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Civil rights organizations demand change, action at Kansas City VA hospital

By CORTLYNN STARK | The Kansas City Star | Published: October 7, 2020

KANSAS CITY (Tribune News Service) — Local and national civil rights and union groups addressed allegations of discrimination at Department of Veterans Affairs’ facilities and criticized President Donald Trump’s executive order on race and sex stereotyping, fearing the order will only silence employees who have experienced discrimination.

There have been dozens of complaints of discrimination, all ultimately describing systemic discrimination against Black employees. Former employees at the Kansas City Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center have described a culture of systemic racism.

During Tuesday’s virtual press conference, attorney Nimrod Chapel, head of the Missouri NAACP chapter and who is representing several of those with discrimination allegations, said the executive order will prohibit employees from talking about topics such as systemic racism.

“These atrocities are that people have been marginalized as a result of their god-given characteristics,” Chapel said.

Chapel demanded an independent investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Charmayne “Charlie” Brown, a nurse who worked at the Kansas City VA and retired after 17 years, said she had been called “Aunt Jemima” and repeatedly passed over for promotions. A supervisor, Brown said, beckoned to her with a finger and when she stepped closer, told her that he wanted to see “if he could make me come with his finger.”

Brown said her complaints resulted in no action and that she was retaliated against.

Brown previously spoke out during a press conference in June. She has said that she wants to speak out so others don’t have to experience what she did for so long.

She was one of three who addressed their experiences of discrimination at other VA facilities.

Chapel said others could not speak out “simply because they are afraid of the retaliatory treatment they know exists.”

Justice Gatson, the founder of the Reale Justice Network and a Kansas City-based organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she knew when she first learned about the issues at the VA that she wanted to do anything she could to support those facing discrimination.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that in this day and age we are still facing this type of discrimination,” Gatson said.

She has organized weekly protests on Mondays outside the KCVA, “so that those employees know that there are people who are willing to fight for them.”

Following the wave of complaints, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie visited the KCVA in June. At the time, he said the department is undergoing “cultural change” and that he is bringing accountability to all levels of the VA.

In a statement, KCVA spokesman Miles Brown said: “The Kansas City VA Medical Center is proud of its diverse and inclusive culture, and the facility does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind.”

Brown said employees can contact the facility’s Equal Employment Opportunity manager, Employee Threat Assessment Team or the VA’s Office of Resolution Management at 1-888-566-3982.

“Every complaint is thoroughly investigated and handled appropriately,” Brown said. “Based on the outcome of that process, VA takes appropriate personnel actions, if warranted.”

Marcellus Shields, president of the American Federation of Government Employees chapter based in Wilmington, Delaware, said he has seen employees who are too afraid to speak up because of retaliation.

The executive order, Shields said, will silence VA employees.

“If they are silenced, there is no way to fix what is going on,” Shields said. “There will be no way to get to the root of the problem because we can’t talk about the problem.”

The systemic racism at the VA also affects the care veterans receive, Shields said.

Pastor Michael Brooks, with the Concerned Clergy Coalition, said he decided after serving in the Air Force that he would not get care from the VA.

“I’m concerned that our veterans are not getting the care that they should get,” said Brooks, also a co-chair of the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equality. “It seems to be systemic all the way through the organization.”

The Rev. Rodney Williams, president of the Kansas City chapter of the NAACP, said it’s “immoral” to not promote staff because of their skin color. He demanded systemic change from the agency.

“We are here to draw the line in the sand,” Williams said. “We are here to say enough is enough.”

The Government Accountability Office will investigate systemic racism in the department beginning in about six months.

Employees who need help, Chapel said, can call 844-NAACP-HELP, the National Action Network or the American Federation of Government Employees.

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