Photo depicting health care workers in scrubs and coats walking down a sidewalk in protest, carrying various signs that read "Trust Support And Believe Black Women!" and "We Will Not Be Silenced!"

Healthcare Workers at Carolyn Downs Protest Executive Director Reinstatement Despite Allegations of Racism

by Jasmine M. Pulido

On the afternoon of Thursday, January 28, two dozen doctors, nurses, and support staff walked out of Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center in protest of the announcement that the clinic’s white male executive director, Raleigh Watts, would be reinstated on February 1 after being on paid administrative leave since October 2020. Dating back to October 2020, Watts was under an ongoing internal investigation into allegations of microaggressions, workplace abuse, and preferential treatment based on race. 

The independent investigation consisted of employee interviews across all sites, including with Watts himself, the former employee who raised the initial allegations, and former staff. The investigation was originally sparked by a former HR director’s eight-page letter (a copy of which was provided to the Emerald) that referenced five top-level BIPOC employees who all resigned within a 12-month period. The letter also contained several documented instances of differential treatment by the executive director based on race including a suggestion to “not focus on increasing the hiring of Black staff at the clinic right now,” being told by Watts that they were not getting a salary increase because they formed a Black Caucus (while all other employees received the salary increase), and coded language said to BIPOC employees that, in her opinion, was evidence of institutionalized racism, such as “you are not a good fit,” “you are not professional,” and “you can not accept feedback.” Three of the BIPOC employees listed in the letter were on staff for 10–20 years. 

An abbreviated three-page version of the letter was published on Medium — but has since been taken down — outlining in detail several experiences in which Watts had purportedly “bullied, tokenized, and abused” them behind closed doors. Other BIPOC and female employees then came forward with their own testimonies following the published letter. One former top-level BIPOC employee commented to the Emerald about the author and the contents of the eight-page letter that, “she stated the truth.” Aside from the five high-ranking BIPOC employees cited in the letter and the former HR director (a Woman of Color) who authored the letter, another Woman of Color on staff also resigned just before Christmas after being employed for Country Doctor Community Health Centers for 35 years. She could not be reached for comment about whether her resignation was related to treatment by Watts.

Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center, located in the Central District, is the only Black Panther clinic left in the nation. It is one of two main clinics operated by Country Doctor Community Health Centers (CDCHC). Thursday’s walk-out was in response to a virtual meeting held by the CDCHC’s Board of Directors announcing to general staff that the independent investigation, conducted by Kris Cappel from SEABOLD Group who is white and is formerly an assistant U.S. attorney and civil litigator, found no evidence of discrimination or bias based on race. Instead, the investigative report found several areas of Watts’ leadership practices that had “impacts on staff that did not advance equity and inclusion.”

While Cappel’s investigation found no evidence of racial discrimination, a group of physicians at CDCHC wanted to make it clear to the Board they did not want Watts to return regardless of the investigation’s results. On January 21, a week prior to the walk-out, 17 physicians signed a letter sent to the Board of Directors stating, “Regardless of the findings of the investigation and Raleigh’s many positive contributions to CDCHC during his Board and Executive Director tenure, we feel strongly that he is not the right leader for this organization going forward.”

The Emerald reached out to Raleigh Watts for comment via email and text. He redirected us to the CDCHC’s media contact, Director of Development and Marketing Michael Craig, to answer questions for this story. The Emerald also reached out to Board Chair Rik Wyman and investigator Kris Cappel for comment four days before publication but did not receive a response by the time this article was published.

Opened in 1970, Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center was started by Black community activists and the Black Panther Party who wanted better access to healthcare. Its original name was the Sydney Miller Free Medical Clinic, named after a slain BPP member. It closed in 1975 to reorganize into a family medical center with the same name. Carolyn Downs, a BPP member who helped BPP (Seattle Chapter) co-founder Elmer Dixon with the project, died at the premature age of 25 in 1978 due in part to large disparities in medical services available to Black patients, a resource gap that still exists today. When they re-opened the clinic in 1979, the BPP decided to rename it in her honor. Carolyn Downs merged with Country Doctor Community Clinic (CDCC) in 1988 to become one organization, Country Doctor Community Health Centers. The clinic then moved from a location in Madrona to the Central District in 1994 to better serve communities of color. According to three different staff members interviewed by the Emerald on condition of anonymity, Watts frequently referred to this merger as an “interracial marriage.”

