A Voice for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

A Voice for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Naomi Fernandez-Rodriguez, Case Manager & Chair of Vail’s Diversity Council

Naomi moved to Minnesota from Puerto Rico in 2015 and immediately enrolled in the social work school at the University of Minnesota.  She came to Vail Place as an intern in that same year and was then hired as a case manager in 2016.  In a recent conversation with Development Director, Stefano LoVerso, she shared aspects of her background and experiences that influence her work and her views on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and her leadership position in the Diversity Council at Vail Place.

Stefano:   Would you talk a little bit about your work at Vail Place?  What it’s been like adapting during this time – in working with your clients?

Naomi: I think it’s been harder because one of the main benefits of case management is establishing that relationship, that trust relationship and reciprocal relationship, and that gets obviously affected when you cannot see people face to face.  The interaction is not the same. The needs are the same and you have to do the same job, with some barriers in the way….  I have actually been providing more than I would do on a regular basis just because I understand that many people don’t have other supports and many people are in more distress just because they have less access to social interactions and other services.  So I have been calling and checking a little bit more with people.

Stefano:   Tell me about the diversity council. Where it’s been, where it is now, where it’s going? Your feelings about the work?

Naomi: The diversity council started as a space to basically amplify employees’ voices that belong to minority groups and their experiences that they were having as part of these groups, in both their personal and professional life. I reflected a lot with my then supervisor about experiences that I was having myself as a Latina in Minnesota.  And I said I wish we could do something, and we talked to Vicky and she said that the conversation related to diversity and inclusion was long overdue and we should start something.  So from there we started a group and invited any employee.

The first thing we did was a presentation related to implicit and explicit bias, microaggressions and intersectionality. We also did a presentation at the Minnesota Association of Community Mental Health Programs (MACMHP)  about the diversity council and how  organizations were addressing those topics within their organizations, and why it was a valuable asset to have that discussion in that group in the organization – how most companies are moving to diversity and inclusion internal policies.

One of the results from the first presentations was a policy to include two personal holidays at Vail Place honoring that we have diverse staff and that the holidays that we have are mainly Caucasian and Christian and not everyone had their religions or groups represented.  So Vail Place did. Took that feedback and made that policy. We also started including members. And we did that same presentation at the Clubhouses, but also did other more culturally based presentations.  The last thing was that the HR Team added Juneteenth as a holiday for all employees.

So we have done a lot, it has been a space to offer support to staff that have encountered discrimination while working and we have had several people that have used this space to present the situation and get support from their peers and from management and kind of problem solve how to address that situation.

We have done education and awareness trainings. Some of the trainings have come from internal employees and some have come from outside like the mapping prejudice and historical trauma ones. And right now we are going through some restructure of the council so we can make things happen better, and I have been recently named the chair of the council or the main lead and then Jolene will be the Vice Chair. And the hope is that we can attend things quicker and make more things happen.  Have more consistency, more spaces.

Stefano:  I just wanted to jump back to one thing you said earlier.  You said based on your experiences as a Latina in Minnesota. Do you mind if I ask you to share something about that?

Naomi: I came to Minnesota in 2015 and I immediately went to the social work school. Obviously, most of the spaces I have been have been predominantly white, including school, the U of M school of social work. I took the diversity class there which helped me understand a lot of the issues that I was going through and put a name to those issues.  Like, for example, microaggressions. I never heard that word before and I learned about that and I learned that that was happening to me and I was able to put a name to what was happening to me.

I have people ask me from what part of Mexico I am or try to guess my background or comment on my accent. Sometimes the comments are positive. But sometimes people have gotten impatient with me because of how I’m pronouncing something, or how long my last names are and I have to spell them because people want to double check that I am part of my organization, or they need my email and my email has my two last names.

So people will make comments and have prejudices and make assumptions about me only based on my last names or that I’m speaking Spanish.  And that happens in the workplace. I have clients that didn’t want to work with me because of my accent and those were complaints that were brought to my supervisors.

These things don’t come as explicitly racist when they come out, they don’t come that way.  They might seem like an inoffensive comment, an inoffensive question, you know, just an assumption.  But they are microaggressions. And when you live them day by day, they have an impact on you and your identity and your self-esteem and your confidence.  So for me I sometimes feel that I need to prove myself higher than my peers and I need to prove myself more than my white coworker.  And those were some of the things that I was sharing.

