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