by Jasmine M. Pulido
Ten days after Raleigh Watts’ reinstatement as executive director to Country Doctor Community Health Centers (CDCHC), the organization’s Board of Directors announced they are now in discussion with him about his departure from the organization. Watts was previously under internal investigation for allegations of racism since October 2020.
Despite the prior independent assessment finding no evidence of discrimination based on race, his reinstatement led to a staff walk-out in front of Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center (Carolyn Downs), one of CDCHC’s clinic sites, and multiple letters signed by staff explicitly asking Watts be replaced no matter the results. The CDCHC Leadership team is currently working on Watts’ transition plan. In response to questions about his planned departure, Watts told the Emerald, “I am moving on to new opportunities at this time.”
Two days after Watts’ reinstatement, some employees made plans to take medical leave. Some reported experiencing high blood pressure and/or feeling sick. One staff member requested zero interaction with the executive director, citing anxiety. Upon hearing about Watts’ departure, Zekrait Ahmed, a Black (Oromo, Ethiopian) lead patient services representative at Carolyn Downs, said she felt instantly lighter. “The weight I carried since their original announcement of his return was gone.” While she is happy, Ahmed is still frustrated at the pain staff endured to get to this point. She sees brighter days, but also recognizes there are still issues to be addressed within the organization.
Michelle Mitchell, Vice Chair of CDCHC’s Black Caucus Resource Group, felt relieved and elated saying, “I feel like we can all breathe again.” Encouraged by the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) Strategic Plan the leadership team and DEI Coordinator are working to implement alongside Watt’s departure, Mitchell reflected, “I honestly believe our organization’s future is bright. We can now see the light at the end of the tunnel rather than hoping for that light at the end of the tunnel.” Mitchell noted other racial equity efforts made by CDCHC including bringing in prominent figures from the Black community, like Dr. Ben Danielson and Malika Lee, for their February monthly staff meeting, efforts to establish a DEI Council, and open dialogue between staff and leadership to better understand what equity will look like for CDCHC.
While hopeful, Dr. Sophia Malik, a physician of color at Carolyn Downs, said they are asking themselves the really tough equity questions just as often as they are asking about updates on masks and vaccines. “The team here knows we won’t find the answers tomorrow but we are going to keep showing up and trying every day.”
As CDCHC begins to discuss changes in leadership originally prompted by racial allegations within their organization, the law firm Covington & Burling LLP (Covington) has begun review of racial allegations at Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH). Led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Covington will be working alongside SCH’s Assessment Committee to review issues of systemic and interpersonal racism within the organization originally raised by former Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic medical director, Dr. Ben Danielson.
According to SCH press releases, the Assessment Committee was created by SCH’s Board of Trustees to “review issues of systemic racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion at Seattle Children’s, including the issues raised by Dr. Ben Danielson” and chose Covington “after a competitive process.” Critics of the process note there are no patient representatives on the committee.
Covington is providing direct and confidential access to their firm by email, telephone voicemail, or direct mail for any community members, current and former SCH healthcare workers (even those previously under non-disparagement or confidentiality agreements), families, and patients who would like to submit any relevant information for their independent assessment. Covington will also be able to both hold interviews and analyze data in multiple languages.
After Covington and the Assessment Committee present their actionable recommendations to the Board of Trustees, the Board will provide a report to the public. SCH’s CEO, Jeff Sperring, will be responsible for the implementation of Covington’s advice. The Board of Trustees are charged with providing oversight and direction to Sperring as he implements said recommendations. No timelines have been established for completion of the report or implementation of recommendations.
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: Staff protest at Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center earlier this month. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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