking firefighters without retribution despite many filed grievances.

The alleged racist tactics included a new recruit being greeted with a gorilla mask on their desk, hearing racial slurs (most notably the n-word) out loud at stations across the City, and social media threats “to run over protesters by a high-profile firefighter put in charge to direct others how to interact with protesters” amid this summer’s nationwide unrest due to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police.

Following that press conference, a Winston-Salem firefighter, who wished to remain anonymous, told YES! Weekly that the WSFD is not only plagued with racism but also sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia— claiming that prominent captains within the department have expressed these views and sentiments along with inappropriate jokes in the workplace.

On July 22, YES! Weekly emailed Chief Mayo, Mayor Allen Joines, and the members of the council asking for comment on OMNIBUS’s claims.

Chief Mayo replied the following day: “I’m on vacation. Please direct your questions to the City Attorney’s Office.”

Joines responded the following day by writing, “The City takes any form of racial discrimination or hostility in the workplace very seriously and will vigorously investigate any claims. The City Manager will be Utilizing the services of an outside firm to assess the complaints in the Fire Department and in certain other departments.”

East Ward Representative Annette Scrippio also responded on July 23 with, “We will investigate all allegations.”

In an email on Oct. 4, OMNIBUS attached its 18-page formal grievance, which was filed with the City of Winston-Salem’s human resources department on Oct. 2, after city officials urged members to “utilize their broken grievance procedure.”

Previously, OMNIBUS representatives have been skeptical of filing grievances within the City’s human resources department because they allege that many of the grievances that have already been filed by Black members of the department “have more often than not failed to provide impartial results. In several cases, the grievance was not formally addressed as dictated in city policy.”

“Transfers and or promotions have been the remedy when white or administratively loyal members have been involved, and these have occurred in spite of the infractions,” the email stated. “This, combined with the disproportionate manner in which the City dispenses punishment for infractions, has been blatantly biased. These biases have been imposed on the basis of race, gender, and degree of loyalty to fire administration.”

In the grievance, OMNIBUS members alleged that Chief Mayo abused his position and failed those under his command “by allowing them to endure both direct and indirect threats.”

One of those indirect threats included a firefighter tying nooses in a ropes and knots class. The grievance states that Chief Mayo, along with a captain and a battalion chief, was made aware of the situation but failed to act as, “Chief Mayo chose to move to the next topic of discussion.”

The grievance also alleged that Mayo has “refused to provide any viable assistance to those under his command who have endured the threatening and vile language and intended actions of several captains under his command.”

Citing the employee rules of conduct handbook, OMNIBUS named and provided screenshots of multiple alleged captains engaging in “inappropriate, threatening and vile” conversations regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and this summer’s nationwide unrest on Facebook.

One shared a post from a public Facebook page called “Educating Liberal Democrats,” advocating for police to invest in attack dogs to disperse protesters.

In the grievance, OMNIBUS noted that the alleged captain who shared this post showed a “blatant disregard for citizens and laws that should treat all citizens fairly and equally under the law. These examples mimic the disparaging climate of today and have no place within our department.”

OMNIBUS also noted that the mention of attack dogs “are eerily reminiscent of a not so distant past. These expressions serve to create a hostile work environment for many under her command and all who are aware.”

Another, the grievance cites, engaged with a purported Facebook friend who posted about the protesters who shut down Highway 52 this summer. The post called on those reading to get a concealed carry permit and handgun training, for which the original poster advertised that they offered firearm training classes.

The alleged captain engaging with these posts commented on the post and alluded that those reading should purchase a type of AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

 The “saint” is a very good platform for such situations.

Compact...easily concealed and deployed...can do over and under work.. Rails are good for attachments of your choosing.. Muzzle break with 50% recoil turn down. Great system. Oops.. I am talking like a 2nd amendment dude.   

This person also posted a separate photo of three handguns with the caption:

Heading down to Charlotte for supper this evening... I’m bringing my own silverware.

