I interviewed Jennifer Friend, a clinical social worker who opposed a coercive and demeaning government-sponsored diversity initiative. Jennifer’s opposition provides a roadmap for how others might counter such policies in the future.
Jennifer Friend’s saga did not begin with an enmity-filled diversity policy in Fairfax County, Virginia. It began with her reading about the growing scourge of coercive diversity training:
I had been seeing accounts of people being fired or pushed to express beliefs that weren’t their own and felt concerned. I hoped that it wouldn’t happen at the Fairfax County Community Services Board.
Nevertheless, when it did intrude into her professional life, she was ready. For the past 15 years, Jennifer had been a clinical social worker for the county’s Community Services Board. She provided therapy and case management for county residents with severe mental illnesses and/or substance use disorders. About a year ago, her manager informed the team at a staff meeting of the One Fairfax Equity policy, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) program, and discussed the impact of systemic racism in the county. Uncharacteristically, Jennfier raised objections: “I challenged him to identify any laws or policies that were discriminatory in nature so that I could oppose them,” she said.
Several days after Jennifer raised objections in the staff meeting, her manager asked to speak to her privately in his office. In the meeting, he asked her directly if she had a problem with One Fairfax. Jennifer was prepared:
I explained that while I support improving outcomes for everyone in the county, I do not agree with laying the blame on institutional racism. I told him that I liked working with him but was going to continue to challenge his narrative. We parted the meeting on good terms.
This past September, Jennifer and her colleagues received an email from the manager with links to the One Fairfax Equity webpage asking them to view the material to prepare “to learn about equity.” What Jennifer saw shocked her. She decided to share her concerns with her colleagues on her immediate team. She explained that the One Fairfax website contained blatant negative stereotypes about white people and accused white people of perpetuating racism and oppressing minorities.
A couple of days later, she received an email from her manager with a date and time for a Zoom meeting with him and a human resources staff member to discuss her “communication around a very sensitive matter of race and equity.” It was a meeting that would never take place.
Jennifer then spent the weekend delving into the One Fairfax Equity website and further uncovered highly inflammatory material:
I felt a profound sense of betrayal. I had been a committed professional in the county serving a diverse population and now was being portrayed by my employer as a perpetrator of racism […] I was very committed to my clients and felt that these materials ultimately harmed them […] how would community services treat clients if they held some of them in contempt and others without agency?
Jennifer then sent an email to the entire Community Services Board stating her concerns, highlighting some of the most troubling material on the website:
Many of the articles on this list contained racist statements about persons with white skin, misogynistic insults and anti-police sentiments.There was an article entitled “Save the Tears: White Woman’s Guide.” The author Tatiana Mac refered to white women as “Karen” and went on to say “White women’s weapons are microaggressions and a direct line to the police murder hotline.” Ms. Mac accused white women of manipulating police into killing for them. “You have a nation state that will murder for your tears and your fear, real or not.”
The following day, the head of the Community Services Board sent a message to the whole agency asserting that Jennifer’s email:
contained multiple inaccuracies…One Fairfax focuses on recognizing the presence of institutional and structural racism in our organizations and how systems and structures interact in ways that preserve and reproduce disparate impacts and racialized outcomes.
Upon seeing this email, Jennifer publicly resigned to the entire Community Services Board, indicating that the agency no longer reflected her values. She had long planned to open her own clinical therapy practice. After the resignation, she was promptly cut off from further internal agency communication.
Undaunted, Jennifer created two videos revealing the content of the One Fairfax Equity website and posted them to YouTube and Twitter. She proceeded to send copies to the County Chief of Police, County Board of Supervisors, the County Executive, and “Bolster the Blue,” a police support network.
“This whole time,” she stated, “I expected someone to immediately apologize and retract the offensive material. I couldn’t believe that they doubled down on it.”
Seeking support, Jennifer reached out to Carrie Clark of Counterweight to talk through what she was going through. Carrie followed the incident closely, offering guidance and solidarity.
Jennifer also informed county elected officials of the following:
Fairfax One has earned an honorable mention in the Bolster the Blue newsletter for its racist, misogynistic anti-police approach to equity and diversity. I exposed this due to my concern that the approach of One Fairfax is sowing racial strife and endangering police safety. I have been transparent with CSB leadership about my efforts to bring awareness to their misguided and non-productive approach.
Jennifer received a reply back from the County Executive, stating “I will review what is posted on YouTube and speak with the appropriate staff. I am hopeful the posting of internal documents does not violate our use policy signed by all employees.”
I am likewise hopeful that Fairfax County Government posting racist, misogynistic and anti-police materials and encouraging government employees to view these materials is also not violating any rules.
It was clear that Jennifer’s videos detailing the offensive material were making the rounds. One garnered 4,000 views on Youtube. While she did not know what was going on behind the scenes, it was hard to imagine that the Fairfax police were happy with county materials openly disparaging them.
The head of the Community Services Board sent another email to the entire agency, contradicting his previous full-on defense:
I want to acknowledge that a link on CSB’s internal One Fairfax page, one among many important and useful resources on equity, referenced information that is not reflective of my views or the One Fairfax vision. Out of an abundance of caution, I instructed the CSB communication team to temporarily take down the agency’s One Fairfax page.
Jennifer’s former colleagues informed her that the offensive material never re-appeared on the One Fairfax site again.
Lessons learned from Jennifer’s experience
While no two situations are identical, Jennifer’s defiant and assertive course of action provides a roadmap for how to respond to other such situations. As an advocacy professional most of my career, I can attest that Jennifer’s was a textbook response on how to challenge a system. Here are a few key lessons:
- Educate and provide tools to the public. Jennifer was ready and understood what was happening when the controversy hit. The more people understand these issues before they are confronted with them, the more prepared and effective they will be when they are.
- Do not back down or apologize for doing the right thing. Jennifer never wavered and her steely resolve must have sent shock waves in the system. Her clever and forceful response to the County Executive for his thinly veiled threat that she might have violated personal use policy must have been sobering.
- Escalate up the hierarchy. Jennifer did not immediately send out a letter to the entire Community Services Board or otherwise go public. She gave management a chance to rectify the situation, appearing controlled and thoughtful, giving the complainant credibility in the eyes of the public. Only later did she ratchet up the interventions.
- Consider Using digital tools such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. This is a tactic of last resort and may not be warranted in every circumstance. In Jennifer’s case, it’s hard to know who saw the YouTube video and how it influenced the various decision-makers. The video existed beyond the control of county leadership, who must have known that growing exposure could do more damage if they failed to respond appropriately.
- Intervene at multiple points. Jennifer understood how the system worked. She immediately saw that the One Fairfax initiative’s comments on law enforcement would be deeply offensive to the police force, which was, after all, part of the same county government. She also brought it to the attention of elected officials and, while she never received a satisfactory reply from any of them, it’s possible that one or more had intervened.
- Get emotional and practical support. During the entire episode, Jennifer’s family and friends, both inside and outside of her workplace, supported her. The Counterweight team offered her tactical advice and emotional support. You do not have to do this alone!
Jennifer now volunteers on the Counterweight team, offering support for others going through similar situations. Despite being understated and compassionate, she is regarded by the rest of the Counterweight team as “a total badass.”
David Bernstein is a freelance writer and nonprofit executive. Follow him on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/Blogunwoke.