A couple dozen medical staff from Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center and Country Doctor Community Health Centers protest across the street from the home of Raleigh Watts. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Fifteen current and former employees spoke to the Emerald about a persistent and subtle pattern of microaggressions, inappropriate language and behavior, and emotionally manipulative tactics by Watts.

Laquetta Ford, a young Black woman medical assistant, described an encounter she had with Watts after being pulled over by police for a broken taillight on her way to work in April 2020. According to Ford, Watts wanted her to talk to news outlets. Ford questioned whether his desire was to benefit her as a Black woman or if he sought to use her racial identity and the potentially racialized incident with police to boost the clinic’s image. When he asked her to drive him down to where she was pulled over, she expressed that she was not comfortable with the request. “His exact words were, ‘I’m your director. That’s what you’re supposed to do.’” 

According to Ford, she acquiesced and drove Watts to the location but ultimately decided not to talk to news media or other referrals he wanted to line up for her. According to Ford, he then continually texted her over that weekend — texts she still has — saying that he regretted going out for her and that he hoped this didn’t end her career. After Ford continued to turn down his requests, he would not talk to her, respond to her emails, nor acknowledge her when passing her on site. Only a month into her position and not knowing anyone on staff, she kept the incident to herself. Many others attested to similar dismissive treatment from Watts. Ford reached out to the investigator to be interviewed as part of the internal investigation but was never contacted for testimony. Multiple employees also attested to the fact that the investigator did not return their requests to be interviewed.

Justin Pat, a Southeast Asian American man and CDCHC’s previous IT Systems Manager — and one of the five top-level BIPOC employees referred to in the original eight-page letter — told the Emerald that he didn’t resign but was forced out by Watts with no elaboration beyond Country Doctor informing him it no longer needed his service. According to Pat, there was no one in the room besides Watts — not even an HR representative — when Pat received the news of his dismissal. It was frequently mentioned by other co-workers interviewed that Watts would sometimes meet employees alone in a room without witnesses, and therefore no third party was able to testify to their experiences. Pat stated that he wasn’t aware of whether his dismissal was related to race. Furthermore, he wasn’t aware of and didn’t witness any racialized instances enacted by Watts in the workplace with himself or other employees.

Two other top-level BIPOC employees who were both with Country Doctor for 10–20 years said that Watts was pleasant when he first came on board as executive director in October 2017. However, once he settled in, both told the Emerald that his attitude suddenly changed and that Watts made their jobs more and more miserable until they resigned. One reaffirmed the former HR director’s written claims that Watts would frequently pit employees against each other by commenting that the rest of the team didn’t like their work. He would then privately assure them that he was the only one who “had your back.” The anonymous employee stated that Watts would “show me diagrams of future org charts where my name wasn’t on it and asked me what would it take for me to get back on the org chart and how he could help me to become a better leader.” This same team member also told the Emerald that they could have written the former HR director’s eight-page letter themselves and that all the behaviors described in the letter about Watts were accurate based on their own experience. However, they could not definitively identify whether the behavior was based on race or if it was simply indicative of Watts’ leadership style in general. 

Rebecca Joyce, a medical assistant at Carolyn Downs, joined several dozen other medical personnel from the Country Doctor and Carolyn Downs clinics in a walk-out on January 28, to express their disappointment in the reinstatement of Raleigh Watts as Executive Director of Country Doctor Community Health Centers. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Executive Diversity Services, led by Black male president, Elmer Dixon (of Seattle BPP fame), conducted an organizational assessment over three sessions (on January 19, 21, and 22) at the request of CDCHC. As a founding member of the Black Panther party, Dixon’s analysis is particularly insightful given his historical perspective and deep understanding of the organization’s mission. He examined CDCHC’s level of commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), suggested best practices, and outlined next steps to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace environment. Less than a week before the Board’s announcement on Jan. 28, Dixon’s first recommendation as a Diversity Trainer and Civil Rights Activist was “Finding a new leader with a proven track record in leading a diverse organization and a demonstrated commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to lead the organization forward.” 