At the third OMNIBUS press conference, which took place in the parking lot of Station 1 on Sept. 21, Penn and retired firefighters, alleged that city officials have “failed to act on any of the proof” of the violations outlined by OMNIBUS and that members of the Winston-Salem City Council have actively ignored multiple phone calls and emails from concerned constituents relating to this matter “with the hope that this, we will eventually go away.”   

“We are here to tell you today that is not happening,” Penn said. “Please understand that you, the citizens, have the power. You are their bosses, and they turned a deaf ear to your concerns. Make them hear you in November.”

“These firefighters who by no fault of their own are dealing with racist intimidation, hostile work environments, and their grievances are not being heard or met seriously,” said Marcus Bass, the executive director of Advance North Carolina.

During the Sept. 21 press conference, Penn said OMNIBUS walked away from a meeting weeks ago with City Manager Lee Garrity and Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne “with no more resolution than what we had prior to entering the room.”

Penn said at that meeting, Dequenne told him that the City had contracted a consulting firm to investigate the claims.

Penn said during the Sept. 21 press conference, that the “$20,000 climate study paid for by you, the fine citizens of Winston-Salem,” was a viable option, “after we have fired the system and are ready to heal the wounds inflicted by injustice,” he added. “The monster that is systemic racism has not only been kept in close quarters within our city but has been well-fed, groomed, and apparently has free reign of the grounds.”  

Penn then pointed out Chief Mayo, who was in attendance but did not offer any comment to reporters, and called for his termination, citing Mayo’s alleged “inaction to address racism within the department.”

Following the third press conference, Dequenne sent the following statement to YES! Weekly via email on Sept. 23:

“The City of Winston-Salem does not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind. Our employees have numerous resources to which they can bring their concerns, including our Human Resources Department, Human Relations Department, City Manager’s Office, or City Attorney’s office, as well as the employee’s departmental chain of command. All specific concerns are investigated immediately. We continue to strongly encourage our employees to immediately report any issues to the previously mentioned resources for investigation. The City contracted with WPR Consulting, LLC, in August of this year to conduct a climate assessment of our Fire Department.”

Shortly after OMNIBUS’s third press conference, Hate Out of Winston’s Miranda Jones wrote in a statement that she was “glad to have worked to get OMNIBUS a seat at the table where they could voice their grievances around systemic racism.”

Jones said Hate Out believes that racism within the WSFD exists based on the information and social media posts/images OMNIBUS presented.

“Unfortunately the onus is on the victims of racism, which we know is pernicious, covert and overt,” Jones wrote. “We are allowing the process of the WPR consultant group to play out. We thank Councilmember James Taylor and Mayor Pro Tem DD Adams for pursuing justice for OMNIBUS. Regardless of the findings of WPR, Hate Out will continue to press for a fire training center located in the heart of Black Winston Salem and for bi-quarterly diversity training.”

In a Sept. 25 email, an OMNIBUS representative wrote, “It is quite obvious to OMNIBUS and the citizens that the City of Winston-Salem not only tolerates harassment and discrimination but fosters an environment by which it thrives—a fact that is gaining notoriety daily. The majority of the council has buried their heads in the sand with regards to our concerns, and most noticeably has ignored the concerns and complaints presented by citizens in the form of multiple calls and emails.”

The representative went on to call the City’s climate assessment “a complete waste of taxpayer money,” and claimed it didn’t “have any proverbial teeth to reprimand those responsible for their transgressions.”

“It, in essence, is a $20,000.00 non-adhesive Band-Aid on a problem that necessitates surgery,” the representative wrote. “That same $20,000 could have been used instead to provide what we have been requesting since day one: an external investigation performed by an entity of our choosing into the facts presented to them.”

 “We look forward to the City executing a course of action that serves as a catalyst for change as well as one that encourages the department to honor the goals that are stated in our policies, procedures, and operating guidelines,” the representative added. “In as much, we demand that the city officials recognize and honor the federal laws of our nation with their actions. We full well expect the City to rise to the occasion in the face of adversity and prove that we, the citizens of Winston-Salem, were not remiss in our selection of them.”

The firm hired by the City in August is WPR Consulting, LLC, a Charlotte-based company composed of the firm’s president Willie Ratchford and Anthony W. Wade, Ph.D., who is a Certified Professional in Human Resources by HR Certification Institute and Society for Human Resource Management.

