A Contractor Gets Fired for Voicing an Opinion
by Dewan Gibson
Certified mail is the “we need to talk” of written communication. The news is never good: The IRS is demanding additional money on top of the 10 percent penalty you already paid for an early 401(k) withdrawal; an old flame has reappeared in the form of a court order requesting establishment of paternity, or in my case, your employer is firing you for believing that African-Americans and Latinos are able to sit in a clinic waiting room without starting a race war.
I started contract employment with a San Diego area community health center in July 2012. My job was to write grant proposals that would help the nonprofit increase its already robust $20 million budget. It was not my ideal job, but I had worked in not-for-profit health care for a number of years and knew the grant writing routine — use statistics and emotional appeals to explain, for example, why impoverished children in your service area should have dental care that exceeds putting silver crowns on every tooth. Plus the gig paid well — $25 an hour — and aside from bimonthly meetings, I could work from home while watching my two young kids, or, at the very least, help them to learn the importance of being able to occupy each other while Dad is busy.
By early September of the following year I had written 12 grant proposals. Eight were rejected by potential funders, three were awaiting decisions at the time of my firing, and one was funded at $37,000 to purchase a new patient transportation van. Admittedly, I may or may not have been a great grant writer; the job in itself is nearly impossible to objectively evaluate. You can write a powerful and eloquent 40-page proposal that gets rejected. You can also spend an hour composing a run-of-the-mill description of the organization’s history and program plan and receive a large grant, primarily because the funding organization and the grantee have an established relationship.
Later that month I attended a marketing meeting at the request of the organization’s Chief Operating Officer. The group brainstorming session, complete with flip charts, colored markers, and late afternoon lack of enthusiasm, was held to identify future grant opportunities and discuss ways to increase patient visits. During the meeting, the employee whose job task was to guilt Big Business and politicians into giving the organization grants (official title: Director of Community Partnerships) suggested that the health center market their services to African-Americans, which made a lot of sense. Pick any major health disparity or health crisis — HIV infections, hospitalizations due to chronic disease, deaths to chronic disease, or number of non-emergency visits to the emergency department — and the statistics for African-Americans in the clinic’s service area were the worst of the worst.
But the Chief Operating Officer quickly dismissed his idea. Her reasoning was that, “Blacks don’t like to be in the clinic with Mexicans,” which is somewhat correct if you’re talking about black and brown gang members in a prison infirmary, but not your everyday community members seeking health care.
A spirited 20-minute discussion ensued between the two. The Chief Operating Officer said, “We already see African refugees,” as if there was some sort of Negro quota. The Director stated that politicians and the media would “come down hard” on the organization if they found out about the policy. He went on to explain that he planned to meet with a black state assemblymember who represented the district that was home to the bulk of the organization’s clinics. Presumably she had no problem sitting in a room with someone of a different race. Still, the Chief Operating Officer refused to budge.
As the only African-American in the meeting, this was probably an opportune time for me to join the conversation, but as a lowly contract grant writer working 15 hours per week I lacked the clout to influence an executive level decision. Still, the spirit of Django ran through me and I said, “As a member of the African-American community we’re discussing, I can say that it’s not just a matter of race, but also matter of health disparities…this is the wrong way to go about things.”
The head honcho, visibly aggravated at this point, reaffirmed that the health center would not target “them” and then said, “We’re moving on.”
“This is not the right way to do things,” I said again.
She looked at me as a mother does her child when he continuously interrupts an adult conversation, seemingly focused more on the act of disrespect than the content of his message, and sternly said, “No, no, no.”
I considered walking out of the meeting, which would have likely terminated my employment. But then I thought about my family and money I received from the job and how my kids are generally well-behaved if they’re well-nourished. I remained silent in my seat for five or so awkward minutes before the meeting concluded.
A week later I attended the third marketing and development meeting. I was supposed to discuss research I had conducted in search of new grant opportunities, but the Chief skipped past me and ended the meeting early. I caught up with her as she left to her office and handed over a copy of my research. She gave it a quick glance and said, “Looks good. I’ll email you about it tonight.”
I never received that email. The following day I went to the post office to pick up certified mail for which I received notice a few days earlier. My first thought was to ignore it, but then I figured the notice was for a package of limited edition Pepsi-flavored Cheetos that a friend in Japan had promised to send. Instead it was a letter from the health center dated September 19, 2013 (a day after the marketing meeting) and signed by the Chief Operating Officer. It read, “Please be notified that we are terminating the Independent Consultant Agreement we have with you for the services of grant writing effective September 30, 2013. We thank you for the services you provided to us and wish well (sic) in your endeavors.”
If there’s an immediate positive to come out of being fired it’s that it causes you to self-reflect. There were jobs in the past from which I probably deserved to be fired but was not. While employed at another community health center, I once left the office 30 minutes early so I could attend the San Diego Padres’ Opening Day. That’s not so bad until you consider the local news interviewed me at the game and after three too many beers I said, “I left work without telling anyone just to be here!” The segment ran multiple times and word quickly spread around the office. Thankfully I was saved by my supervisor’s sense of humor.
But my time at this health center was different. I believed in the organization and worked kind of hard to contribute to their mission. Their executive staff, including the Chief Operating Officer, routinely complimented my grant writing and even suggested that I apply for a full-time position as the Director of Development. I passed on the opportunity because I could not bear to suffer through the boredom of a full-time workday behind a desk. I genuinely believe that there are very few office jobs that actually need you to be present eight hours a day, which comes to about 20 years of sitting over the course of a lifetime (assuming you don’t die early from a chronic illness brought on by stressful and sedentary employment). Put it like this: If you restrict social media and reduce the number of times eager-to-please staff can say “Just to piggyback off that…” in meetings you could knockout a day’s work in about four hours. Grant writing and development work was no different.
In the days after my firing I contacted various foundations and government entities that provided La Maestra with financing and explained what I saw as the reason for my firing: the gall to speak up to the organization’s second-in-charge about a marketing policy based on a racial stereotype that a taxpayer-funded organization should not be implementing.
A few local politicians responded to my letter, mostly with trite statements related to valuing diversity. But one elected official took the matter to the Chief Administrative Officer for the County of San Diego. An investigation into the organization’s marketing policy is being conducted, though I imagine it’s just a formality with no serious repercussions. This is how the buddy-buddy world of some local governments and large non-profit organizations function.
I’m currently working with another not-for-profit company, though, without the grant writing contract, I’m bringing home $1,500 less per month. Just last week I received notice that a “dental care for diverse populations” grant proposal I wrote while working for the health center was selected from 331 submissions as being “worthy of additional consideration.” This may no longer be the case now that I’ve alerted the grantor of the health center’s belief that “Blacks don’t like to be in the clinic with Mexicans.”