Stefano:   Have you found you’ve received enough support at Vail place as you’ve shared what’s been going on?

Naomi: Yeah, I think so. As you know, my supervisors are white and they have used what I have been sharing. Either they have used their privilege to amplify my voice or to demand some things. One specific example I can give you was that once I called the police after a situation that happened with a client, and the police basically didn’t address my concerns. And what they asked me was if I was a U.S. citizen and if I had an ID, which wasn’t relevant to the situation or something that they needed to be asking me.  My supervisor sent a letter to the Police Department after that. And every time I have brought something it has been accepted with a lot of openness and a desire to learn and understand and make a difference. So I think most people at Vail Place are on that boat. They understand that these things are happening and they want to be part of that change.  I think people have been very supportive.

Stefano:   Has there been a significant difference in any way since the murder of George Floyd … Has the increased awareness of racial inequity and all of the discussions around that made a change at the work place that you’ve noticed?

Naomi: I think everyone in our organization, everyone nationally and internationally, in Minnesota and the rest of the U.S., everyone has become more aware. Everyone is at an emotional point where they have said this is enough and we want to make something different. So everyone is educating themselves more or involving themselves more.  I definitely think that, sadly, the death of this man has inspired a lot of people to get involved. Not that these things weren’t happening before. Not that the same issues haven’t been there. But I think it has impacted the community in a way, and maybe it’s a combination between COVID-19 and people being in close and people being able to follow more at these things that are happening and get in having actually a time or the space to be more involved. Maybe you know it’s a combination of factors, but definitely something was different this time – for more people than usual.

Stefano:   So you feel some sense of optimism that things might improve?

Naomi: I feel my responsibility is to not let this level of empathy and emotion that people are feeling fall down which is what happens many times … there’s a big fire after a big event happens and then things start to calm down and I think we cannot fall into that place. We need to continue this movement; we need to continue having conversations; we need to continue advocating for policies that will benefit people of all colors equally – and that includes in mental health.  We know that there are disparities in the physical health and mental health field for people of color, especially black people, and we cannot continue acting like that is not a reality and not addressing it. We need to do something about it.

Stefano:   What? What vision do you have for the diversity council and the vision and the work of the diversity council? Where would you like to see that go?

Naomi: Mainly I just want people to be educated and aware so they can take actions on the information that they have. I understand that there’s a lot of misinformation or things that people don’t know, and if you don’t know them, you’re not aware, so you cannot do anything about them. So I think that’s a main goal. And I will say a second goal will be for that to translate into policies within the organization in the way that we serve our community.  So it translates into more equitable and culturally competent services for the people that we serve.

Stefano:   So what involvement would you like to see in the diversity council? Who should be there? Who do you want to see there?

Naomi: I think the diversity group is a group for everyone. All employees that could take the time to be involved should be involved. And I would love to see more leaders of the organization, people in higher positions like directors and leads and supervisors, be part of the diversity council because the reality is that our directors  and supervisors are making decisions, are supervising people of color and addressing Issues that employees have with clients where that might not be in perspective if we’re not having that topic on the table? There might be biases there that we might need to be addressing and if we’re not having these conversations, if people that are supervising or in leadership positions in the organization aren’t having these conversations, how are we making sure that we are providing equitable services across all of our programs. So I think this group is for everyone including white people and this this work is something for everyone to be involved in, not only people of color.  People of color shouldn’t be carrying the burden of changing things in society that they haven’t created. You know what I mean? I would like everyone to get involved.  And the doors are open. We want people to get involved. We would win. We need the energy and the support of everyone. And then we want this to translate ultimately in how we offer services to be more culturally intelligent and competent and advocate for the right causes, including in the mental health services, the mental health field.

Stefano:   How do you feel Vail Place is doing right now? How do you feel about the work the agency is doing?

Naomi: I think Vail Place is a lead in many areas in the mental health field and I think the diversity council and the diversity and inclusion topic is not the exception. I think we’re making a lot of positive changes and we are on the right direction. There’s more work to do.  I would like to see more people of color in our agency. I would like to see more clients of color that we are serving because there’s obviously a need. So we have work to do. We could do better on some things, but I think we’re leading also on change and we have already taken a lot of positive steps to make that happen.