On the day of the walk-out, the Chair of the Black Caucus Resource Group, Justice Wornum, offered a space later in the afternoon for all Black employees to speak openly and decompress in response to the Board’s announcement. The Black Caucus Resource Group, a support network that provides resources to Black employees, is also writing a letter with a list of demands of specific institutional changes they want to see in the CDCHC. One of the items calls for the replacement of the executive director. 

Following the January 28 virtual meeting announcing their decision, CDCHC’s Board held a listening session, facilitated by Dixon, to allow its staff to process the results. A recording of this session was made available to the Emerald. Each clinic came online from their separate site locations to attend the virtual meeting hosted by the Board. Instead of meaningfully acknowledging their pain and empathizing with their staff’s considerable feelings of anger, sadness, and distrust expressed in their many questions and impassioned statements, CDCHC Board Vice-Chair Mary Downs responded by saying, “You said you can’t move on or is it that you’re choosing not to move on? Because we do have choices here,” “Everyone deserves a second chance,” and “I believe respect and trust — it has to be earned … It’s going to have to work both ways.” CDCHC Board Chair Rik Wyman also explained that the Board legally had a fiduciary responsibility to the institution and they needed the guidance of an executive director for upcoming events that determined their non-profit funding. CDCHC’s Michael Craig clarified with the Emerald later in an interview that the main reason for the decision was based on the investigation’s results, not funding.

With the exception of one white woman who talked at length about being a white woman, every staff member who spoke at the meeting expressed extreme disappointment and some begged leaders to reconsider the decision. At one of the clinic sites, before the contentious Jan. 28 virtual announcement and listening session had ended, 20–30 people left the room, leaving only one staff member remaining on the call with the Board.  The meeting ended with Dixon commenting to the Board, “I think you’re asking them to do something that they can’t do.” 

In response to a request for comment from the Emerald, Dixon said in a Facebook message, “I can’t publicly comment because [CDCHC] are currently my client. I’m working with them through the implementation of a DEI strategy and our work is always confidential.”

A couple dozen medical staff from Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center and Country Doctor Community Health Centers walk past a signal box painted with a portrait of community activist Rahwa Habte on their way to protest in front of Raleigh Watts’ home. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Michelle Mitchell, a Black female Clinic Administrator and Vice Chair of the Black Caucus Resource Group, spoke out about how many felt distrust of the Board of Directors from the very beginning of this investigation process: “We have a lot of distrust for them and today it just exploded. Lava everywhere.” Mitchell also brought up concerns that the Board did not address allegations of misogyny and harassment of women, which purportedly were also listed as staff complaints. The three-page letter that was originally posted on Medium was titled “Workplace Abuse—My Story!” and alleged that the executive director told the employee who wrote it and has requested anonymity, “I knew that I would hire you because I googled you after the recruiter sent me your resume, and I liked your pictures.”

In the Board’s email announcement about their decision to reinstate Watts, a plan articulated in bullet points identified four areas of leadership for Watts to improve upon, including prioritizing DEI efforts and fostering resources that support healing and necessary change while continuing to gain awareness on race, class, and culture and how they impact the workplace. 

Shakeitha Dillard, a Black woman and CDCHC’s HR Coordinator of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, told the Emerald that staff are scared that Watts’ return will result in retaliation for those who submitted interviews to the investigation. “They’re terrified. They’re worried about retaliation, the loss of their jobs, and everything else along those lines.” She also said that half the Board are allegedly personally connected to Watts or were selected by him. This particular detail was repeated multiple times from other employees and added to the magnitude of suspicion in regard to the Board’s decision. Some employees also claimed that the Board is half-white and felt this fact contributed to their decision.

