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Sonoma County losing two top officials, who cite frustrations over microaggressions, racial bias

Sonoma County is losing its top economic development official and its incoming health services director, with each citing a pattern of racial bias and microaggressions that makes working for the county untenable for people of color.

In an email sent to county department heads on Wednesday, Economic Development Board Executive Director Sheba Person-Whitley announced she had taken a job with the federal Commerce Department, and will be leaving her job with the county after 2½ years in late December.

But Person-Whitley, who is Black, also used her resignation letter to call out what she referred to as a pattern of racial bias and microaggressions, which are everyday comments and actions that make a person feel marginalized and “othered,” for their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or other elements of identity.

“My time here has been fraught with me doing my very best to perform my duties as Executive Director while managing the stresses and harm caused as a result of racial bias and microaggression,” Person-Whitley wrote.

“This is heartbreaking for me personally and professionally as a Black woman,” Person-Whitley wrote. “It is my sincere hope that the community will continue to work together to address these issues.”

On Thursday, Sonoma County officials also revealed that Derrick Neal, the choice to take over the $275 million health services department, had backed out. Neal, who also is Black, withdrew on Tuesday, citing concerns about the treatment of department heads of color.

An email Neal sent withdrawing from the position was not available Thursday, and he could not be immediately reached for comment. The Board of Supervisors had been expected to vote on his contract on Tuesday and his tentative start date was Dec. 1.

County officials made no announcement about Neal’s withdrawal, until after The Press Democrat published an article online Thursday about Person-Whitley’s departure, which the paper learned about when her resignation email was leaked.

Throughout their tenures with the county, prominent officials of color including former Health Services Director Barbie Robinson, a Black woman, and Person-Whitley, have described encountering double standards not applied to their white, male predecessors. Person-Whitley has said she has felt excluded from county initiatives and both have experienced direct, aggressive racism when engaging with the public.

Each cited instances of racial bias but also microaggressions. While neither gave a specific example of a microaggression they experienced, the slights can often come in the form of a compliment that, while perhaps well-intended, is based on a stereotype like telling a person of color “you’re so articulate,” which implies to the recipient that their ability to speak well is a surprise or unusual.

In July 2020, someone hijacked a county Zoom forum on homelessness with a torrent of racial slurs and images of lynchings. Robinson and Tina Rivera, then assistant director of Sonoma County’s department of health services and now the department’s interim director, who also is Black, were part of that forum, and pain from the hate-ridden attack lingered.

Racism in Sonoma County has gotten so severe the county has had to take security precautions to protect its leaders of color, said Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins.

“I think that’s the most heartbreaking part of all of this is Black people not feeling safe living in Sonoma County,” Hopkins said. “And I think that’s something the entire community needs to grapple with.”

Though Person-Whitley is excited about the new career opportunity, daily battles with microaggressions and racial bias made her situation at the county “untenable,” Person-Whitley told her fellow department-heads in the email Wednesday.

In a statement sent to The Press Democrat on Thursday, Person-Whitley stressed the need for Sonoma County to address a broader problem.

“I realize these issues are not unique to me and therefore it's critically important that the community continue to work together to address long standing issues with bias and inequities.”

Person-Whitley also praised her dedicated and talented economic development team and said she is proud of their work, particularly around addressing equity for businesses in the Sonoma County.

Person-Whitley became executive director of the county’s Economic Development Board in 2019, taking over for Ben Stone who ran the department for more than 30 years.

Before coming to Sonoma County, Person-Whitley worked as an economic development manager in Stockton and held various roles in economic development departments in Louisiana and North Carolina.

“Sheba has given her heart and soul to this county and I want to commend her for her public service here,” Hopkins said.

About a month ago, Person-Whitley brought her concerns about her experiences to the board. It was a conversation Supervisor David Rabbitt said he wished the board had with Person-Whitley when it first hired her.

“The same thing is true of Barbie,” Rabbitt said.

When both Robinson and Person-Whitley stepped into department leadership roles, the county asked them to "be a change agent,“ Rabbitt said, adding that Robinson faced unfair backlash for seeing through that change.

“The big issue is really the supportiveness,” Rabbitt said. “The support factor and to make sure we have each other’s backs.”

Supervisor James Gore called Person-Whitley’s departure a “wake up call” and echoed Rabbitt’s call for better support.

“If we want to break down inequitable institutions we can’t just hire people to come in and leave them on their own,” he said. “We must support the work personally.”

Supervisor Chris Coursey said Person-Whitley’s experience in the county is not the first time he has heard of a Black person encountering racism in Sonoma County.

“They have not been welcomed as people should be welcomed by people in this county,” Coursey said. “And I wish I could say different, but that is the experience that I’ve been told about for many years.”

Hopkins, Rabbitt, Coursey, Gore and Supervisor Susan Gorin lamented the loss of Person-Whitley and the message being sent to people of color.

“What has happened really contradicts who we are and what we are all about,” Gorin said.

The details of Person-Whitley’s new position are embargoed, Person-Whitley told The Press Democrat, but she said she is excited and views it as the “culmination of all my hard work and education.”

“In my next role at the U.S. Department of Commerce, I look forward to the opportunity to provide economic equity and inclusion to more communities and to serving our country,” Person-Whitley’s statement read.

Person-Whitley’s last day with the county will be Dec. 27, according to her email.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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