According to their proposal, their plan would be “interactive and experiential” by providing WSFD employees opportunities to engage in “honest and substantive dialogue around issues of diversity, inclusion, and respect.”

In the “Scope of Work” portion outlined in the proposal, the consultants would conduct culture and climate assessment of the WSFD and gather information about diversity and inclusion issues from its employees. The consultants would use a strategic planning technique called a SWOT Analysis, which determines the fire department’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats as well as potential growth areas. Additionally, the consultants would develop and facilitate a comprehensive diversity and inclusion training module that could be “used to improve the cultural competency of fire employees and all other city staff if needed.”

Following all of these analyses, the proposal states, consultants would then make recommendations as needed “to build an inclusive environment for all City departments to include training, technical assistance, staff development, accountability, community engagement sessions to receive and value resident voices and feedback on primary and related topics, etc.”

As part of the “Action Items” section of the proposal, Wade and Ratchford outlined that the City would need to provide the WSFD’s “EEO1 Report for employment data and City of Winston Salem’s racial/ethnic demographics, copies of print materials and/or social media posts obtained by the City to ascertain resident and community perceptions and concerns.”

The consultants would identify with city staff the appropriate community for focus group sessions and meet/interview the City Manager, Assistant City Manager, the Fire Chief, and others deemed appropriate. The action items also list that Wade and Ratchford would, in conjunction with WSFD chief and executive staff, “determine the number and makeup of WSFD staff focus groups, review WSFD / City outreach and recruitment strategies, and build a DEI training module after consultation with appropriate City staff (and make plans for the facilitation of the module, including training the trainer sessions).”

The consultants would also need to review the City’s DEI Initiatives / Policies, “know the full story on social media concerns,” review the most recent periodic surveys of citizens to evaluate the effectiveness of the City (if applicable), and hear departmental feedback on WSFD and what steps the City takes to allow its employees to have intentional dialogue/conversation about race and DEI issues.

Nearing the end of the process, the proposal states that the consultants would develop a list of recommendations and resources to support the WSFD and the City to “build an inclusive environment for all City departments to include training, technical assistance, staff development, and accountability.”

At the end of this section, it is noted that the listed items “are not exclusive as other actionable items can and will be added from the City and the Consultants. Items listed below may also be removed at the request of the City.”

In an Oct. 7 email, YES! Weekly asked if city officials removed any of the aforementioned action items, and on Oct. 8, Dequenne responded that none of the action items were removed. YES! Weekly also asked Dequenne if City Manager Lee Garrity had the authority to terminate the WSFD Chief or any of the captains and other fire personnel.

Dequenne replied that “state statute provides that the City Manager hires and fires all city employees, except for the city attorney.”

YES! Weekly also asked if there would be a conflict of interest with the WSFD Chief and Executive staff determining the “number and make up” of the focus groups, as outlined by the consultants, considering the OMNIBUS grievance is filed against the Chief and higher-ranking fire officials.

“No,” Dequenne wrote. “This process was performed in conjunction with the consultant to ensure that their needs would be met in ensuring there is adequate representation from the entire department. Any employees not included in the representative groups, who desire to speak with the consultants, will be provided that opportunity. The consultants also intend to meet separately with OMNIBUS.”

Regarding the $20,000 price tag of the consultation/climate study, Dequenne wrote that the city “considers the cost to be fair and reasonable based on comparison with similar types of work performed in the region.”

“To be clear, while the work of the consultant may involve information and concerns raised by employees, it is not in their scope to conduct an investigation into individual employee claims or the grievance,” Dequenne noted. “Those concerns and the grievance will be processed and investigated in accordance with the City of Winston-Salem Personnel Resolution approved by the city council. In addition to the scope of the project, the City has assigned staff from our Internal Audit Division and City Manager’s office to work with the consultant, and the consultant has agreed to train these persons to perform many aspects of this work, such as facilitated conversations, climate assessment, pertinent information gathering, environmental scan, etc., in-house for all other city departments in the future.”

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