CDCHC’s Craig confirmed to the Emerald that nine out of 13 directors (69%) of the current Board were also on the Board when Watts was previously a board director prior to taking on the executive director role. Four new directors (30%) were brought in by Watts including Mary Downs, Carolyn Downs’ sister, and of the four, three of them are Black. Craig also verified that while about 40–45% of the Board is white, Watts wanted a diverse Board and worked towards that ideal. Out of 13 directors, five are women (38%), at least six are confirmed as BIPOC (46%), and four members are specifically Black (30%). The Board’s chair and vice chair are a Black man (Rik Wyman) and a Black woman (Mary Downs), respectively. In response to staff requests for an unbiased third party to oversee the Boards’ connection to Watts, Craig told the Emerald in an email, “One of the Board and leadership commitments is [fully] supporting the development of DEI Council and appointing a board member to that council. This board appointment will ensure the DEI Council has a voice not only with senior leadership but also the board.” Additionally, Dixon will continue to work with CDCHC to push forward their ongoing DEI work and will provide executive coaches on his staff to personally work with Watts. CDCHC will also periodically hold Board listening sessions to keep communication open between the staff and the Board of Directors.

Carolyn Downs Executive Director Raleigh Watts at a 50th-anniversary celebration for the clinic, in April 2018. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Further down the Board’s email announcement of Watts’ return, the email addressed 11 points to “improve our governance and increase our engagement with and accountability to staff” including assurance of “an environment free of retaliation.”

Upon hearing the news of Watts’ reinstatement, another anonymous employee said their whole department was looking for employment elsewhere. While they are biding their time to see what happens with the reinstatement, they also told the Emerald, “we started cleaning out our desks yesterday.”

Sophia Malik, one of only two Providers of Color at CDCHC (aside from resident physicians), talked about how these systems affect the health of BIPOC staff who feel unsafe under Watts’ leadership. While she is proud of her co-workers, she also acknowledged that “constantly fighting against white supremacy and racist capitalism is a primary reason people suffer from chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure or anxiety.” One top-level former employee said they ended up in the hospital for chest pains allegedly because of the stress of the workplace environment.

In regard to questions about mental health and trauma-informed healing practices in place for employees who expressed that they were harmed by Watts, Craig stated that CDCHC has been trying for months to identify potential organizational psychologists to bring on staff as mental support. Craig noted that two white Board members, Colt de Wolf and Joan Kleinberg, will serve as Board liaisons for any of Watt’s direct reports who are BIPOC. “As far as those who feel trauma, as far as his direct report[s], the Board has identified two Board members who will be sort of a liaison, a direct contact person, for any kind of mediation as needed between Raleigh and his direct reports.”

Many current and former employees pointed to a statistic originally referred to by the former HR director in an email sent on Tuesday, September 15, 2020, that stated “From October 2018 to August 2020 Black and people of color left the organization at two times the rate as white employees.” While an HR terminations report provided to the Emerald did show that 73 BIPOC employees exited the organization compared to 33 white employees from the dates mentioned, it is unclear whether this turnover rate is significantly higher when compared to other CDCHC executive directors or is a trend reflective of the institution’s normal operations. Rokea Jones, a Black female patient for five years at the Carolyn Downs location, told the Emerald, “Carolyn Downs has a revolving door of Black providers.” Craig said, “We’re not the only ones … Nationwide there’s an issue of hiring Providers of Color.” He also noted that the term “left the organization” is open to interpretation. “That term is vague. Did they leave because they moved? Did they leave because they were promoted to a different job or? … I think it’s a very sort of weak statement when it’s just people of color left the organization.” The Emerald was unable to obtain additional data to further analyze this purported trend.

