Black women in Sonoma County public sector lean on each other to deal with racism, bias

The women, haunted by the racial slurs heard in the July meeting on homelessness, lean on each other for support and encouragement.|

Barbie Robinson and Tina Rivera wept for days after that summer meeting.

The two Black women, the respective director and assistant director of Sonoma County’s department of health services and community development commission, were haunted by the torrent of racial slurs and images of lynchings flooding their computer screens when someone hijacked a public Zoom forum in July about local homelessness.

When Robinson attempted to speak, the unknown intruder repeatedly said the N-word.

After five minutes, the virtual meeting — attended by dozens of senior officials and local nonprofit leaders — was abruptly ended. But the pain from that hate-ridden broadcast has lingered with Robinson and Rivera because they felt targeted and embarrassed as seasoned professionals.

The ugly incident was compounded in the aftermath. Sonoma County Supervisor Chair Susan Gorin condemned the racial attack in a group email after the meeting, but also described it as “entertaining, if not so challenging.” The board chair said in a recent interview she regretted that comment and her poorly-worded attempt at acknowledging the lengths someone would go to cause harm, and how slow she was to observe its effect on the two women.

Gorin described the Zoom bomb as a “very powerful learning moment,” and a clear example of the devastating consequences of implicit bias.

With initial support absent on that July day, Robinson and Rivera held a “sisters zoom” call that evening with Sheba Person-Whitley, executive director of the county economic development board, and Arlene Junior, executive officer of the Sonoma County Superior Court. The four women of color who work in critical public sector roles talked for four hours consoling each other.

That initial conversation forged a bond of sisterhood and a deep connection between the four women, whose very presence as Black females steering key county departments symbolizes historic change. They chat often via video, and fill group texts with messages of support and encouragement, all vital in a year marked by a local and nationwide awakening on race, and recognition of the conscious effort required to achieve lasting, social progress.

Tina Rivera is the Assistant Director of Sonoma County Department of Health Services and Community Development Commission.
Tina Rivera is the Assistant Director of Sonoma County Department of Health Services and Community Development Commission.

“Sometimes it’s difficult and a struggle and you want to quit,” said Rivera, a multiracial woman from Louisiana. “I just feel like we’re in an hour when we need pioneers. Maybe we didn’t want this, but here we are. We would do ourselves, our communities — as difficult as this is — a disservice to turn and quit. We must blaze these trails because it’s not just about us, it’s who comes behind us.”

In liberal Sonoma County, where most elected officials are Democrats, these prominent Black women in local government think anti-racist values are still lacking.

The “sisters” called for more spaces in the community where residents and colleagues can explore the difficult conversations that are needed so the county’s 62% white population has a better understanding of the daily realities faced by their Black and brown neighbors.

Person-Whitley, a former economic manager in Stockton who was hired as the local economic czar after Ben Stone retired last year, said she experiences microaggressions from peers and is often marginalized in ways her heralded predecessor wasn’t.

Since she took over, she and the department have been excluded from several countywide economic initiatives that typically required collaboration with the county economic development board, Person-Whitley said.

“With racism, there’s implicit and explicit. In the South, you pretty much know where you stand,” she said of her upbringing in North Carolina. “But in this part of the country, unless they’re using a racial slur, they minimize the extent to which and degree to which racism exists.”

Robinson, who as the head of the county health department and human development commission, leads high-profile local efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and homelessness. She said navigating such polarizing work has also come with a double standard.

Her appointments as head of the two departments both followed abrupt exits by white male predecessors embroiled in controversy. Rather than being seen as a qualified leader willing to take on the additional responsibility, some accused her of “kingdom building,” Robinson said.

“We are constantly having to walk this tightrope and fine line,” she said. “If I’m strong, I’m (viewed as) aggressive. If I’m passive, I’m not a strong leader. When we are socialized in racism and sexism, how do we dismantle that?”

The former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator said accountability and criticism come with managing critical government offices, but in a moment when racial tensions are high, she thinks the color of her skin has made her an easy target.

“I cannot have the burden of racism and responsibility for eradicating it,” Robinson said. “ ... But I recognize people are doing the best they can with what they know.”

For at least for one “sister,” things are different.

Junior was hand-picked and tasked with being a change agent to shift the county court’s direction and better integrate new technology, she said. That process, with more internal buy-in rather than an outside consultant hired for recruitment, is why Junior thinks she experiences less tension than the other “sisters.”

But her passion for pushing conversations within her circle has not relented. Many presiding judges have sought her wisdom on how to respond deliberately after George Floyd’s death in May triggered nationwide unrest.

Two of her three children are college-aged men, Junior said, and even if her daily work has fewer racial thorns than the other “sisters,“ walking in stores or getting pulled over by police will always come with a different reality.

“You don’t have to be a professional to not be hurt by someone who misunderstands you for the color of your skin,” Junior said.

Women and women of color are constantly under a microscope, and “have to work doubly hard and triply hard to prove they have the merit and expertise to accomplish the job,” Gorin said.

Throughout their careers, the four “sisters” have constantly been “the first” or one of the first to hold their respective positions. But representing change is different from making change, Person-Whitley said.

In an era defined by historic firsts for Black women, recently marked by the rise of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Person-Whitley is appreciative of the opportunity to continue transforming communities. For Sonoma County, it begins with greater acknowledgment of the challenges people of color face, she said.

“Even the willingness to start those discussions,” Person-Whitley said. “I know these are difficult conversations to have. But how we bring about change is acknowledging something is something and stepping into it, not to step around it.”

Staff Writer Tyler Silvy contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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