It is worth noting that CDCHC leadership, despite Carolyn Downs’ original purpose to support the healthcare of Black patients, has never publicly posted an official statement regarding the Black Lives Matter movement on their website or Facebook Page. The website page listing leadership has no pictures or bios of its leadership team, has a few names listed of people that are no longer on the Board, and apparently hasn’t been updated since 2019. Craig clarified that the website information about the Board is sparse because 51% of the Board are patients. Additionally, the website is undergoing a massive overhaul with hopes of launching an entirely new website for the organization. Craig also stated that, while CDCHC has never posted a public statement on Black Lives Matter, they’ve gone beyond that and taken tangible actions in support of Black lives by encouraging staff to participate in summer protests and giving them paid time off to do so. Juneteenth has also been celebrated by the staff for a number of years and recently became a paid holiday within the organization. The CDCHC clinics also provided medical care at CHAZ/CHOP and continue to work hard to provide medical care to Black/Brown lives through the pandemic. On the CDCHC’s Facebook page, along with multiple posts of articles that promote information on Black health, administrators shared a photo on August 21, 2020 with the caption, “We believe racism is a public health crisis. #blacklivesmatter.”

The protests by mostly Black and Brown healthcare employees, a letter from physicians, the recommendation from an experienced Black male diversity consultant and founding member of the Black Panther Party, and the investigational testimonies from historically marginalized staff have not changed the Board’s decision to reinstate white male leadership.

A released media statement written by Board Chair Rik Wyman, dated January 30, 2021, said the following: “Based on the investigation findings and several other factors, including Watts’ lengthy track record in the organization’s growth and success; his advocacy for diversity, equity, and inclusion within the organization; and the need for immediate strong leadership to ensure quality patient care at this critical time while we continue responding to this pandemic, economic challenges, and vacancies in key leadership positions, the Board made a unanimous decision to retain Watts as executive director.” 

The statement of Watts’ advocacy for DEI as a reason to bring him back appears to be directly counter to Cappel’s investigation, which explicitly pointed to Watts’ behavior as not advancing equity and inclusion. In response to this potential contradiction, CDCHC’s Michael Craig wrote in an email to the Emerald, “While Raleigh made a personal and organizational commitment to initiatives to improve DEI, the investigation identified that some of his individual leadership practices on-the-ground needed to be improved.” Additionally, in regards to Watts’ advocacy for DEI, Craig highlighted Watts’ significant impact on increasing pay equity for staff. Craig also confirmed that the key leadership position that needed to be filled is the one vacated by the BIPOC HR director who no longer wanted to serve under Watts.

After chanting “Shame on the Board” in front of Carolyn Downs, the group of employees walked a few blocks and protested in front of Watts’ personal residence. A dozen members of the group also went to the Country Doctor site in Capitol Hill afterwards to continue their demonstration. Laquetta Ford felt livid that she was put in the position of having to choose between the needs of the staff and the needs of their patients. “It’s seriously unfair that we have to take time away from our patients, for the clinic to go out to try to be heard.” Dillard commented, “He’s not welcome back. He is not welcome back to this organization. He has caused a ton of hurt, distrust, fear, a number of things.” She continued, “And he doesn’t belong here because he doesn’t align with our mission. And my hope is that someone will hear this and listen for a change.” Another Black employee who asked to remain anonymous reflected that if they wanted to align with the Black Panthers’ original mission, the Board would listen to their Black employees and not bring Watts back. When asked about what the organization would say to people who felt similarly — that bringing back Watts defied the Black Panther’s mission by not respecting Black employees who were reportedly harmed by him — Craig said he had no comment.

The collection of statements, actions, and protest by the former and current leadership and staff of Carolyn Downs and Country Doctor are in line with the Black Panther’s original mission, which demanded that the health and well-being of Black lives be prioritized as a right. In this case, it is a demand for the health of all Black lives to be prioritized — not just that of patients but of staff as well.

Raleigh Watts returned to his post as executive director, remotely, on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month.

Editor’s Note: A paragraph in this article was changed to correct inaccurate information about the history and founding of Carolyn Downs clinic. It opened in 1970, not 1968, and additional details about the clinic’s original name and the involvement of Elmer Dixon in the clinic’s founding were also added. The Emerald apologizes for the error.

Jasmine M. Pulido (she/her/siya) is a Filipina American writer-activist and small business owner living in Seattle. She’s currently pursuing her Master of Arts degree in Social Change.

Featured Image: Medical personnel from Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center and Country Doctor Community Health Centers walked out of work on January 28 to express their disappointment in the reinstatement of Raleigh Watts as executive director. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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